The murder of Samantha Josephson by a man she trusted to be an Uber driver, is yet another tragic reminder that when we send our kids off to college these days, the elation of watching them ascend into adult life is tempered by fear for their safety.
Claudia Patterson dropped her son Kenny off at a Rutgers freshman dorm two years ago filled with optimism. He was a smart, popular athlete. College was going to be awesome.
Today, she shares something with Samantha Josephson’s parents -- the black-hole eternal grief of losing a child at a university they thought to be safe.
What Claudia Patterson doesn’t know is why. She doesn’t know how her son ended up going from a fraternity party at Rutgers to an industrial no man’s land on the outskirts of New Brunswick where he was killed by an Amtrak train.
“We are looking for answers,” Claudia Patterson said. “Somebody at that fraternity knows something.”
Kenny Patterson, a Morris Knolls High School lacrosse star, was a freshman at Rutgers when he was invited to a fraternity party at Theta Delta Chi house in New Brunswick.
The investigation into his death revealed “everybody” saw Kenny at the party at 1:30 a.m. and he was sober, his mother said.
The next anyone heard from Kenny was at 3:17 a.m. His friend Matt Peterson contacted him through SnapChat, a phone call to a dormmate Troy Sweeny followed.
Troy told police Kenny was slurring his words and out of breath, walking back along the tracks from the Jersey Avenue Station toward downtown New Brunswick, almost three miles away. That was at 3:28 a.m. Six minutes later, Kenny called Troy and said he fell and hit his head. Troy told him to get off the tracks. That was at 3:36, Kenny sent Troy his location via an app, so Troy could come get him, but the location was not exact.
At 3:43 the operator of an Amtrak called in to report the accident.
That was Dec. 9, 2017.
Claudia Patterson still has no answers.
She hired one private investigator, then another. The fraternity brothers told them the same thing they told police. Nothing.
“I know somebody in that house knows something,” Claudia said. “I’m sure it was some kind of pledging or initiation thing.’’
Six days after Kenny Patterson was killed, a grand jury report into the hazing death of Tim Piazza a year earlier was released in Centre County, Pa. It described fraternity hazing at Penn State as “rampant and pervasive” and included “sadistic rituals that surge to unfathomable depths of depravity,” and accused the university of doing little to stop it.
Likewise, Claudia Patterson feels Rutgers University wanted to “sweep Kenny’s death under the rug.”
Amtrak police were the lead investigators in the case and, of course, they were coming at it from a different angle, one of agency culpability.
“They asked for assistance from the Rutgers police and New Brunswick police to interview the students,” Claudia Patterson said. “I read the reports. The statements were very superficial.”
Nobody knew anything. Nobody knew where Kenny Patterson was for an hour and half. Nobody knew how he got 2.6 miles away on a cold winter night wearing only a sweatshirt.
The kids went home on Christmas break to celebrate with their families, while Claudia Patterson mourned with hers.
As parents, we send our kids off the college and hold our breath.
Hazing, sexual assault, drunk driving, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, suicides. All have become areas of national hand-wringing over the last few years.
Two years ago, I sat in the Readington living room of Jim and Evelyn Piazza, after their son, Tim, died in a Penn State hazing event. He was 19, a sophomore, filled with promise.
Only their grief surpassed their anger. Tim’s fraternity “brothers” failed to get him medical help for almost 24 hours after he fell several times during a drinking hazing. To lose a child to such cowardly stupidity … words can’t capture the rage.
The Piazzas championed an anti-hazing law signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last October. Two weeks ago, four fraternity brothers were sentenced to jail – all for less than a year.
Mike and Teresa Pohle of Flemington know that rage. There son, Michael, was killed during the Virginia Tech rampage in 2007. He was one of 32 people killed in what was America’s worst mass shooting at the time. It has since been usurped by Las Vegas and Orlando. The Pohles champion gun safety, which only leads to more anger and frustration.
“Nothing ever changes,” Mike Pohle told me on several occasions.
In all my years of reporting, I never heard anything as poignantly heartbreaking as what Teresa Pohle said to me after yet another mass shooting. She was a labor and delivery nurse, and said each time she held a tiny new life in her hands, she wondered if somewhere, someday, that baby would grow to be in the wrong movie theater, shopping mall or classroom at the wrong time.
What parent today doesn’t have a similar nagging dark thought about the dangers of college.
The Seton Hall fire in January of 2000, another act of cowardly stupidity, brought national attention to dorm safety. Three freshmen died -- Aaron Karol of Green Brook, Frank Caltabilota of West Long Branch and John Giunta of Vineland.
The boys who set the fire ran, then lawyered up, and dodged justice until seven years after the fire. Both were out of prison in less than three years.
Friends of Aaron Karol formed a foundation called Aspiring Kindness to benefit first responders and burn units, which hold an annual golf outing in June.
That brought some solace to Joe and Candy Karol, who like the Piazzas and Pohles, are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.
They all have endured the thing all parents fear most. And when it happens, it hits us all close to the heart. And some hit closer to home.
Michael Sot, 19, of Clark, was killed at the College of New Jersey in the fall, shepherding his friends back to their dorms from an off-campus fraternity party. He was sober, the designated driver. He was hit head-on by a drunk driver, who was coming from a bar in the new campus village.
I have two kids at TCNJ. My son, a senior, was a close fraternity brother of Michael Sot. The boys kept a vigil at his hospital room for the two days it took for his life to slip away. Michael was also in my sophomore daughter’s friend group. Both kids lined up with the hundreds of students, friends and parents to mourn him at his wake, a gathering where everyone – kids and adults – must have had the same persistent thought:
There, but for the Grace of God, go we.