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A MUST READ: Wrestling With Life After Death (ESPN.com)
A MUST READ: Wrestling With Life After Death (ESPN.com)
Wrestling With Life After Death
By Joe Santoliquito
Special to ESPN.com
PERKASIE, Pa. -- It's Senior Night at Pennridge High School, a festive occasion for the Rams' varsity wrestlers, at the last home meet in early February. The booster club has decked the gym in the school's green-and-white colors. Taped above the bleachers are posters bearing the names of each senior scrawled in magic marker. An arch of green and white balloons is set up for the wrestlers and their parents to walk through as they're introduced. The gym is packed.
At the back of the line in the staging area, where the guests of honor wait, stands 160-pounder A.J. Detwiler, Pennridge's best wrestler. He is flanked by his older sister, Brittany, and his younger brother, Corey. They laugh and joke. And reminisce.
A.J. and his family are the last to be called. As his teammates and their parents move into the gym one by one, he visibly braces for the sorrowful reality of the tribute to come. A faint crack in the announcer's voice sends a ripple through the hushed crowd, as A.J. stands staring straight ahead. Three sets of eyes -- two brothers and a sister, no parents -- well with tears.
Later, A.J. recounts his jumble of thought and emotion as he walks into the gym: Keep it together. Don't lose it now, not in front of this packed gym, not with all these sympathetic eyes focused on me. Just keep it together. Somehow, he stays composed, as does the burly public address announcer, who steamrolls through his own tears and moves the program forward and into the match against nearby Hatboro-Horsham High School.
A.J. is the first wrestler on the mat. Within seconds, he is manipulating the limbs of his opponent like a mechanical doll. The pin comes in the third period. It's A.J.'s 17th victory this season, against three losses; it puts his career mark at 110-32. As a junior wrestling at 145 pounds last year, he placed seventh in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) state championships. Now, as the state qualifier -- the District I North meet -- looms on Feb. 24, Detwiler is one of the best 160-pounders in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania, ranked No. 2 in the state entering last Saturday's Section Two championship, where he earned the Outstanding Wrestler award after defeating Upper Perkiomen's Brent Fiorito, ranked No. 1 in the state, in overtime.
He's fast and he's strong. With an SAT score of close to 1,100, he has attracted attention from the wrestling programs at the Air Force Academy, North Carolina and Boston University, where Brittany is a top starting pitcher on the softball team. Only eight short months stand between A.J. and the tragedy that ripped apart his family and this tight-knit southeastern Pennsylvania community, but it is difficult to imagine a better-adjusted American teenager.
"I remember after it happened, coming back the first day of school, I felt like people didn't know what to expect out of me," says A.J., who could pass for Ashton Kutcher's muscular twin. "People felt like I was going to be some angry kid toward the world and that I'd be a totally different person. I used to have a reputation as being someone who had a good time. I didn't think I had to adjust."
Their parents are gone, but A.J. and his sister Brittany won't forget. On June 18, 2005, as A.J. looked on, his father, Andrew Detwiler, shot his mother, Suzanne, and then turned the gun toward the boys. Moments later, in self-defense, his brother Corey shot twice at his father, killing him.
Suzanne died in her elder son's arms in the family's backyard. As A.J. kissed her forehead, her last words were, "I love you all."
A.J. might be the only person in the world who didn't think he'd have to adjust to that.
"Basically, I just woke up to arguing and fighting, and I found my father holding a knife to my mom in the kitchen. I was ready to tackle my dad, when he pointed the knife at me. I don't even know what they were arguing about, but I knew we had two guns in the house. We hid them after my dad's suicide attempt.
"We put one gun in the back of my closet in my bedroom, but the ammunition was in the garage. I went to get the gun and my brother went and got the other gun. I ran back to the kitchen and told my dad to step away from my mother. The gun wasn't loaded. I just wanted to scare him away. My father told me to shoot him; he wanted me to shoot him. By then, Corey showed up with his gun, but my father snatched the gun from Corey and I started wrestling with him, trying to get him away from Corey.
"My dad grabbed the gun and went to the garage to get ammunition. We locked the garage door. Some things I don't remember, so I don't know who exactly locked my father in the garage. I do remember my mother was hysterical, crying and screaming and trying to dial 911. I tried hiding her in my bedroom closet, while dad was still in the garage.
"That's when I heard him start blasting his way out of the garage with the gun and coming back into the house. My mom was pretty loud, talking to 911. My father heard this and came right up to my room. Corey was hiding, too, somewhere in the house. My father wanted to find out where my mother was, and I told him she was in the basement. I thought he was going to shoot me if I didn't tell him.
"When my father went to the basement, I grabbed my mom and we went to the front door. But we were so scared, we were shaking. We tried to get out, but we actually kept locking ourselves in the house. We didn't know what we were doing. That's when me and my mom tried going out the back of the house, through the back deck. That's when my father shot through a dining-room window and hit my mom. She was still on a cell phone and I didn't realize she was shot. She was running with me, and then she fell on top of me.
"I grabbed her. She looked up at me and told me, 'I love you all.' Then she passed away. I didn't know what to do. I ran to the side of the house and saw a neighbor and told him to dial 911, screaming at him, 'My dad shot my mom!' I ran to the front of the house and rang the doorbell, looking for Corey. By then, Corey had loaded his gun and let me in the house. We thought my father was coming for us. I just remember sitting on the couch in shock, yelling at Corey, 'Dad just shot Mom! Dad just shot Mom!' I knew my mother was dead and I wasn't thinking; but when we went out back, we found my dad standing over my mother in the backyard. My father picked up the gun and Corey told my father, 'Get the f--- away from my mother.'"
According to police statements given by both Corey and A.J., Andrew raised the gun in the direction of his boys. Corey fired twice in self-defense, hitting Andrew once in the hip and once in the back as he tried to run, the gun still in his hand.
"I've said this a number of times: My brother is my hero. He saved my life. I'm pretty sure my father probably would have shot us both if it wasn't for Corey. Every detail is still there. I live with it every day. I had a few dreams, but not really nightmares. I couldn't sleep or eat for a few days after it happened."
Described as a caring, loving, 44-year-old father, extremely devoted to his children (Brittany, 20; A.J., 17; and the youngest, Corey, 15), Andrew Detwiler was bipolar, a disorder that causes dramatic mood swings and severe changes in energy and behavior. At least, that's what the family has come to believe. They didn't come to that conclusion, though, until the suicide attempt on June 12, six days before the killings, when police found him in his garage with his car running. Until he voluntarily committed himself to Grand View Hospital in West Rockhill Township for a mental-health evaluation. Until he signed himself out three days later, too soon for the facility to make a conclusive diagnosis and begin treatment.
Until, in other words, it was too late.
Until it was too late, Andrew's commitment to his kids' sports lives knew few bounds. Because Brittany could play for an elite softball club based in Virginia, Andrew made a habit of driving the hundreds of miles up and down the East Coast for her practices and games. He never missed a wrestling match for A.J. or Corey. Andrew was always there, as was Suzanne, to hustle the children from one athletic event to another.
Everything was for the kids.
Suzanne, 40, was a successful real estate agent, working at Prudential, Fox & Roach in Perkaskie and bearing the brunt of earning the Detwiler family's income. By the summer of 2005, Andrew, an iron worker, had been unemployed for two years, ever since he injured his shoulder working on Philadelphia's new Citizens Bank Park. State labor records reveal that he received a lump-sum settlement for an undisclosed amount on Dec. 22, 2003.
"My dad was a man's man," A.J. says. "He was the kind of man who had to take care of his family, and it hurt him that he wasn't able to. We really didn't know what would happen. But I know my dad was bothered by what was going on. My sister was at college, playing softball. I just got my license. We weren't around as much, and we were the center of my dad's universe. … If my father was here today, I'd forgive him and apologize to him."
In 2004, the family moved into a $305,000 ranch house in East Rockhill Township in Bucks County, partly so that A.J. could attend Pennridge High, from which both Andrew and Suzanne had graduated. There had been some trouble at A.J.'s old school, Souderton High, including allegations that the wrestling coach had been hazing his athletes by whacking them with a plastic wiffleball bat and subjecting them to painful holds at practice.
"My dad wanted me to get out of the program. He didn't feel [it was] safe for me," says A.J., who lived in an apartment with his father in Perkasie in 2003, so he could wrestle for Pennridge as a sophomore.
The wrestling coach's case went to trial in mid-June, 2005. On June 16, the day after Andrew checked out of Grand View, both A.J. and his mother testified for the prosecution. Newspaper accounts say Andrew and Suzanne sat together, amicably, in court. On June 17, the coach was acquitted.
John Rittenhouse, Pennridge's wrestling coach, says Suzanne had planned to drive to the Jersey Shore that day, June 17, to celebrate her birthday. But the trial tired her, he says, and so she postponed the trip until the next morning, Saturday, June 18, the day before Father's Day. Corey was to go with her.
According to Diane Gibbons, the Bucks County district attorney, Andrew and Suzanne argued that morning about Suzanne's imminent departure, to the point that Andrew had loosened the lug nuts on her car in an attempt to keep her at home. Gibbons says her investigation raised the possibility that Suzanne might have been contemplating leaving her husband permanently, a possibility that neither A.J. nor his sister will comment on.
"There were … some things in the newspapers about the possibility of drugs," A.J. says. "But my father never used drugs. I'm telling you: The man who shot my mother and threatened to kill me and Corey that morning wasn't my father. It wasn't the same man who raised us. How can that be? My father would do anything for us, and I suppose that's why it hurts so much, knowing now that my father was bipolar. I'll never forget that morning."
Neither will Gibbons.
"The 911 tape of what happened is brutal. I still have it," she says. "You can clearly hear Corey telling his father to get away from his mother, and you can hear the gun shots. It was just horrible, one of the most horrible things I've ever heard. There was no thought in charging Corey at all. It was self-defense … it's one of the most tragic stories that's ever happened in this area."
According to Gibbons, it was so clearly self-defense that A.J. and Corey were in and out of the police station and the case was closed by the end of the day on June 18.
Suzanne was buried on June 23; Andrew on June 24. Brittany, who was away at Boston University when the killings took place, spoke at both funerals.
At her mother's funeral, she told the mourners this: "She was my best friend … There is a hole in my heart."
At her father's funeral, this: "We all love him."
As last summer wore on, there was no thought that the three Detwiler children would be separated. They bounced as a group from one relative to another until, finally, Mike and Linda Pulli, cousins on their father's side who are raising two young children of their own, took them in permanently in August. The Pullis became the legal guardians of the boys, in a joint partnership with Brittany.
Mike Pulli, 37, is the manager of a raw materials warehouse for Merck Pharmaceuticals. Linda, 34, also works for Merck.
"I still can't believe this happened to them," says Mike. "I still think my Uncle Andrew and Aunt Suzanne are on vacation and they're going to come home, and we've just been watching the kids. It wasn't that bad when the kids moved in, but they were depressed. They came to face what happened; it was just a matter of when it was going to hit them. The three of them weren't sure what would happen to them next. I don't think any part of the family would have allowed them to be split up."
Countless others have pitched in to help. Doug Geib and his wife, Louise, have been like second parents. Pennridge High principal Tom Creeden, Rittenhouse and the rest of the Pennridge staff made certain a psychologist was available to ensure that the Detwiler boys would feel safe and comfortable when they returned to school in September.
When school started, sports helped eased the anguish, too, but they serve as a relentless reminder at the same time. A family story, known to them all: A.J.'s paternal grandfather committed suicide when Andrew was 17 years old, the same age A.J. was last June. After his own father died, Andrew withdrew. He dropped every sport he'd been playing at Pennridge in the late '70s. Later, he regretted it deeply.
Brittany (kneeling in center) is now A.J.'s surrogate mother, as well as his biggest fan.
(Clint Spaulding/for ESPN.com)
Andrew preached it to his kids: He didn't want that lesson repeated.
"He told me how that was the biggest mistake of his life," A.J. says. "He stopped living. That's something that I don't want to happen to me. It's the reason why my sister and brother are so open about this. We don't want to stop living."
A.J. still cries for his mother and father. In the shower at home, he says. In the wrestling room, away from everyone else. He has the support of a very close circle of friends, and he has wrestling. And if he weren't wrestling, he'd find something else, basketball maybe, or some other form of competition.
"My parents, I think, made us all mentally tough," he says. "Competition is something we always thrived off of. But I'm not the kind of wrestler who wrestles on anger. I wrestle in control. I want to get the other guy frustrated and angry. The first 30 seconds, I want to figure a kid out and set my shot. I'm an analytical wrestler. I use good tactics, tactics my father taught me."
The Detwilers still receive counseling. They're very protective of Corey, who has a playful side and often teases Brittany. Corey's ever-watchful older brother is nearly always looking over his shoulder.
Everyone -- teachers, teammates, friends -- professes astonishment at A.J.'s ability to cope.
"All three Detwiler children are remarkable," Rittenhouse says. "It's the kind of tragic incident that you read about in the newspaper, but you become very blindsided when it happens to someone close to you. No one ever could have imagined this happening, or saw it coming. When A.J. and his family were introduced on parents' night, you better have your pulse checked if you didn't get welled up over that. There's something wrong with you if you didn't."
How to Help
Anyone interested in contributing to the Suzanne Detwiler Memorial Educational Fund can contact:
101 North Fifth Street
Perkasie, Pa. 18944 John@JohnRittenhouse.com
The next state wrestling tournament is now on the horizon. If A.J. makes it through the district meet, he'll advance to the Southeast Regionals on March 3; the next step would be the state championship on March 9, at the Giant Arena in Hershey. He's rated among the top five in Pennsylvania at 160 pounds.
Then, perhaps, a wrestling scholarship somewhere.
"Before every match, I say a little prayer," A.J. says. "I think the sadness will always be there; it's a matter of controlling it. I still think about things my mother would say, because she used to make fun of me and Corey with anything involving wrestling. I still hear my dad telling me what moves to make during matches. But I don't know what's ahead. Winning a state title would be a great accomplishment. But for the rest of my life, I won't know how to react to great accomplishments, because I can't share them with my parents."
Back in December, after he medaled at the prestigious Beast of the East Tournament, A.J. visited his father's grave with Brittany. He knelt down and placed his medal at the base of the marker. As he stood, A.J. patted the tombstone twice on the top, as if giving his dad a hug.
Then he walked away.
Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of Ring magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.