Scotty's Tree Bears Bitter Fruit : A Symbol of an Athlete's Hidden Turmoil That Led to Suicide

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It has become "Scotty's Tree."

Doris Croteau-Robinson named it that in memory of her 17-year-old son, a star athlete and national honors student whose body was found there a couple of weeks ago. Scott Croteau had put a noose around his neck and shot himself in the head with a handgun --his limp body hanging from one of the tree's umbrella-like branches.

Four days after the ghastly discovery, Croteau-Robinson visited the 20-foot choke cherry tree, whose fruit is as bitter as the pain of her son's suicide.

She came with her mother and two sisters. They were all shaking and holding each other and Croteau-Robinson's legs were giving out on her.

"I wanted to feel the closeness with Scott," she said. "I felt the ground. I just wanted to feel where he was last. I really felt his presence. I did not want to think what he looked like at the time of his death. Right away, I prayed God to remove that thought. It's too horrid."

She pinned a long-stemmed rose to the tree with this note: "To my beloved son Scotty, W/all my love. Your Mom. XOXOXO."

She also left a dime in a yellow manila envelope.

"Because Scott, when he was a youngster, had a dime, and he wanted to get me something with it," she explained. "So now, all the dimes I get as change, I put Scotty's dimes in a little pot at home."

"Scotty's Tree" has become a symbol of tragedy and mystery, a memorial for the Lewiston High School football co-captain and scholar, a magnet drawing the curious, the sad and the stunned to the wooded site behind a small shopping plaza. It is only 500 yards from his brick home on the outer edge of downtown Lewiston, and directly behind a drugstore.

Hundreds of people from this central Maine mill town of 40,000--friends and strangers--have flocked to the site, their eyes fixed to the tree and the many letters, notes, photos, footballs and flowers left there.

"Dear Scott," said one letter from senior Derek Levesque, "You will be missed by people who knew you and by people who didn't know you. Fellow students looked up to you as a role model and person who had everything going for him as a star football co-captain and as the all-American student . . . "

The visitors stare at the remnants of a branch of the tree from which Scott was suspended nine feet above the ground. They cry. They pray. They try to make some sense of it, to grasp how short life can be.

"A lot of people feel if it would be their son, they want to know what happened," said Jeannette St. Amand, explaining why she had come.

"He became everybody's grandson," said her friend, Gil Desmarais.

"Yes, he became everybody's son and grandson," said Mrs. St. Amand.

"Nobody believes it," said Mrs. Desmarais.

"No, no," her friend replied.

Even after the funeral on Sept. 22, they continued to come, walking from the plaza's parking lot along a path to "Scotty's Tree," pushing the underbrush aside.

"To find some sense of closure, to find live things and get it stuck in my head, because it was really unbelievable," explained Anne Bissonnette, a classmate who went to the tree after Scott's funeral.

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Scott Croteau had it all as co-captain of the high school football team and as a national honors student recruited by 40 colleges. His classmates and the town adored him.

"A great guy to be around," said Melissa Filion, a 17-year-old classmate.

"He had everything going for him. He didn't seem to have any problems," said Renee Sheltra, a 15-year-old sophomore.

But Scott's smile, the charm and the good looks masked a torment inside that few seemed to detect until it was too late, his relatives said. His mother said she was the one thing missing in his life.

"To me, Scotty felt lots of pain not having his mother around," said Croteau-Robinson, a recovering alcoholic with a police record for petty crimes, including shoplifting liquor. She lost custody of Scott and his older brother, Brian, in a bitter divorce in 1983. Scott was only 5 years old then. Both parents remarried, only to divorce again.

On Thursday, Sept. 7, the day that No. 42 had his photo taken wearing his blue-and-white football jersey for the senior class yearbook--the day Scott told his co-captain he wanted to win the state championship--a tragedy was in the making. But there was no warning, relatives, school officials and classmates say.

Scott returned home from football practice that evening and had dinner with his father, Ron Croteau, a sales manager at a car dealership who had been given custody. Scott watched "Seinfeld" on television, said good night and went to his bedroom about 10 p.m.

The next morning, Sept. 8, the day of the big home opening football game, his co-captain, Jason Auger, came by to pick him up. But Scott already was gone from his room. The light was on and Tyson, the kitten he loved so much, was lying on his bed.

When Scott didn't show up for school, his father called the police. His disappearance set off a 10-day search that ended Sept. 17, under the cherry tree.

Police Chief Michael Kelly ruled the death a suicide. He said Scott had put a noose around his neck, then shot himself in the head with his father's .22-caliber handgun.

"The body goes limp, then drops," the chief said. "It's not one of the more common methods, but it has been seen on several occasions. It's a foolproof method. As an example, say the person, when they shoot themselves, and they do not die . . . they do not want to be a burden on their family."

Kelly said Scott left no note.

"There is no information to my knowledge that would fully explain Scott Croteau's suicide," he said. "When a talented, successful teen-ager takes his life, we are haunted by questions about his reasons. I am not aware of any information that would answer those questions. No information is being withheld."

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Many of Scott's friends and classmates, and the townspeople, refused to believe he could do such a thing, given his bright future.

Some suspected foul play because of Scott's stature and because of the plans he had been making. His father said he and Scott had talked to Dartmouth College three weeks ago and were to visit other schools soon.

Why has Scott's death, among so many other teen suicides, stirred so much emotion?

"He was a straight-A student, National Honor Society, co-captain of the football team, a son that everybody would love to have," said Kelly, the police chief. "Because of the length of the investigation itself and the widespread publicity and the publicity as to what a fine young man he was, Scott was almost canonized, and rightfully so.

"As time went along in this community, because it's a relatively close-knit community, people want to relate to him. They can almost feel that they were his brother, his sister, maybe even parents.

"And so when the body of Scott was discovered, and the determination of death was suicide, people didn't want to believe that. They just couldn't believe it. How could somebody so young, with so much promise, die by his own hand?"

Jeanne Walsh, of Stratford, Conn., Croteau-Robinson's sister, said it had to be so difficult for Scott not to have his mother around.

"He had to be very unhappy," said Walsh, who had not had regular contact with her nephew in 10 years. "From what his schoolmates have told us, he was a very private person. He kept everything inside. He was a very high achiever. That's very stressful. Who knows if he just couldn't cope anymore."

So dedicated and so driven was Scott that he kept index cards with inspirational sayings at his side: "Pride is a personal commitment" and "Success only comes before work in the dictionary."

On the football field, No. 42 was the team leader, playing both fullback on the offense and inside linebacker on the defense. "He got everybody going," said the co-captain, Jason Auger. "He'd psych us up. He was an intense player. A lot of colleges were looking at him."

He was a perfectionist, too. "He always gave it 110%, even if he screwed up," said Auger.

But his father said he doesn't agree that overachieving would put enough pressure on Scott to drive him to suicide.

"I don't buy that," Ron Croteau said. "I have been with him the last 13 years. He had a lot of support from his brother and my parents. I think Scott had a busy schedule, but he had outlets."

One of those outlets was power lifting. Scott, who was 5-foot-11 and weighed 200 pounds, worked out three times a week at the gym.

His father, who was asked to leave his house while police searched it and whose car was impounded as part of the investigation, said there were no arguments or harsh words with his son the night he disappeared.

"I have a kid who the Friday before, he had a touchdown," he said. "It was on TV--'Run, Run, With Scott.' Everything was good. I just don't understand. I talked to his girlfriend. There was no indication of anything being wrong. It's still unbelievable."

Richard Sykes, the principal at Lewiston High School, said Scott's suicide was unusual because there were no warning signs. Just two days before he died, he changed his schedule, enrolling in outstanding classes, including calculus, Spanish, physics and a strong English program.

"He was, in our observation, a man who was planning on a bright future, and that I think makes it really difficult to understand," Sykes said. "Scott had goals to go on to college."

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Croteau-Robinson's family said she was abused by her husband in the presence of their children, who would run and hide in their rooms to avoid the turmoil. She sought a court order for protection from abuse in 1982, a year before they were divorced.

"He never witnessed any abusive behavior," Ron Croteau said in an interview the day after the funeral. "These charges were dropped without foundation in court."

In the divorce judgment May 1983, the judge ordered psychological counseling for Scott and his brother, as well as their mother, "with the view in mind to ultimate reconciliation" between her and the children. Even though she was given visitation rights every Saturday, the court specified that Scott could not stay over.

Court papers did not spell out why the father was granted custody. Croteau-Robinson's family said it was because the judge heard testimony that she was unstable. Ron Croteau, when asked why he was given custody, said, "It's irrelevant. It was so many years ago. I don't want to shoot an arrow."

At Scott's wake, his mother reflected on his life as a child.

"Saturdays, he'd spend the whole day with me," Croteau-Robinson said. "Sometimes, he wanted to stay overnight and I'd call Ron and he'd say, 'No, you got to bring him back.' And once Scotty said, 'I'm not leaving.' So the police came over. I said, 'You ask him yourself.' They go, 'Scotty, where do you want to go tonight?' He says, 'I want to stay here with my mom.' "

When Scott was 7, his mother said she began to see him less frequently. When she would try to pick him up at the babysitter's home, he already was gone, she said. Her husband and his family eventually cut her off from the children, she said.

"And then, to kill the pain, my alcohol intake escalated," she said. "I thought I'd have custody. Then I thought, well, half-custody. And when they said full custody (for the father), I just felt like a dagger went in my heart. It was so painful."

In her loneliness, she pulled out the baby photo books. She kept up with Scott's achievements from a distance. Friends kept her posted.

One of the last times she saw Scott was Aug. 19 when she went to the Croteau home to give Brian a card for his 23rd birthday.

"Scott greeted me. And with his deep blue eyes, he looked at me. And the way he looked at me was just glued to my eyes . . . like he was trying to tell me something. He looked sad. . . . The phone rang and I said, 'Just give this card to Brian. I'll let you go. I love you.' "

At Scott's exhibition football game on Sept. 2, Croteau-Robinson watched from a distance, the way she had kept up with him over the years. She did not speak to him because she did not want to distract him, but their eyes met. She told the coach, "I'm one proud mother."

"It affected him, the void of not having his mother in his life," Croteau-Robinson said. "And he over-excelled. He cast all the anxieties into sports. Weightlifting. And his friend David said football was his life. And he never said anything bad about me. And he told his friends three weeks before his disappearance, 'Guess who came over here today? My mom. My mom."'

*

Legions of friends, classmates and admirers came to Scott's wake and funeral. His mother kissed the head of the closed casket. She took a rose from the heart-shaped flower arrangement she had sent and placed it under Jesus' cross. Nearly 50 bouquets of flowers filled the parlor.

The photo of No. 42 clutching a football in his right hand was displayed at his wake, and later in a window in the downtown studio where it had been taken the day before he died.

At the funeral, on a day as dark as Scott's death, the church overflowed with 2,000 mourners. It was so crowded that many were ushered into the church basement to watch the Mass on closed-circuit TV.

In a brief eulogy, Brian Croteau said of his brother: "No one in this world is perfect, but Scott was as close as you could get. . . . Maybe God just takes the best, but I wish he'd made an exception with Scott."

Cheerleaders formed an honor guard on each side of the casket as it was carried from the church by Scott's teammates for burial.

No. 42 was placed atop the casket. At the cemetery, it was given to Scott's father, who clutched it and cried.

"We spent so much time with football," Ron Croteau said. "Scott's love of life was football. My son's gone. I don't know what to do with his room or his jersey. It hurts big time."

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