More than 17 years ago, a successful Michigan attorney took his life on a cherished trout stream, devastating close friends and family. Haunted by what happened, his nephew investigated and discovered tragic truths that were in plain sight all along.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the United States at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
COVID-19, wildfire smoke and hurricanes, the chaotic state of the body politic, and all the troubles in the world have me seeking shelter lately. I’ve been thinking about my Michigan uncle, and how he lived large and died too young. I’d like to tell you about him. Maybe there’s something to be learned in his story: a way not to live, and a way not to die, and how to make better choices after we’re sprung loose to resume whatever it is we call normalcy in the dawning of the post-pandemic era.
When I turned 13, on the occasion of my bar mitzvah, my Uncle Richard gave me a set of barbells and a subscription to Penthouse. He taught me how to fish for trout in Michigan rivers before I entered my teens and liked to give me philosophical tips on ways to live. “You know,” he was fond of saying, “you can never be too good-looking, too tanned, or make too much money.”
He was 31 when his second marriage failed; he swore off the institution and got a vasectomy. He would often tell my mother that my younger brother and sister and I were the children he’d never have.
He was handsome, with a square face and a straight Greek nose and a strong chin. My stepfather called him Richard the Kid, because he was always on the make and never showed signs of settling down. When my grandmother used to chide him that “there’s more to life than having fun,” he’d say she was wrong. “All there is to life is having fun, Mom.”
For most of his 58 years, he lived within ten miles of his birthplace in Pontiac’s Seneca Hills. He passed the Michigan bar exam in 1970 and then entered the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. He went by Dick Levine, and he discovered a gift for arguing jury trials. “I’m so good, I convicted an innocent man,” he told one of his ex-wives, who asked me not to use her name.
In 1973, he switched sides and hung a shingle: “Richard Jerome Levine, Criminal Defense Attorney.” He defended a wide range of people, from drunk drivers to drug dealers to men charged with date rape. He spurned plea bargains and backroom deals. He became famous in the county court for a streak of acquittals that some say reached into the seventies. He was renowned as the organizer of the Big Ten party, an annual holiday bash he threw with nine other attorneys at Santia Hall, a banquet space in nearby Keego Harbor. He always sang “Blue Christmas” with his buddy Patrick.
And then, suddenly, on Halloween night in 2002, he threw a party for himself at the Oakland County Boat Club. A poster said “BYE BYE RICHIE.” His friend Irene Santia, the owner of Santia Hall, catered the event. There were cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a celebration of his plans for a new life in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Someone asked him when he would come back.
“Never,” he said.
On July 21, 2003, two men who’d been fishing northern Michigan’s South Branch Pine River alerted the sheriff’s department in Alcona County that a white Chevy Malibu had been found in the clearing of a forest a few hundred yards away from a campground. Nearby was a small orange dome tent, a cooler, lanterns, and a sleeping bag still in its stuffsack. On the bank of the river, where four bowed cedar trees shaded a pair of tea-colored pools, was a fishing rod. Just downstream was a badly decomposed body, lying face up, eyes open, feet pointed into the current, his fishing waders gathered around the ankles.
Standard procedure dictated a homicide investigation, but my uncle had made it easy for the detective at the scene, an Alcona County sheriff’s sergeant by the name of James McGuire. Twelve days earlier, Richard had sent a 600-word email to Irene, in which he spelled everything out: He had planned the time and place of his death for years. The going-away party had been his wake. He thanked her for being a friend. He provided both my mother’s phone number and that of a childhood buddy named Rick (who asked me not to use his last name).
The coroner found no water in my uncle’s lungs. Nor had he suffered a heart attack. What they did find, eventually, was poison: a lethal dose of alcohol and anxiety medications. McGuire ruled the death a suicide.
When I got the news of the email, I drove south from Berkeley, California, to my grandmother’s home in Orange County. And then, in early August, two weeks after the body was found, I drove south again, this time to my mother’s house in San Diego, where I walked into a terrible scene. My mother fretted and stormed, while my 89-year-old grandmother looked mummified, saying, “Why would he do such a thing?” Family and friends huddled in the living room. Someone read the kaddish. And then we did what grieving Jews do: we ate.
Several weeks later, Irene, along with a former neighbor of Richard’s, Ralph Diettrick, drove to the town of Harrisville, Michigan, to gather what remained of his worldly possessions. They visited Richard’s “Happy Place,” as he’d referred to the Pine River location in his email to Irene. In mid-August, Rick traveled from the East Coast to collect the cremains at Gillies Funeral Home in Lincoln, Michigan, later scattering them at the Pine. He met with Irene and Ralph downstate at Gino’s, a restaurant Irene owned. They got drunk and danced to Dion and the Belmonts, one of my uncle’s favorite bands.
Irene hosted the memorial at Santia Hall. Ninety or so friends, colleagues, and a handful of relatives attended. A young rabbi read a eulogy cobbled together from interviews with my mother and a few of Richard’s friends. The rabbi recited Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” rather than the traditional prayers for the dead. Irene spoke next. Rather than eulogize him, she read the email. There was no public sharing. The mourners were released to roam the canapés and open bar and to compare notes sotto voce.
My grandmother, mother, two siblings, and I were more aggrieved than bereaved at that point, and none of us flew across the country for this 30-minute remembrance. My mother said she wouldn’t have wanted to lionize my uncle, and she referred to Richard’s departure as his final fuck you to the family. Within ten months, we buried my grandmother, who plunged into a profound depression after her son’s death and refused to eat. My mother died of cancer in 2008. My grandfather had died of a stroke in 1974.
“Sinatra sang, ‘I did it my way,’” Richard had written to Irene. “Nobody ever did it more ‘my way’ than me. I lived the life I wanted to live, and now it’s time for me to go. Rico.”
I remember thinking, Good for you, asshole, and also puzzling over the nickname I’d never heard. Rico? Richie? Dick? Richard? Who the hell was he? And I wondered then whether I even cared.
“Inevitably our parents are the bearers of our disillusion,” wrote the novelist and social critic Harvey Swados. At age 12, whatever cocky self-confidence I had was stripped clean by the chaotic divorce of my parents, and my vulnerability was exposed, as plain as a facial blemish to my schoolmates, whose cruelty was merciless. In that horrible time, it was Richard, and not my ambitious father, who lifted me from my dark moods by saying, “C’mon, Bradley, let’s go.”
I was brooding and sullen and given to unusually vicious fits of rage. He was jocose and spontaneous, and his force of personality and wisecracking self-assurance were comforting albeit sometimes jarring. Despite his many hedonisms, his selfless investment in my experience and the mere acknowledgment that I mattered—plunking me down in Michigan lakes, rivers, and forests—helped a great deal. Those first forays seeded a passion for the outdoors that would find full expression for me out west on the rock faces and cirques of the Sierra Nevada.
And yet, suicides have a way of imprisoning the survivors. My family enjoyed spending days deconstructing the personalities of the people we had known, but Richard? We filed him away.
He was still with me in at least one sense, though: the family received a box containing the few possessions recovered from the Happy Place. There was a broken fly rod and an intact and newish click-pawl reel—an early and still effective mechanical drag design. There was a dented aluminum box about the size of an Altoids tin, with six spring-loaded windows that held an assortment of dry flies and nymphs and a few streamers, none of which appeared to have been used. I trashed the rod and stored the rest, which I packed and unpacked in each of the four moves I made over the next 16 years.
I moved again in late 2017. I was packing up the garage when I saw the reel and fly box, which I’d never used. At that point, I’d left business and gone to journalism school. I’d done editorial internships alongside twentysomethings from Northwestern and Columbia and Berkeley at a string of outdoor magazines, including Outside. As a journalist, I’d found that the actual writing of a story pales compared to the chase: the search for the lurking truth, wherever it might be found. I like to follow leads into dusty archives and track down characters who haven’t been heard from in decades. The chase gets me out of my head, where I spend too much time as it is, and into the world.
And now, here in a battered gear bin in my own garage, was a worthy mystery begging to be solved, one that might have bearing on my family history. I’d never known my uncle to fly-fish—he associated it with snobs. He fished for trout with an ultralight outfit, which consisted of a short, whippy rod, a small spinning reel, and a Mepps or a Panther Martin lure. The fly reel looked barely used. I figured he’d bought it the same year he went out west.
Which didn’t make sense. Why take up a discipline like fly-fishing if you planned to end your life within the year? I thought back to when I first heard about his move to Steamboat.
“Are you sitting down?” my mother had said to me by phone, sometime in the autumn of 2002. “Your uncle is selling everything to become a ski bum.”
I was living in California’s Berkeley Hills, in the midst of a fifth career change in 15 years.
“Bradley? Do you hear me? He’s moving to Colorado.” She said he planned to tend bar at night, to ski and fish during the day.
“Richard’s leaving Michigan?” I said. “For good?” By then I called him Richard. He was 57, and I was 40. She said he’d already sold his house, a ski condo up north, boats, a motorcycle—everything but a pop-up camper and a pickup.
Now, nearly 17 years later, approaching the same age as Richard when he moved west, I decided it was important to understand the uncle who left Michigan. And the uncle who returned.
Richard traveled by rail from east to west on his occasional visits to California, so I made plans to do the same in the opposite direction. In mid-May of 2019, I booked a tiny sleeper on the California Zephyr, packed the reel and fly box into a rolling bag, and boarded the train in Reno, Nevada. I planned to get off in Chicago, rent a car, and drive to Michigan to visit Richard’s old haunts. Eventually, I’d go north, to the Happy Place. I’d visit Steamboat on the return leg.
I latched the door to the room, drew