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The Killer…of a Military Suicide Victim

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Virginia Beach Police Department
Virginia Beach Police Department

Petty Office 2nd Class Paul Bricker

The military’s suicide woes are profound enough without a sailor adding to them. Yet that’s just what Petty Office 2nd Class Paul Bricker did. He helped a superior, Chief Petty Office Gerard Curran, kill himself. Their goal: mask Curran’s suicide as a murder, so that Curran’s family could collect military benefits it might be barred from getting if he had killed himself.

“I’ve never had a case like this,” Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. said Monday before sentencing Bricker to five years imprisonment on a manslaughter charge, according to the Virginian-Pilot. “What kind of a person does this?”

It’s a sad and fascinating case, the details of which we’ll get to in a minute.

But beyond the particulars are the bigger questions it raises: how can two sailors with such warped minds find one another – one eager to die, and the other willing to help him? And what does it say about the essence of command: when a superior tells you to do something in the military, the subordinate’s default response is to follow orders.

(VIDEO: One a Day: Soldiers and Suicide in the U.S. Military)

That what some have maintained in posts to the newspaper story, which took place in Virginia Beach, one of the nation’s most Navy-centric towns:

This seems to be an issue rooted far deeper than just these two servicemen. By all accounts, it seems that Bricker was in a subservient state when he performed the deed, and is now extremely remorseful and apologetic. I have never served in the Armed Forces, but I thought if a superior officer gives you orders or asks something of you, that’s the law, correct? Maybe the Navy should look a little deeper into what is being taught in boot camps and technical schools.

…wrote one.

Common sense has to play a role here, something a lot of people don’t have

…added another.

A third poster summed up what seemed to be the consensus view:

THIS INDIVIDUAL SHOULD HAVE

1. Notified his superior officer immediately

2. Refused to assist in a suicide

3. Called the VB [Virginia Beach] Police dept.

4. Doing any less than this was criminal!

The case happened in 2009, when Curran, who had moved out of the home he shared with his wife and two sons, had begun drinking heavily. He eventually implored Bricker to help make Curran’s suicide look like a murder so that Curran’s family would receive all military benefits (generally, that happens even in the case of suicides, but sometimes some benefits are denied if the death is deemed due to misconduct, including alcohol abuse).

(MORE: New Study: U.S. Military Suicide Rate Now Likely Double or Triple Civil War’s)

Cases like this are rare, thankfully. But they betray a laissez-faire attitude toward suicide that can be deadly, despite the military’s best efforts to combat it. “Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment,” the Navy tells its sailors. “Most suicidal people are open to a helpful intervention, sometimes even a forced one, to show them that their circumstances will not last forever and that Life Is Worth Living.”

Navy suicides haven’t gotten the attention of those of the Army and Marines, whose troops have borne the brunt of the fighting in the nation’s post-9/11 wars. But its rate has jumped from 10 per 100,000 sailors in 2001 to 14.5 in 2011 – a jump of 45% and the highest annual rate recorded on the Navy’s suicide-prevention website.

Bricker and Curran almost got away with it, after serving together aboard the carrier USS Harry S Truman, and in a naval electronics shop in Norfolk.

Dawn Curran reported to police on July 30, 2009, that her husband, 45, was missing. A police alert led a pair of women to say they believe they had seen Curran walking in Virginia Beach’s First Landing State Park. “The women said he looked depressed and tired, and would not make eye contact with them,” a filing in the case said. “They waited to see in which direction he went, and then they walked in the opposite direction.”

Police searched the park, and found his body. “Cause of death was found to be one stab wound to the chest which perforated the lung and caused internal bleeding,” a legal filing in the case said. Despite the charade, an autopsy concluded Curran had killed himself. But a year later, Bricker, now 27, was charged with murder in the case. He pleaded guilty to a reduced manslaughter charge in April before his sentencing Monday.

(MORE: A Young Private’s Suicide Reflects a Massive Failure of Leadership)

Bricker, apparently racked by guilt, basically turned himself in. “The defendant told someone close to him what he had done to Curran, and that person then told a friend,” a prosecution aide said. “The friend told her parents, who reported the incident to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They continued to investigate until they interviewed, and subsequently charged, Bricker.”

The stipulation of facts prepared by Harvey Bryant, the local prosecutor, detailed what happened:

…the defendant told police that Mr. Curran had told him that he wanted to commit suicide, and he wanted his wife and children to receive government benefits after his death. Mr. Curran told the defendant that he wanted to kill himself and make it look like a robbery. He wanted the defendant’s help in case he was not successful in committing suicide.

They agreed to meet at the park, where Mr. Curran said, “Let’s get this over with.” The defendant said that Mr. Curran wrapped a rubber physical therapy band around his own neck and choked himself until he collapsed. The defendant said that Curran appeared dead.

Bricker waited a few minutes and then stabbed Mr. Curran once in the chest. He waited a few minutes, then took the knife and rubber band and left the area. The defendant said that he had stabbed Mr. Curran because Mr. Curran had asked him to help him. The investigation revealed no benefit, pecuniary or otherwise, to the defendant for his role in the victim’s death.

VIDEO: Why Are There So Many Military Suicides?

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