A Brother's Burden

When his only sibling was killed, Erik Vassiliev was just learning to live his own life. Now he's trying to live for them both.

June 09, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Erik Vassiliev is struggling with the screenplay he's started. Its story takes place two years after a horrible, public tragedy, when the outpouring of support for those left in its wake has faded.

It's an ambitious project for a high school junior. He's writing the script, drawing the story boards, plotting the scenes. He thinks about how the typical Hollywood movie ends. Boy gets girl. Hero gets vindication. Mystery gets solved. The curtain falls. But what happens next? What happens after the climax, when the drama has faded?

"I don't think there's many movies about the time after the fact, like when nobody cares," Erik says. "What I want to know is, what happens to the guy after this?"

FOR THE RECORD - A June 9 article in the Today section about Erik Vassiliev, a young man coping with the aftermath of his brother's death two years ago, mischaracterized an aspect of Vassiliev's relationship with his father, Walter. While Erik Vassiliev says he struggled at times with his relationship with his father after his brother's death, he no longer does.
The Sun regrets the errors.

It's a question the young man from Ellicott City been asking of his own life for more than two years now, ever since his 17-year-old brother Ben was poisoned to death by a high school classmate named Ryan Furlough, in a case that painted the killer as a victim as well. Though Furlough was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, his parents blamed their son's medications and launched a public campaign urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take certain antidepressants off the market.

Erik and his family, meanwhile, were left with a huge hole in their lives: a son and only sibling suddenly gone. Erik, now 16, has been fighting to rebuild his life without Ben, his best friend and confidante. He feels survivor's guilt and pressure to outlive his parents. The movie is an outlet for those emotions and a way to fulfill some part of his brother's movie-making dreams.

The aspiring filmmaker resembles one of those twentysomething actors playing a melodramatic teenager on a WB TV series. He speaks in long, articulate sentences. He's growing into his 6-foot gangly frame, his black hair cropped close, a diamond stud in his left ear.

He calls the fall of 2002 the best time of his life. He and Ben shared a school, Centennial High, and friends. They shared a room in their mother and stepfather's Ellicott City townhouse, a wood-paneled basement room they called their sanctuary. They played video games, watched movies, hung out with their friends. They set up their beds head to head so they could talk.

Erik treasured his brother, admired his ambitions and was entertained by his quizzical musings, such as "What would you do with three shoes?"

Ben wanted to make films. He was rehearsing to perform in Centennial's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Oberon, the king of the fairies. He studied martial arts despite suffering from a heart condition that required him to have open heart surgery at 15.

A brother's death

On Jan. 3, 2003, Ben's classmate, Ryan Furlough, invited him over. The two longtime friends had been close, but as their paths diverged in high school, they had begun to grow apart.

Furlough would later tell police, in a videotaped interview played during his trial in May of last year, that he feared that his friend no longer cared for him and he had begun plotting a way to kill Ben and himself.

That night, the two were playing video games when Furlough slipped a fatal dose of cyanide into a soda he gave Ben. After drinking it, Ben fought to breathe and started convulsing, Furlough told police. He would die five days later.

The day Ben died, Erik collapsed in the hospital chapel. He did not want to live without his brother, he said. His father, Walter Vassiliev, remembers cradling him in his arms. He told Erik that it was not his time to die. "Time will pass like the blink of an eye," he told him, "and we will be together with Ben."

Back home, in the bedroom they'd shared, Erik was struck by an overwhelming sense of Ben's absence. That night, he slept in his brother's bed. He's slept in it ever since.

For some time, Erik didn't feel like himself anymore, Angry and sad, his grades plummeted as he tried to make it through the remainder of his freshman year. He tried counseling, but thought he needed to work through his grief himself. He turned to his parents, and to two friends he and Ben had shared, Chris Fabiszak and Kevin Dassing.

With Chris and Kevin, Erik could relax a little. The three friends would talk, walk to the nearby 7-Eleven or just hang out. His buddies would sometimes spend the night, there to talk if he woke up from a nightmare.

Gradually, Erik began to realize that even if he wasn't completely OK, he shouldn't be afraid of feeling that way.

"I feel guilty for being the surviving child. I feel guilty that I am here and he's not," Erik says. "But as more and more time goes by, I realize what my place is, to fulfill his dreams."

He began by redecorating their sanctuary.

"It's hard to say," he says. "But this isn't his room anymore."

He packed away Ben's books, martial arts belts and video game posters, and hung posters reflecting his filmmaking ambitions -- Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, the cast from Garden State and others.

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