On the day he died, 11-year-old Andrew VanHorn enjoyed his first day of vacation bible school, where he’d won an award and insisted on cleaning up a mess left by other kids.
He spent the early afternoon playing with his baby brother in the backyard, cheerfully saying goodbye to his mom, Amy Peterson, as she left for work at 3:30 p.m.
Before Amy headed out, she reminded her son that he’d need to water his beloved tomato plants and she told him she loved him.
Andrew put on the new watch he’d bought himself with his birthday money because he liked to be on time and went outside to play with a playmate who he’d had skirmishes with in the past.
They went down the street together to play in the South Toledo field near Ventura Drive and Chorus Lane, a vast open area with a cluster of trees where kids would sometimes play. They stopped at Andrew’s friends’ house to ask if they could join them, but they were grounded and couldn’t come out to play.
At 4:30p.m., when Andrew didn’t return home when he was supposed to, his stepfather, John Peterson, went looking for him. From his van, he could see Andrew in the trees and called out to him several times. When his stepson did not respond, John got out of the car, picking up speed with each step as he realized Andrew was in trouble.
He found Andrew, all alone, dead in a grove of trees. The boy was on his knees with the lower loop of a rope swing around his neck.
The question of how Andrew died on July 13 continues to haunt his family, his friends and his community. The last person who saw him alive is a child under 10 years of age with a documented history of bullying Andrew and other children. The child (name withheld by Toledo Free Press) is on record with the police saying, “Andrew said he wanted to kill himself,” but has changed subsequent testimony numerous times. The inconsistencies in the child’s accounting of what happened is wreaking havoc in a community traumatized by the loss of an 11-year-old honors student, who wanted to grow up to be a video game designer.
Andrew was on medication to help him focus better in school, but his mother Amy, a mental health nurse, refuses to believe the witness’ claim that her son wanted to take his own life.
“There were no signs. None. We even searched Andrew’s room afterwards and didn’t find anything — not even a drawing or a doodle,” indicating that he might want to harm himself, she said.
Her husband John agreed, saying Andrew was looking forward to starting middle school and had a crush on a girl in the neighborhood to whom he’d given his first valentine.
Another witness also dispels the idea that Andrew would want to end his life. Mike Keller lives directly across the street from the field where Andrew was found. The crisis unfolded as he was at a nearby neighbor’s house cutting down a tree while his wife Jeanette was gardening in the front of her home. They were the first on the scene after John discovered Andrew’s lifeless body. John screamed to Jeanette to call 911, while she yelled for Mike, who immediately began performing CPR when he saw Andrew. Toledo fire and rescue were on the scene within minutes.
Jeanette recalls greeting Andrew and his playmate when they arrived at the field when the two children came over to ask if her children could play.
“He seemed OK then,” she said.
In responding to the question of what she thinks happened to Andrew, she said “as far as I’m concerned, that [playmate who witnessed Andrew’s death] was the last person that was with him. Either they knew something, they saw something or they did something. It doesn’t look good.”
In referring to Andrew’s playmate at the scene, Mike said, “the child told the detective our children were with them and they were not. They were stuck in the house and could not go out. I don’t want to ostracize a child but, in my heart I feel this was a very grave accident or something was done to him.”
‘I wish I could have been there’
Johnnie Mae Cullars is the grandmother of the child who witnessed Andrew’s death, as well as the mother of 13 children and a foster parent who has lived in the neighborhood for years. Among the many photos of family scattered throughout the shuttered and dark living room, she said she feels sadness for Andrew’s family and has cried over the way he died. Her family also donated to the impromptu donation collection for Andrew’s family. She said her grandchild doesn’t want to talk about the incident.
“We can’t bring it up because [the child] walks out of the room,” said Johnnie Mae, expressing concern because the child is still grieving the loss of a father three years ago.
The child’s mother, Demetra Cullars, is certain that her child didn’t have anything to do with Andrew’s death and is upset by the accusation that her child was in some way responsible for what happened on that day at the field.
“I know my child didn’t have anything to do with it,” Demetra said. “My child wouldn’t be capable of that. I wish we could go back in time and change that day. I wish I could have been there to save him.”
Demetra’s belief is supported by the autopsy report issued by Lucas County Deputy Coroner Dr. Diane Scala-Barnett.
“The manner of death has been ruled ‘undetermined.’ If any other information is developed or additional information comes forward, that manner can be changed,” Scala-Barnett said. She said there was no physical evidence that another person was involved at the scene.
Child with problems
Adults and children in the neighborhood knew that Andrew and the child who would witness his death had had problems in the past. One incident at the bus stop resulted in the police being called in February. Amy also went to Andrew’s school to discuss the problem with the principal and his teacher.
The child’s grandmother, Johnnie Mae, said, “[Amy] could have come talked to me,” while Demetra said, “[Amy is] in denial. He had a problem. He wasn’t a happy little boy. Every child ain’t perfect.”
When asked, given the troublesome history Andrew shared with his playmate, why would Andrew’s parents have allowed him to play with the child on that fateful day, Amy said, “we felt sorry for the child. We’re Christian and we wanted to give the child another chance.”
Other children in the neighborhood also report that this child frequently picked on Andrew. One 8-year-old (name withheld by Toledo Free Press), witnessed the problem “almost every day. They fought a lot,” he said, as he demonstrated the physical position Andrew would have to take to “protect himself.”
Another child, 11 years old (name withheld by Toledo Free Press) began sobbing uncontrollably as she described how her life has changed since the day Andrew died.
When asked if her child receives counseling, Demetra said, the family is counseling.
Rose, a teacher who lives nearby, said she is deeply concerned about the perceived bullying problem existing in her neighborhood. She fears reprisal and asked that her full name not appear in print.
“I’ve taught hundreds of children and a bully is a bully and that’s what I think this child is,” she said, in describing the playmate who was with Andrew when he died. Rose said she has heard the child threaten to kill other children during playground arguments.
As she shared the news with her children, she instructed her kids to let her know if they heard anything from other children that might help determine how Andrew died. On July 14, one of her children did hear something she thought was relevant to the case and wrote a note about it.
Rose said her child claimed the child who witnessed Andrew’s death told a mutual friend, “There was an accident … I didn’t think I would hurt Andrew with the rope.”
Rose waited to share the note with the police, assuming that they would come to interview her as Amy had requested of the Toledo Police detective assigned to the case.
But, a week later, after the police never came, she decided to share the note with Amy.
At press time, the police have not followed up on the note or interviewed Rose, even though Amy requested that Detective Dan Navarre interview her and several others immediately after Andrew died.
“I don’t understand why the police haven’t interviewed me,” she said. “Amy needs closure [on what happened to Andrew]; the kids need closure. Who’s to say this isn’t going to happen again?”
Navarre did not return calls seeking comment.
In response to this concern, Sergeant Tim Campbell of the Toledo Police Department, after an Aug. 26 meeting with Andrew’s parents and Deputy Coroner Scala-Barnett, said, “there was no bullying involved on that day.”
At the same gathering, TPD Capt. Ray Caroll said there is no criminal code in Toledo related to bullying. “Bullying [in its different forms] has to be reported and then it is investigated like any other crime,” he said.
Amy came away from the meeting more frustrated than before, saying, “I don’t understand why they conclude that the psychological status of my child matters, but doesn’t seem to matter in the case of the other child,” the last person seen with her son Andrew on the day he was found dead. “I want to believe this was an accident.”
Despite the police opinion, Amy said she is taking steps to launch a bullying initiative at the middle school her son would have attended, in his memory.
She said she is also determined to turn the field where her son died into a park.
“After the dust settles, we’re going to try and make that happen because it can’t just be the field where my little boy died,” she said.