Mom Who Watched 12-Year-Old Son Kill himself Wants You to Know Something

Max Colbath, Desert Shadows Middle School student who committed suicide in October 2001. (Photo: Colbath family photo)
Max Colbath, Desert Shadows Middle School student who committed suicide in October 2001. (Photo: Colbath family photo)

Almost 15 years have passed since Patti Colbath walked into her backyard and saw her 12-year-old son Max put a handgun to his forehead and pull the trigger.

It hasn’t gotten any easier, she said, no matter what people say about time healing all wounds. It’s just not true.

“I’m not doing well, and I’m going to tell you very honestly, I have a couple of drinks every night, and there have been times when I have said very mean things to my husband,” Patti said.

The meanest thing: “If you hadn’t left the gun out, Max wouldn’t be dead.”

In the beginning, in the months just after Max killed himself, her husband would point out that their son could have stepped in front of a car or swallowed a bottle of pills.

Patti said she would retort: “At least there would have been a chance. There was no chance with a .357 magnum bullet in his forehead.”

Now, when she brings it up, he answers simply, “I know.”

The Colbaths are one of the families people say their hearts and prayers go out to when there is a tragedy like this. The stories stay in the news for a few days, there are vigils and memorials, and then the families are left for a lifetime to try to make sense of what happened. As in so many cases like this, Patti and Scott saw no signs of what was to come.

OFF-THE-CUFF REMARK AT LUNCHTIME

On a Friday in October 2001, during lunch at Desert Shadows Middle School in Phoenix, Max, an eighth-grader, said something profane about the vice principal, unaware that the administrator was in the cafeteria.

It would turn out that the vice principal didn’t hear Max. But other kids told Max he was going to get into trouble.

So Max left campus. The vice principal called Patti at the insurance office where she worked when Max didn’t show up for his first class after lunch. He explained what had happened at lunch, about the remarks, about leaving campus. Patti called her husband, Scott, a computer programmer analyst, to tell him what had happened. He said he’d head home, too.

Max had never been in trouble before. The truth was, Patti said, he wasn’t in trouble now. Kids say stupid things at times. Patti hoped her son wasn’t too upset.

A CHESS CHAMPION WHO LOVED ‘STAR WARS’

Max was a good kid, and smart. He was a wicked chess player, a state champion at 6. By 8, he was taking classes at Arizona State University — Introductory Algebra, Algebra 101 and basic programming. He knew everything there was to know aboutStar Wars. He was a brown belt in karate. He played the violin.

He was sensitive, too, the kind of kid who wanted to donate his savings to the families of the victims of 9/11.

When Max would get home from school, he’d call his mom at work to tell her about his day. “I love you,” he always said, and then he would report what the cats or dogs were doing.

As Patti drove home that day, the 2½ miles from her office to her house, she thought,Please don’t run away, Max. Please don’t run away. That was the worst she could imagine. The worst.

At home, she called out for her son. No answer. The house sat on a half-acre, and she went out back and then around to the side of the house.

Like it was yesterday, she can see him still.

“There was Max, 5-foot-10 and size 10 feet — he wasn’t wearing shoes; we don’t like shoes — with big shorts and a T-shirt and his beautiful glasses and a gun.

“A big gun.

“A .357 magnum.”

GETTING HOLD OF A GUN

Scott adored his son. He remembers carrying Max around like a football when he was baby and then on his shoulder when he was a toddler. Scott took Max to karate and chess tournaments and for rides on his motorcycle. He had been teaching Max to ride a dirt bike; the first time he had driven it into the tool shed.

Sometimes, on Fridays, Scott would pick up Max early from school to go to the movies.

“I loved having him with me so much that sometimes I’d wake him up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘Dude, let’s go to Home Depot,’ just because I wanted him with me,” Scott said.

Patti and Scott grew up in New England, where they both learned to shoot rifles at shooting ranges. When Max was 11, Scott wanted to teach his son.

“I said to my husband, ‘OK, here’s the deal: You get a gun safe, a good one, and the guns are locked up at all times, and no one has access to the key but you.’ I didn’t even want access,” Patti said.

Scott took Max to gun safety classes. They went to the shooting range almost every weekend. Max took it seriously. He was a pretty good shot, his dad said.

The week Max died, he and his father had been to the shooting range. Scott had loaded six guns into the safe in the garage. He had set down a bag holding two more on the ground — and forgot about them.

It was how Max got hold of a gun.

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SOURCE: Karina Bland
The Arizona Republic