Jacob Marberger picked a peaceful place to die.
The Washington College student whose disappearance prompted his school to shut down for two weeks shot himself in the head at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a natural area with beautiful vistas and landscape, authorities said. The famous terrain, which sits alongside the Appalachian Trial in Berks County, Pennsylvania, is the world’s first refuge for birds of prey.
The serene setting was 15 minutes from the Wal-Mart where Marberger bought bullets Monday morning, and a stark contrast, perhaps, to his school life about three hours away in Chestertown, Maryland, where his last six weeks became difficult, embarrassing and then unbearable.
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News of the 19-year-old's death triggered a flurry of condolences, as well as questions and accusations about what pushed the Cheltenham Township teen to a point where he felt death was his best option.
"So many of us were looking forward to seeing where life would take Jacob Marberger — or where that powerful, clever, thoughtful mind of his would lead him. What a heartbreaking end," Nathan Kleinman wrote on Marberger’s Facebook page, where there is talk of a very bright, energetic young man whose Thespian skills, wit and delivery of rhetoric on the debate team were enviable.
"I'm still trying to comprehend this awful event. Jacob Marberger was an amazing friend. He never failed to put a smile on my face and enlighten me with his views on everything," Willa Douglas posted.
On the Facebook page for the small, private liberal arts school of about 1,400 undergraduates, comments included a collection of compassionate, sad and angry sentiments.
"This is what bullying does. A bright young person lost his life and his family lost their son. Senseless," wrote Holly Osbourne.
The day before Marberger was found, Dr. Jon Marberger opened up about his son's social struggles.
"He had lots of positive contacts but he didn’t really know how to deal with the negative ones and the people who didn’t accept him,” Jon Marberger said.
But suicide? How did the mind of a young man who seemed fairly well adjusted, and on most days happy, take him there?
"Apparently the Yik Yak got very ugly on Sunday," Jon Marberger said, of an anonymous location-based smartphone app. "I’m really curious what happened Sunday night between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m."
HOW JACOB'S LIFE UNRAVELED
To understand why those two hours are critical to Jon Marberger, you have to understand the troubling six weeks that led up to last Sunday.
Jacob Marberger’s father believes the teen's troubles started early in October when he fell out of favor with members of two groups he loved being a part of on campus: his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, and the Student Government Association (SGA), where he served as speaker of the senate.
Jacob Marberger was at an SGA function when he saw two other SGA members texting sexually inappropriate comments about a woman in the group. He reported them to school administrators, saying their actions created an environment of sexual harassment, Jon Marberger said.
When both lost their jobs, that upset some of the younger Marberger’s fraternity brothers, who were on the same sports team as one student who’d been disciplined. They told Jacob Marberger if he had an issue, he should’ve handled it within the fraternity rather than tell administrators, according to Jon Marberger and two students familiar with the case. The students who spoke on the situation did not want their names used for fear of being reprimanded by the college.
After that, Jacob Marberger was retaliated against, allegedly by members of his own fraternity. According to a student who was his friend, Jacob felt "very persecuted by them" when they leaned a trash can full of water against his dorm room door so when he opened it, water spilled into his room.
Two days later, on Oct. 7, Jon Marberger said his son was drinking wine and some of his fraternity brothers kept carrying him up to his room because they thought he was too drunk. This went on four or five times and Jacob Marberger kept going back downstairs. The last time the fraternity members carried 5-foot-6 Jacob Marberger back up to his room, they tried to put a bureau in front of his door, Jon Marberger said.
"After the fourth or fifth time, that’s when he came out with the gun. I don’t know what he said, but he held it over his head," Jon Marberger said.
The gun was unloaded but the gesture was enough to put people on edge.
"I’m in another fraternity. When we heard that, we were like, 'Holy s---, if this gets out, it’s going to destroy Greek life here,'" one student said.
Because no one came forward, it took nearly three weeks for the school to figure out what happened and recover the gun from a house off campus. Jacob Marberger was suspended from school on Oct. 29. He was also kicked out of his fraternity.
"He was just embarrassed for what he had done and how it was misinterpreted," said Jon Marberger, who believes this was the first time his son faced what he considered real failure.
When Jacob Marberger left campus, only a few people knew the real reason. In his meticulous manner, he sent an email to SGA members saying he was sorry he’d be absent from senate, but with no explanation as to why.
Jacob Marberger returned to school and was back in classes on Nov. 9 after a forensic psychiatrist determined he was not a threat to himself or others. It was a difficult week, and he still faced a hearing before the Honors Board, but his father said Jacob Marberger was adjusting. He pointed to a text message exchange between Jacob Marberger and a friend at 9:03 p.m. Sunday, the night before he vanished.
Friend: Hey, how are you doing?
Jacob: Alright, what’s up?
Friend: Nothing with me. I’ve just heard a lot of stuff has been going on with the brothers lately and wanted to make sure you were okay.
Jacob: I’ve been better, but I’ll get through it.
His good friend and former roommate, Joseph Swit, also thought Jacob Marberger was dealing with everything. They’d talked a lot after Jacob Marberger moved from the frat house back into the dorm. The two ate dinner together around 6 p.m. Sunday and Jacob Marberger "seemed to be his normal, pleasant self. He sported his typical big grin and we had, as we often did, a good-natured political discussion. I never would’ve thought that this was the last time I would see my friend," Swit posted on Marberger’s Facebook page.
"See you later," Jacob Marberger said as the two parted ways, Jacob Marberger to his room and Swit to watch football downstairs.
What changed? Jacob Marberger found out that night some SGA members were very upset — angry that he was being allowed to return to the group when the two people he’d reported had been fired. Their anger boiled into a string of comments and conjecture on Yik Yak, where people can post anonymously.
The truth — and lies — about Jacob’s absence from campus were revealed.
"Nobody knew, I think 20 people knew, and then suddenly in the span of two hours, the entire school found out," said one student.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Jacob Marberger wrote a letter resigning his position as speaker of the student senate.
At 12:25 a.m., the same friend he’d talked with earlier texted again.
Friend: I wish they would quit talking about it on yik yak.
Jacob: Me too. I’m not sure what to do about it.
Jacob Marberger, whose senior class at Cheltenham High School voted him "Most Likely to Be a Motivational Speaker," left campus early Monday, made the two-and-a-half hour drive to his home in Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, snuck in while his parents were sleeping and took a gun from his antique collection.
He stopped answering his phone or responding to texts and drove first to a Wal-Mart near Hamburg, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and then to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where he parked, left a letter and then ended his life.
WHO WAS JACOB MARBERGER?
Jon Marberger isn’t ready to talk about his son's suicide note, but he spoke Friday about Jacob Marberger’s spirited, opinionated personality, as well as some of his challenges.
Jacob Marberger loved the theater and was given prominent roles each year in school productions. He was a National Merit Scholar, a member of the school’s ski team and debate team. When he was younger, he played video games and would get together with friends for Nerf ball weekends. He loved visiting friends who’d emigrated from Ukraine and talking about the politics and culture of their homeland.
About a year ago, he began collecting antique guns because he was fascinated with metallurgy.
"He could tell you everything about them," Jon Marberger said. "Jacob knew things to the degree that you couldn’t believe; I mean, the detail to which he knew of so many topics, especially politics, and world politics, you know? ... But you know, someone of that caliber has difficulty relating to a lot of common things, and you know, developing close friends had always been a challenge and Jacob was always striving for acceptance."
At Washington College, Jacob Marberger earned enough respect to be on the search committee for the school’s new president, Sheila Bair, whom he deeply respected because he thought she’d made big strides with morale when she chaired the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He was excited about a project he’d been hired to work on with one of the school’s professors.
WASHINGTON COLLEGE'S RESPONSE
In the six days it took to find Jacob Marberger, college administrators made the unprecedented decision to close the campus and send everyone home until after Thanksgiving break.
When Jon Marberger called the school Monday morning to tell them his son had taken a gun case — and possibly a gun — and was no longer answering phone calls, the college had to consider the safety and emotional well-being of students and parents who were afraid Jacob Marberger might harm others, even though he made no direct threats, Blair said.
When the college posted news of Jacob Marberger’s death on its Facebook page Saturday, the conversation included comments expressing sadness and compassion, along with accusations of bullying and questions about whether the college did enough, soon enough to help Jacob Marberger.
"We have lost a member of our family and I’m still struggling for words. Let’s find ways to honor Jacob’s memory, to learn, and to heal,” Sheila Bair tweeted Sunday morning.
Counseling will be provided when students return to class on Nov. 30.
Swit, for his part, acknowledged returning to school will be tough, but "if any school can handle this, this college can handle it. It's a really close community."
One student, who was close to the case but didn't want his name used, said "Nobody wins. Nobody," but thinks the college shouldn't be blamed. "In hindsight, it was a few key students — including Marberger — who should have made better decisions."
Swit said he will miss Jacob terribly.
"Looking back, I think it was the perfect storm of unfortunate events," he said.
He's grateful for their last dinner together.
"I am glad it was a happy memory because we had so many. It pains me to think that in the hours after that, Jacob felt so tortured and alone. I wish he would’ve known that no matter how bad things seemed, he was always loved and cared for by so many," Swit said.
SUICIDE PREVENTION: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
A celebration of Jacob Marberger's life will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, at 6410 N. Broad St. in Philadelphia. Interment is private.