The Lost Daughters
Today, more than six months later, the girls' families and friends still are unable to comprehend why two bright, seemingly normal youngsters would kill themselves. The girls left behind letters discussing their plan, but their musings are astonishingly banal, mixing talk of death with breezy comments about homework, boyfriends and hair. This is precisely why the deaths of Jenifer and Annette are a cautionary tale for parents and teens alike: They show that two youngsters reared in middle-class comfort and beset with what might have seemed the normal quotient of teen angst somehow thought they could find peace only by putting bullets through their brains.
Residents of Victorville (pop. 61,000) now must deal with the death of a third young woman, 17-year-old Julie Banks, a manic depressive who shot and killed herself after graduating in June. And then there are the 16 other Victorville teenagers who have tried to take their own lives since February. Most were depressed ninth-grade girls who cited feelings of loss or rejection by friends and then overdosed on diet pills and other over-the-counter remedies. "After a suicide, other kids see it as an option," says Ron Powell, a school-district administrator. "They see the attention it gets and think, 'Wow, this is how I could end my pain—I could go out with a bang.' " More and more youngsters are reaching the same conclusion. From 1980 to 1992, the rate of suicide among American youths ages 10 to 14 rose by 120 percent, from 139 to 304.
As for Annette's and Jenifer's torments, together they left behind more than 15 goodbye letters to their friends, emphasizing their disgust with life. "We're not doing this for attention," reads one letter from Jenifer, "we just can't handle it anymore." Most people who knew Annette, especially her parents, remain puzzled about what "it" was. "My little angel is gone, and we're missing her tremendously," says Tom Sander, 44, a truck driver. "But I want to know why this happened. She never gave us a clue something was wrong." Adds Annette's mother, Becky, 38, a water-company office manager: "I keep thinking there's a note someplace that I just haven't found. I pick up lamps, I search through my quilting box, my drawers, my pockets, but I can't find anything."
One item Becky did find that Tuesday night after her daughter's death was an unaddressed, three-page letter dated Feb. 14 tacked to the bulletin board in Annette's bedroom. Though the rambling letter by Annette mentions suicide and unhappiness, a reference to her brief but intense friendship with Jenifer suggests a terrible shared obsession. "I always wanted to kill myself," Annette wrote, then reported finding in Jenifer "someone who feels the same as I do," and "for some strange, god awful reason I trust her." Annette ended the letter complaining that although two boyfriends had called her pretty, she always felt "ugly" and "gross."
Annette and Jenifer were anything but misfits. Although they were not friends during their time at Hook Middle School, they had led remarkably similar lives. Honor-roll students, both were bubbly, enthusiastic organizers of school dances and athletic events. They also excelled in sports: Last year petite, 5'1" Jenifer starred as a guard on the school basketball team, while Annette won top-scoring honors on a city-league soccer team. As for their homes, both girls came from working-class families—Rodger Powell, 44, is a security guard at a Marine Corps base in Barstow—both were the youngest of three children, and both had parents who closely monitored their studies and social lives.
Last September, however, when the girls entered Victor Valley High (3,360 students), Jenifer began turning away from her old middle school pals and started hanging out with devotees of punk and grunge rock. "I think I was too straight for her," recalls Linda Espinoza, 14, a close friend since seventh grade. "She dyed her brown hair black and blue with blond on top. She'd wear combat boots and long skirts. She liked putting on a lot of black. One day she was eating lunch with her new friends. I was there and they started talking about witchcraft and playing with these cards that had pictures of fireballs on them. It scared me. Afterwards she stopped talking to me. But before she got like that, she was a really nice, sweet girl."
Elizabeth Petruscian, another freshman and former friend, also noticed the change in Jenifer's appearance and company. Petruscian, who tried to kill herself last year with nonprescription pain pills, says she understands how suicidal thoughts can take hold. She believes that perhaps Jenifer took disagreements with her Chinese immigrant mother, Yun Chin, too seriously. "She would tell me her mom was really quiet, that she couldn't really talk to her because her mom couldn't relate to her problems." Now, says Petruscian, reflecting on Jenifer's death, "it hurts that we were best friends in seventh and eighth grade and this year let it slip away. I could have been there."
Annette, like Jenifer, kept up her grades in high school and dated only a few boys. But unlike Jenifer, Annette remained active in school life. A member of the yearbook staff, she belonged to the Air Force ROTC color guard and hoped to become an astronaut or a pilot someday. She liked Stephen King and vampire novels, enjoyed vacations with her family and loved going to rock concerts. (She cried when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself last year and told her mother his suicide was "stupid.") She also used a fortune-telling Ouija board with friends and talked frequently about witchcraft. "Annette just thought this stuff was weird, kind of scary," says her brother Jeremy, 19. "I don't know what was bugging her. Yeah, she'd say, 'I'm fat,' but that's all. I just think she didn't like life, didn't like herself."
Besides Annette's fascination with witchcraft and Jenifer's turn toward grunge fashion, the only darkly prophetic note during the first semester last year was a phone call, made last October to the Victorville Child Protective Services regarding a problem at the Powell home. Though the agency cannot divulge details of the incident and the Powell family refuses to discuss the matter, police did tell PEOPLE that Jenifer's parents insisted there was "not an ongoing problem" of any sort in their home.
By February, events in the girls' lives drew them together for mutual solace. Distraught that "she couldn't keep a boy," as she told a friend, Annette balked at the "bossiness" of her steady, Jamie Carper, 15, and cut off their three-month romance. Like Jenifer, she also shed most of her friendships.
Meanwhile, Jenifer's differences with her mother continued. In one letter dated Feb. 12, Jenifer, styling herself Zinnia, wrote Annette, whom she called Zilch: "My so-called person who gave birth to me is talking to my grandma about the past and how I confessed that I tried to kill myself before. And she says that she doesn't care, just as long as it doesn't happen in the house...doesn't cost her money, 'cause if I did it in the house, she would have to pay to get bloodstains out of the carpet. I hope she rots in hell. Love you dearly, Zinnia."
In a mid-February letter, found in Annette's bedroom by her parents, Jenifer expressed similar sentiments, then added, "I bet when Project Mushroom goes off, nobody would ever care. They won't even know I'm gone. It's like no one cares about me.... Hey, are we still going to ditch Thursday and plan where Mushroom is going to be done? That name is funky. Are you as excited as me? I can't wait...got to do my homework... Catch you later, Your Mushroom Friend, Jenifer." In a similar letter, says Tom Sander, Jenifer pleaded with Annette "not to back out this time," leading many observers to conclude Jenifer had masterminded the plan.
On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 21, Tom Sander arrived home about 4:30. Annette had an ROTC event after school, so he wasn't alarmed by her absence. But by 5 p.m., his fears grew, especially after Jenifer's sister Gina, 16, called and told him of a suicide note she had found at home. Then Jenifer's father called to report that the loaded handguns he used in his security work—a .357-caliber Rossi and a .38-caliber Taurus—were missing. (Most of the time the guns had been kept in a locked toolbox.) "He was really upset," says Sander, who later learned that Powell suffered an emotional breakdown and had to be hospitalized. "I never met the man, but I know what he feels. I lost my sunshine too."
By 10 p.m., the bodies of the two girls—which autopsies would show were drug-free—had been removed from the bloodstained site. Investigators found the word "suicide" scratched into Jenifer's left inner forearm. They also discovered a notepad containing 15 pages of final thoughts. "It's raining on my pretty hair," wrote Annette. "It's cold out here. Jenifer should have brought a sweater.... Punk rules. Does Jon really like me?" Jenifer wrote, "It's 12:55. I wish it were sunny, but instead it has to rain on the day I die. I still can't believe that in about 30 minutes I'll be dead. It's too late but it's my turn to die, too f—ed to quit. I don't think it will be too hard to pull the trigger."
Fearing "contagion" suicides, school officials began crisis counseling (which they continued after Julie Banks's suicide), pleading with students and parents to take all hints of suicide seriously and report them to counselors. The school also denied Tom Sander's request to plant a tree on campus in Annette's honor, fearing such a memorial might somehow glamorize suicide. "I just want to keep her memory alive," pleaded Sander, who with his wife believes Annette could not have pulled the trigger. Referring to what he calls an inconclusive sheriff's lab report about the minuscule amount of gun residue found on her hands, Sander says, "Something else must have happened, because I know my baby. She would not have killed herself." Police, however, say both girls killed themselves and have closed the case.
At the Sander home, Becky surveys her daughter's second-floor bedroom and for the first time notices Annette's name scratched on the window. "I'd no idea that was there," she says, smiling. Reminders of her daughter are everywhere, like Annette's taped greeting on the family's answering machine and her colorful hat collection. "Annette used to come downstairs wearing these funny hats," Becky says. "She loved them."
Jenifer's mother, Yun Chin, remains in seclusion. "She my best daughter," she says in heavily accented English. "I don't want to know what she said about me. It's over." Adds Rodger, who destroyed his guns: "I cut them up with a hacksaw and threw them away. They were cursed."
BETTY CORTINA and KURT PITZER in Victorville