"Your son was depressed," the coroner said.
"No, he was never depressed," Mary-Anne Badenhorst said.
They stood outside the courtroom last February, before the inquest into Pieter Badenhorst's death began.
The coroner loomed over Mary-Anne. Her body's softness was gone, her red hair gone, her eyebrows and eyelashes gone. Her cancer seemed a physical manifestation of her grief.
"He had a psychiatrist's phone number in his wallet," the coroner said.
"I know. I gave him the number," Mary-Anne said. "He told me he had some decisions to make about grad school, and he wanted to talk it over with someone--someone other than family."
The coroner said, "Pieter had a drinking problem."
"No. He was a very cautious, very responsible adult. He never had a drinking problem."
"There was alcohol in that bottle he was drinking from when he died."
"The police told me the alcohol in the orange juice was fermentation."
The coroner retreated. "Yes, well, nonetheless, he had been treated for alcohol poisoning at the health center."
Mary-Anne's measured speech--her slight accent is Canadian, with traces of years spent in England and South Africa--was betraying her, making everything she said sound genial.
"Pieter told me about that incident," Mary-Anne said. "He'd tripped walking out of a bar and hurt his neck. His friends brought him to the health center as a precaution."
"And then there was the bolted door," the coroner said.
The cancer and the chemo and the grief coalesced into a knot of bile.
"Pieter did not commit suicide," Mary-Anne said flatly.
The three-ring notebooks bear witness to a mother's devotion. Five in total, each at least four inches thick, they contain standard keepsakes Pieter generated in his 23 years--report cards, test scores, artwork, class pictures. But Mary-Anne also saved field trip announcements ("Mrs. S's class is planning a trip to the Heller Nature Center"), childhood awards ("Pieter Badenhorst is a member of the Greeley School Tip-Top Club"), Pieter's odes to the family pet ("My Dog Winnie"), instructions to babysitters, thank-you notes and birthday cards and spelling tests and Christmas lists and book reports.
My name is Pieter. I like bees. I like to look around my yard. I like my whole family.
--Pieter, age seven, September 1986
Pieter was the kind of kid whose favorite birthday present one year was a potted plant. In South Africa, before he could walk, Pieter would crawl out the door and around to the garden. Every day he unearthed the same bulb, studied it, and placed it back in the ground. Once, when Pieter was about three, he wandered off. A policeman found him in a neighbor's yard collecting fall leaves in a grocery bag. Years later Pieter made an indelible impression on his brother's girlfriend when he turned to her and asked, "Don't you just find fungus fascinating?"
Pieter was born a scientist. See. Try. Touch. Taste. He never limited his investigation of nature to a single sensory realm. Mary-Anne worried Pieter would ingest something poisonous because he often put plants in his mouth, chewing on them as if chewing on a problem. On walks around the block Pieter could point out which plants were sweet, or bitter, or prickly if you ran your hand down the stem but smooth if you ran it up the other way.
He does not draw his family as people but as plants....He seems to have a problem with visio-graphic construction. Internal and sexual organs on both figures may indicate emotional and behavioral problems. Long arms and big hands may indicate aggression. Shaded eyes on the women may indicate anxiety in social interactions. --psychiatric evaluation, Martie du Plessis School, South Africa, June 1985
When Pieter began kindergarten, Mary-Anne and Casper, his father, took him to a psychiatrist for the first of what would be a lifetime of evaluations. The family was still living in South Africa, where Casper, a South African native, was an anesthesiologist. From an early age it was clear Pieter differed from his brother and sisters. Casper thought Pieter suffered from "middle child syndrome," but Mary-Anne thought maybe it was something more. Pieter didn't speak in sentences until well past his third birthday. He pronounced words incorrectly and often substituted sounds. He rarely socialized with other children. He forgot to complete basic tasks like zipping his fly. He struggled to dress himself, pulling on jackets and shirts inside out or backward. His concentration was poor--except when it wasn't. His father's anatomy books or the labors of a spider, for example, could occupy him for hours. The psychiatrist diagnosed Pieter as having attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity and a possible developmental language disorder. He recommended that Pieter receive specialized education, including physical and occupational therapy. Mary-Anne and Casper knew little about learning disorders, but the diagnosis galvanized them. OK, Mary-Anne thought. We can work with this.
He denied having even the usual fears and anxieties of childhood. He drew some pictures that were barren and without people. This boy seems to have a serious disorder impairing his reality testing capacity. --psychiatric consultation, Northern Suburban Special Education District, March 1987
When Pieter was in first grade, the Badenhorsts and their four children--Abrie, Mimi, Pieter, and Louise--moved to Winnetka after Casper received a job offer from the UIC medical center. In order to determine the appropriate scholastic placement for him, Pieter underwent a battery of tests, including a psychological evaluation. The psychiatrist didn't hedge or sugarcoat. In a terse three-paragraph missive he diagnosed Pieter as having childhood schizophrenia, forcing Mary-Anne and Casper to reimagine their son's future. Pieter does not watch cartoons, the psychiatrist said. He cannot articulate fear. His drawings are erratic. He is anxious but denies discomfort. His behavior is inappropriate. His problems are significant. The boy is impaired.
The news was devastating but not inconceivable. The family had watched Pieter's uncle struggle with schizophrenia for years. Nevertheless, Mary-Anne thought the diagnosis hinged on some rather slim evidence. Pieter's sister Mimi never watched cartoons either. And Pieter did have normal childhood fears--he hated going down to the basement alone, for example. Mary-Anne vacillated between trusting the opinion of a professional and trusting her own instincts. She remembered the psychiatrist in South Africa who had been so troubled when Pieter drew his family as plants. At the time Mary-Anne had been unwilling to delve for meaning in a crayon sketch of smiling flowers. Now, however, a second doctor was insisting that her son's drawings indicated a psychological problem. Just how well did she know her son?
Pieter's investment in nature, both animals and plants, has been seen in somewhat of an obsessive light. --school psychologist's report, March 1987
It was true, there were many things about Pieter that were not "normal." His laundry list of learning disabilities. The way he stared at things, as if a second layer of meaning lay beneath every surface. The way he presented himself to others, seemingly oblivious to social maneuvering. The way he memorized the scientific names for flora and fauna.
It was also true that Pieter's reality included the thoughts and feelings of things that are not supposed to think or feel. Pieter claimed, for example, that he could read the body language of fish, could tell if they were hungry or sad by the way they flitted through water. Mary-Anne remembers showing Pieter a home where the owners had placed floodlights underneath their evergreens. "It's just so pretty," she had said. "I don't like that very much," Pieter had replied. "I feel sorry for the tree. It doesn't know whether it's day or night." Pieter liked to garden but hated to weed. "Piet, old boy, we have to cut 'em," his boss would say during the summers Pieter landscaped for the village of Winnetka. Pieter had crusaded to spare the wildflowers that overgrew the public parkways.
Shortly before he died Pieter and Mary-Anne ate together at an outdoor table at McDonald's as a flock of birds circled overhead. Periodically one would swoop down, steal a crumb, and fly off again. "Watch, mama," Pieter said. "If I make eye contact with the bird it won't be afraid of me." He gazed steadily at the next bird that landed. The bird froze, Mary-Anne says.
Pieter showed no evidence of having "a serious disorder impairing his reality testing," as had been suggested in the report of Dr. F. On the contrary, he showed good reality testing, and no evidence of psychotic ideation or behavior. --Jay Hirsch, MD, psychiatric evaluation, June 1987
Concluding that Pieter did not suffer from any type of emotional disorder, Hirsch, a psychiatrist in private practice on the North Shore, disputed nearly every assertion the other specialist had made. He also insisted that the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia be stricken from Pieter's permanent record. The psychiatrist who had claimed Pieter "denied having even the usual fears and anxieties of childhood" had not taken into account Pieter's difficulties processing speech, or the fact that Pieter spoke Afrikaans rather than English when he first moved to Winnetka. Though Pieter never verbalized being "scared," Mary-Anne realized that when something frightened him he would say, "I just don't like it very much"--"I just don't like going down to the dark basement alone very much." The experience emboldened Mary-Anne. If two professionals could reach such divergent opinions about Pieter, then perhaps she could not trust the experts. She would have to become the expert on Pieter.
I only heve 2 wishish for my finchre. One is to have a huge farm in South Africa. The ather is to lene to red. --Pieter, seventh grade
Calendula officinalis, Dimorphotheca sinuata, Gypsophila paniculata--these were Pieter's words. The Dick and Jane world of elementary reading remained closed to him, but he could talk your ear off about Lake Victoria cichlids and African redfins. Tests revealed auditory memory deficiencies, yet Pieter could sit in a biology lecture and absorb the material without jotting down a note. Tests revealed poor visual memory skills, yet Pieter could distinguish between the three different kinds of thistles that grew along the railway tracks by his home. When Pieter was about nine he marched into his parents' bedroom, asked if anybody cared to hear him read, and proceeded to decipher two complete sentences from an adult book on tropical fish. Before that day no one had ever heard him read. "Because he so loved that subject, he broke the code to those words," Mary-Anne says.
A marked discrepancy between potential and achievement is characteristic of learning disabled students. In diagnostic achievement tests Pieter's verbal IQ consistently surpassed his performance IQ: he had trouble putting to paper what he knew in his head. The scrapbooks Mary-Anne kept for him illustrate the divide. On one page is an essay Pieter dictated about the breeding habits of amphibians. On the opposite page is a piece of loose-leaf paper with Badenhorst penciled in deliberate block letters. Underneath Pieter's lettering an adult hand has noted, "Pieter writes last name from memory, 1/22/88." He was nine years old.
There was no set curriculum for a child who stumbled over words like the but could read words like aquarium. So Mary-Anne improvised. She took Pieter to the Hadley School for the Blind and requested books on tape. Lying on his bed with his eyes shut, Pieter would listen to the tapes at a frenetic speed that made the voices sound like chipmunks. In this manner, he became a reader. During his sophomore year in high school Mary-Anne entered his room to find a tape reeling and Pieter crying. He was listening to the rape scene in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Although my family is being torn apart by having more than one home and by people growing up, we still stand together, and we have a will to play our part in the world. --card from Pieter to Mary-Anne, Mother's Day 1991
When Pieter was in sixth grade, Casper took a job at a hospital in downstate Sterling while the rest of the family remained in Winnetka. Pieter and his father shared a visceral love of South Africa. Together they discussed South African politics, the value of the rand, the family farm they returned to every summer. But Casper didn't play much of a role in Pieter's academic life. When Pieter received a bad grade, he would sometimes ask Mary-Anne not to tell his "pop-pop," because "he doesn't understand." So it was Mary-Anne who tried to explain Pieter's disabilities at parent-teacher conferences, Mary-Anne who huffed at the elementary school teacher who insisted that Pieter learn to jump rope in order to pass physical education. "I fought those fights alone," says Mary-Anne. "It was a solitary thing."
When I first went to junior high, I hid. That year the only good thing that happened was I got mainstreamed in two classes. --Pieter, seventh grade
From the living room window Mary-Anne would watch Pieter slump to school. Some days she had to summon every ounce of self-control to keep from running after him and telling him, "OK, you don't have to go today." His little sister walked the four blocks to Crow Island Elementary School, but Pieter took a bus to neighboring Greeley School, where special ed classes were held. Mary-Anne hated watching Pieter board that bus, hated how being assigned to special ed marked him in the eyes of his peers.
The hardest part for Mary-Anne was knowing that Pieter knew he was different. One teacher compared him to a stroke victim who was aware of--and galled by--the simple tasks he could not perform. Pieter confided to her that he didn't plan to have children because learning disabilities could be hereditary. "You are smart, Pieter," Mary-Anne would insist. "How can I be smart, Mama, if I can't read?" Pieter would reply. "There are lots of different kinds of smart," Mary-Anne assured him.
Over the years Pieter forced many to reshuffle their schemas of intelligence. Charles Martin, Pieter's special ed teacher throughout elementary school, wrote to Mary-Anne, "I remember telling my friends and family about this remarkable boy who could teach me about amethysts, lemurs, and places on the map I hadn't thought about myself." With Pieter in mind, Martin penned a story about a boy who gave "close scrutiny to the minuscule veins of a flower petal" while the rest of the children played in the school yard. As an epilogue to the piece he wrote, "The special education classroom is the recent repository for children who learn, perceive, and relate differently to their environment."
The way Pieter related to his environment was at once endearing and exasperating. How could a person so attuned to the minutiae of a flower so consistently forget to bring a pen or paper to class? Sometimes it was hard to distinguish between what Pieter couldn't do and what he wouldn't do. Naturally he didn't much care for things he wasn't good at. The unfinished schoolwork crammed into his backpack was one part laziness, one part learning disability. Mary-Anne intervened to ensure that teachers did not underestimate Pieter--or expect too much. She got him exempted from weekly spelling tests. She insisted he remain in college-prep math despite the protestations of his instructor. She placed weekly phone calls to all his teachers. Ron Simon, who taught communication skills at New Trier High School, remembers their conversations. "I think you can do more for Pieter," Mary-Anne would say. "Could you push him this way?" Simon says he never minded because he believed Mary-Anne had tremendous insight into her son. "I felt like we were teammates in the cause of helping Pieter be successful," he says. Like Mary-Anne, Simon was determined to help Pieter get through high school and out into the world, where they hoped he could focus on his strengths and not constantly bump up against his weaknesses.
I would like to emphasize my concern regarding Pieter's English class presentation project....He doesn't think I've been successful in convincing you that he did the work himself (certainly with support from me). --letter from Mary-Anne to Pieter's teacher, March 1995
At New Trier High School some teachers questioned the degree of assistance Mary-Anne gave Pieter. High school grades establish an academic hierarchy, and Mary-Anne, they felt, was circumventing it. When Pieter was assigned a book that was not available on tape, Mary-Anne read it aloud to him. When Pieter was assigned an essay, Mary-Anne typed as he dictated. Often Mary-Anne would interject, prodding Pieter to clarify or expand an argument. Her motto was "Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same. Fair means fulfilling a need." Abrie, Mimi, and Louise didn't need help with their homework; helping them would have amounted to cheating. Pieter did need help, so she felt justified offering assistance. Sometimes, though, Mary-Anne worried whether Pieter would be able to navigate without her. Perhaps she was shielding him from the harsh reality that the world is an inhospitable place for those who read and write at his level. Perhaps in giving Pieter a leg up she was forcing him to scale a wall he wasn't meant to climb.
I represent Pieter Badenhorst, a student at Vincennes University. Mr. Badenhorst is a learning disabled student....One of his disabilities is his inability to spell....The school has informed Mr. Badenhorst that in the future, specifically with regard to chemistry, it is unwilling to afford him...accommodation. This decision violates Mr. Badenhorst's rights. --letter from Pieter's lawyer to Vincennes University administration, June 1999
The college counselor at New Trier advised Mary-Anne that higher education might not be a viable option for Pieter. But Mary-Anne's guiding principle had always been that he should have the same opportunities as his brother and sisters. They would be going to college, so Pieter must too. Together Mary-Anne and Pieter decided that he would enroll at Vincennes University, a two-year college in Indiana where he could pursue an associate degree in agriculture. As part of the STEP program for learning disabled students, the school agreed to accommodate him by providing tutors, note takers, and untimed testing.
The arrangement worked until Pieter's second year at Vincennes, when his chemistry professor told him that correctly spelling the names of chemical compounds and elements was a part of the curriculum that could not be modified. The professor argued that Pieter's mistakes--transposing -ate and -ide for example--were too fundamental to overlook. Pieter countered--timidly, inarticulately--that he knew the difference between an -ate and an -ide, he simply couldn't put it down on paper. Trying to let Pieter resolve the issue on his own, Mary Anne did her best to remain on the sidelines. Finally, worried that Pieter would fail the class, she intervened. She pleaded Pieter's case to the professor, the administrators of the STEP program, and the Vincennes administration. As a last resort she hired a lawyer to argue that Pieter's rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act had been violated. The administration reluctantly agreed to let Pieter take the chemistry class with accommodations for his spelling, but in the end he elected to take a transfer class at Oakton Community College, where he received an A.
I understand that Mary-Anne felt that it was God's will for Pieter to be here. I remember being uncomfortable with that concept at that time.... More than once over the last couple of years have I thought about that. Pieter and Mary-Anne made me question what I believed about my job and about destiny.... If I believed in myself, even a fraction of how much Mary-Anne believed in what we could do for Pieter, then I could be helpful to any student. --Roger Pugh, developmental skill specialist, Southern Illinois University, 2002
After graduating from Vincennes in 2000, Pieter enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Like the STEP program at Vincennes, the Achieve program at SIU provided Pieter with note takers and tutors. In the plant biology department Pieter found a home--and became something of a star. He served as treasurer of the undergraduate Plant Biology Club, assisted professors with fieldwork in Puerto Rico, and performed his own laboratory research on drought-resistant soybeans. He won some awards at SIU, including the John Voight Natural History of Plants award and the Outstanding Plant Biology Senior 2002 award, based on his grade-point average. He was named an Outstanding Young Botanist by the Botanical Society of America. Buoyed by his success, Pieter decided to apply to graduate school. "I'll probably apply to Purdue, and to SIU, of course. My professors there love me," Pieter told Mary-Anne. In a recommendation for Pieter one professor wrote, "He is at the beginning of an enviable scientific career." He had just a few summer-school courses to complete--music appreciation, mycology--and he'd graduate in August 2002.
I find peace in knowing that [Pieter] no longer needs to wonder what makes things what they are and why. He just knows. --tribute to Pieter from his cousin Erin, 2002
Pieter had been vague about his plans for the Fourth of July weekend. His family was expecting him to come home on the train, but he had mentioned possibly visiting friends in Indiana. When the family hadn't heard from him by Sunday, Mary-Anne called the SIU campus police and asked them to check Pieter's dorm room. The police knocked. No answer. They tried the master key, but the lock was jammed. Finally they called a university locksmith to get them into the room. The police found Pieter lying on his side on the floor beside his bed, surrounded by flash cards he had made to study for the GREs. Under his right hand was a partially empty two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. The TV and alarm clock buzzed. It turned out he had been dead for at least three days.
Within a week Mary-Anne began fighting to ensure that there was tangible acknowledgement of what Pieter had achieved. SIU refused to issue him a diploma because he hadn't completed his summer-school classes. Mary-Anne railed at school officials. Faculty and friends wrote letters. The administration was adamant: Pieter had not earned his degree.
Two days before graduation that August, an SIU trustee from Winnetka intervened on Pieter's behalf, and university officials reversed their decision. Pieter's degree would be awarded posthumously.
The morning of graduation Mary-Anne, Casper, Mimi, and a family friend traveled to Carbondale. They toured the plant biology department and snapped pictures of Pieter's Outstanding Young Botanist plaque. During the ceremony they sat in reserved seats near the front of the arena. The dean of the school of science called Pieter's name and said that he had died earlier that summer. He listed the awards Pieter had won and called him an exceptional student and a fine young man. Mary-Anne went to the podium to accept his diploma. As she returned to her seat the audience stood and applauded her son. Later Mimi told her, "You didn't walk across that stage, mama. You floated."
The cause of a Southern Illinois University Carbondale student's death remains a mystery. Coroner Thomas Kupferer said he could not release the results of an autopsy he performed on Pieter Badenhorst because he's still waiting for the results of a toxicity test to come back from a laboratory. --Southern Illinoisan, July 12, 2002
"So you're telling me my son died of nothing?" Mary-Anne had asked the coroner that July. "Essentially, yes," the coroner said. The initial autopsy on Pieter revealed nothing of note: no drugs, no alcohol, no foul play, no physical abnormalities. But a forensic scientist with the state police discovered a high concentration of the drug chloral hydrate in the Coke bottle found in Pieter's hand. Samples of his blood and body fluids were sent to Saint Louis University for further analysis, and the lab there detected toxic quantities of the drug. Used in the SIU lab to rehydrate samples of plant material, chloral hydrate is sometimes prescribed as a sleeping aid or relaxant. Mixed with alcohol, the chemical forms that film noir standby, a Mickey Finn. It's occasionally used recreationally.
When Pieter's brother Abrie, a biochemistry major, heard the words chloral hydrate, he felt as if Pieter were telling him how he'd died. Pieter, he reasoned, had brought his favorite drink--a mixture of Coke and orange juice--with him to the lab. Because beverages were not allowed inside, Pieter had left the bottle just outside the door--a common practice. Mistaking the murky mixture for a container of leftover chloral hydrate, someone had dumped the chemical into Pieter's drink. After finishing his lab work, Pieter had brought the contaminated mixture back to his dorm room. He'd sipped on it as he studied his flash cards, without detecting the tasteless, odorless chemical. The chloral hydrate had induced a deep sleep, from which Pieter never awoke.
Though Abrie's hypothesis raises as many questions as it answers, for Mary-Anne it's indisputable. She does not say, "We have an idea how Pieter died." She says, "We know how Pieter died."
The law operates by a different standard of truth. After more than six months of investigation, a coroner's jury was convened on February 27, 2003, to determine the manner and cause of death of Pieter Badenhorst. How had chloral hydrate ended up in Pieter's drink? The drug wasn't stored or disposed of in the lab he was working in that summer, but he had a master key that gave him access to a different lab where a highly concentrated form of the chemical was kept. Had he put it in his drink hoping to sedate himself? Had he put it in his drink hoping to kill himself? Had someone else placed it in his drink hoping to harm him, or by accident?
At the hearing, John Allen, the SIU detective in charge of the case, was asked by the coroner, "Throughout any of your interviews with any individuals, did anyone allude to the fact or believe that Pieter Badenhorst was in any way unhappy or despondent?"
"No," Allen said. "Nobody talked about him being depressed about anything....I mean, things were, you know, he was going right along. There was never any indication he had been depressed or despondent about any issue that was going on in his life."
"Did you find that he had any enemies, anything like that, anybody that would be trying to play a joke on him?" a juror asked.
"No, I didn't," said Allen.
"Was the concentration that was in that bottle, was it that someone would use to sip on, to get high off of it?" asked a juror.
"I have no idea, sir," said Allen. "I was not able to determine the concentration that was in the bottle."
"Any speculation on how the chloral hydrate potentially got in the Coke bottle?" the coroner asked him.
"I have no idea. I mean, I have no way of knowing," the detective said.
Mary-Anne read this statement to the jury:
"Pieter was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities when he was about three. I worked with him throughout his school years, read every textbook, was his advocate, and demanded that he have the same opportunities given to his siblings. Because Pieter and I had such a dependent relationship, we were very close. We were entwined. We talked most every day, often more than once.
"If there was a problem, Pieter was eager and anxious to discuss it with me. I always knew how he was feeling and what was going on in his life. Pieter did not keep any secrets from me and was very open, close, and honest with his siblings. Pieter was trustworthy, extremely cautious, and a brilliant young chemist and plant biologist. He was going to be best man at his friend's wedding. He had a check in his wallet for $500 from his dad....He was doing research he loved....
"Pieter did not put anything in that bottle. He did not cause his own death. I know Pieter. He was much too knowledgeable and cautious to have put anything in the bottle himself. He has no drug or alcohol-abuse history. He was not a risk taker.
"Pieter was a hardworking, conscientious, and moral kid. He did not cause his own death, either by intent or carelessness. Pieter loved his family, and his family loves him. We miss him every day and are devastated by his loss. For us, this grief will never end. That's all."
Then James Bleyer, an attorney representing the Badenhorsts, asked to make a statement. "I just want to point out, for the record, under the law, there is a very strong legal presumption against self-destruction," he said. "That's one of the strongest presumptions in the law, if anyone has any question about it. I want that on the record. Thank you."
The judge told the jury to determine whether Pieter's death was the result of accident, suicide, or homicide. In the end the jury passed no judgment at all, ruling that Pieter had died of chloral hydrate toxicity under undetermined circumstances. A juror later told Mary-Anne that they hadn't wanted to rule the poisoning anything that would suggest Pieter had contributed to his own death. The jurors wanted their verdict to reflect Mary-Anne's testimony.
A picture taken in South Africa shortly before he died captures Pieter in his element, traipsing alone through a wheat field. The tall, broad-shouldered young man is in midstride, his head bowed. "This is how I remember Pieter," Mary-Anne says. The picture elicits another memory. Mary-Anne and Louise are hiking near their farm in South Africa. Two figures, unidentifiable on the horizon, are approaching. One follows the road. It's Mimi, or maybe Abrie. The other meanders, investigating a root here, a blade of grass there. It's Pieter for sure--no one else forgoes a path that way. "I'd know his walk anywhere," Mary-Anne says. She smiles. "I walked through life with him."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.