When Seth Walsh came home from school, he would open the gate to a chain-link fence, walk beneath a tall red oak tree and be greeted by five dogs and two cats.
Seth lived with two brothers and a sister, four children from three fathers who were seldom around, supported by their mother who worked long hours as a hairdresser. Their home was a rental, a few blocks from Tehachapi’s main street.
He was 13, and in the eyes of his grandparents, Jim and Judy Walsh, he was just a normal kid, pushing into adolescence. They looked forward to watching him grow up and never imagined that the harassment he experienced as a gay teenager, or his suicide, would resonate across the country.
Seth’s mother, Wendy, is guarding her privacy, lost in grief, and his friends are keeping quiet at their parents’ instructions. Only Jim and Judy are willing to share their memories.
They want to make sure their grandson isn’t remembered only as “the gay kid who hung himself,” so they tell stories about a bright and precocious child who enjoyed playing with their dog, Bambi, and who liked the Jonas Brothers and Magic Mountain.
“When he smiled,” Jim says, “he smiled with his whole face. His eyes twinkled. It wasn’t just the smile. You got it from the eyes and the beaming of the face. He really meant that smile for you.”
Judy and Jim still laugh over his tastes. He colored his hair blond on occasion and wore it with a long swoop that partly covered his eyes. Judy took him shopping once, and he went to the girl’s department to find pants with tapered legs. He added a vest, and a few months later she noticed the style everywhere.
His favorite songs were Nat King Cole’s “Smile” and Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea,” and he listened to Mozart in the shower. His favorite stop in Bakersfield was Barnes & Noble; he liked James Herriot’s books about animals.
He was a gentle child, they say, who preferred to “relocate bugs” rather than kill them, who made sure his younger brother got his share of Easter eggs and who once apologized to a bed of flowers when he picked one and placed it on the grave of the family dog.
But the Walshes realize that Seth’s gentleness made him a target, and they recall listening to Wendy as she shared her worries about Seth and what he had to endure.
The teasing and bullying began in fourth grade. At first it was because he was different — more comfortable with girls, not interested in sports, neither aggressive nor assertive — and then it was because he thought he was gay. Once classmates found out and the news spread, the abuse became more focused and cruel.
When Judy learned from her daughter that Seth was gay, she became concerned for the challenges that lay ahead of her grandson.
“Life is hard enough,” she says, “but this makes it harder.”
“Especially in a small town,” Jim says.
Jim and Judy Walsh live on the west side of Tehachapi — about 20 minutes away from their grandchildren — in a gated community known as Bear Valley, an affluent enclave in the middle of the mountains where there are almost as many stables as there are homes.
Sitting in their living room, they talk easily about Seth. Jim is 65, a retired school principal. Judy, 69, is a retired teacher who once served on the school board.
They accept that Seth’s suicide — along with the suicides of Tyler Clementi, 18, Billy Lucas, 15, and Asher Brown, 13, all within two and a half weeks — is now part of a national conversation about the consequences of being harassed and being young and gay.
At first Judy had mixed feelings about her grandson being mentioned in this context. “But the more I thought about it, the more the world needs to know why Seth was harassed,” she says. “He was harassed because he was gay.”
When Seth came out to his mother, it was a declaration that followed years of uncertainty. He was 11 at the time. She told him that it didn’t matter; she loved him all the same.
His classmates were not as understanding. In the halls at school, students would bump him in the shoulder as they walked by. He’d get hateful messages on his cellphone — or, if he answered, a rude comment, an obscenity.
Wendy tried to help him as best as she could. Jim and Judy recall the time when she went to pick him up at school and a student called out “queer.” The next day, Wendy went to the principal, and the boy was suspended.
There was little she could do, though, as Seth grew more afraid. After his suicide, Jim and Judy heard stories about students goading him to take his life (“Why don’t you hang yourself?”) or promising “to get him” on the way home from school.
Jacobson Middle School became unbearable for Seth. For a few months in seventh grade, he switched to a charter school. Last August he returned to Jacobson, and after just a week in eighth grade, the harassment started up again. He decided to stay at home on independent study.
But friendships were important to Seth, his grandparents say, which is why he went to West Park on a Sunday afternoon last month. It was close to the K-Mart and the fast-food restaurants where his friends liked to hang out.
Accounts vary as to what happened next. There was a confrontation, according to the police. Four or five teens started to follow Seth, and he called his mother asking her to pick him up. She later told Jim and Judy that he sounded scared.
But Wendy was studying at the time. She had been taking classes in Bakersfield, hoping one day to be a paralegal. She had grown accustomed to hearing fear in his voice and told him to walk home. It was less than a mile.
Not long after, he called again, and she agreed to meet him. When she arrived, she saw a group of teens, some of whom started to walk away. According to his grandparents, he was especially hurt that one of his friends who was there did nothing to help him.
Once home, Wendy went back to her studies. Seth took a shower and later asked his mother for a pen. His younger brother, Shawn, was playing on the computer.
At some point, Seth had gone to the backyard. When Wendy took a break for a cigarette, she saw that he had hanged himself from a tree.
Police officers arrived; they found him on the ground, unconscious and not breathing. One began CPR, and within half an hour Seth was in a helicopter heading for the trauma center in Bakersfield.
Wendy gave the suicide note to the police.
Eight days later, on Sept. 27, the doctors declared Seth brain-dead. Arrangements were made for organ donation, and he was eventually taken off life support. His family gathered to say goodbye.
As they started to prepare for a memorial, they discovered that Seth’s MySpace page had been defaced with pornography and demonic symbols.
The memorial was held at First Baptist Church, just across the street from Seth’s home. More than 570 people crowded into the small building. A hundred waited outside.
The memorial program included lines from Seth’s MySpace page. “I hate the word flagellum…. I have a thing for space…. I haven’t had a guy friend since the second grade…. I like bugs…. Birds disgust me.”
“We are here to celebrate Seth’s life,” the pastor, Ron Barker, began, “and not the circumstances that may have led to his death.”
There was a montage of photos of Seth, his family and friends. The father of a childhood friend offered his memories.
Barker read a eulogy written by Wendy, and Shawn stood up to deliver his own impressions.
“I loved Seth…. I always wanted to protect him but he would say, ‘Don’t, I don’t want you to get hurt’ and those were the moments I loved, when he would protect me. … Out of all the times I would say ‘I’ll beat ‘em up for ya,’ I really couldn’t, wouldn’t. I’m not a fighting person nor was Seth …"
Afterward, 13 doves were released into the sky.
The Tehachapi Police Department have received e-mails, mostly anonymous. Some refer to Seth’s suicide as murder; others question why charges haven’t been filed. Police say they are investigating accusations of assault, battery and criminal threats.
“We would like to bring some closure for Seth’s family and be able to give a clear-cut answer as to whether there was any criminal behavior,” says Police Chief Jeff Kermode. “We have some confirmation of activities, but nothing to take to the D.A. and bring criminal charges.”
The school district has come under criticism. The principal at Seth’s school has received threatening messages and e-mails from people around the country who feel that the school did not do enough to protect Seth from the bullying.
The school is reviewing its records in an attempt to corroborate the family’s claim that reports had been filed of Seth’s harassment by other students. The superintendent of the school district, Richard Swanson, met with a representative from a Kern County gay and lesbian group to assess the campus programs designed to encourage tolerance.
Their conclusion was that the district’s measures were fairly thorough — quarterly assemblies on behavior, field trips to the Museum of Tolerance, discipline procedures for bullying, security cameras on campus — though they didn’t prevent Seth’s death.
“Maybe they couldn’t have,” Swanson wrote in an e-mail. “The incident occurred off-campus, on a Sunday, and is part of a larger community issue.”
The Walsh family is trying to make sense of the tragedy. They are wondering what to do as the holidays approach. Perhaps they’ll set a place at the table for Seth. They aren’t sure.
For now, though, there is disbelief.
“I had no idea there was that much pain inside of him. He was a sweet kid who found the world cruel,” Judy says, “but he didn’t understand cruelty.”