12/13/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
LARRY WALTERS FOUND FAME AT 16.000 feet. On July 2,1982, the 33-year-old truck driver rigged 42 helium-filled weather balloons to a Sears lawn chair in San Pedro, Calif., and, as friends looked on in wondrous support, lifted off. The sight of Walters floating in the sky shocked pilots, who radioed perplexed local air-traffic controllers. Walters returned to Earth by using a pellet gun to shoot out some of the balloons and landed safely about 10 miles away in Long Beach. The 45-minute stunt earned him an appearance on The Tonight Show as well as a spot in a Timex watch ad, after which he quit his job to deliver motivational speeches. "People ask me if I had a death wish," he said. "I tell them no, it was something I had to do."
But the attention didn't bring enduring happiness. Walters and his girlfriend of 15 years, who had helped him pay for his adventure, ended their relationship. His speaking career fizzled, and he worked only sporadically as a security guard. He sought solace by reading the Bible and walking in the San Gabriel Mountains, where he worked as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service. "It seemed like Larry came to the mountains because he was disappointed with the way his life was going," says his friend Joyce Rios, a fellow volunteer ranger.
On Oct. 6, unable to deal with the world he had briefly delighted, Walters, 44, hiked to a favorite spot in the Angeles National Forest and ended his life with a single bullet through the heart. His mother, Hazel Dunham, did not disclose his death until Nov. 22. Although Walters did not write a suicide note, he had left a Bible with several passages marked at Dunham's house in Mission Viejo, just before his death. Among them was John 16:32: "Indeed the hour is coming...each to his own, and will leave me alone. And yet I am not alone because the Father is with me."