But there were other possibilities. Bobby just needed to find some traction, his father thought.
After high school, Bobby bounced around - living with his grandmother in Cleveland, then his mother in Michigan. He came back to Maryland and lived briefly in Crofton with Jim and Gloria before moving out. For several weeks, Bobby moved into the home of Joe Alton, Anne Arundel County's first executive, and a friend of Jim's. The older man served as the young man's mentor. He hired Bobby to paint his house while he was staying with him. Alton suggested that Jim set Bobby up in a job in the county Public Works Department, but Jim didn't want to use his public position that way.
Instead, he prodded Bobby to enter the military, which struck Alton as a bad fit.
Bobby won some commendations in his time in the Army, but after he was honorably discharged in 1989, he showed no more direction than he had before. He held a series of odd jobs - busing tables and working at a sporting goods store. Sometimes, seeking solitude, Bobby would camp out in Gunpowder Falls State Park, living on hamburgers. He told his father he'd keep trying to finish college, but Jim finally told him to bag school.
In early February 1993, Bobby seemed unusually upbeat. He talked to his older brother Jim, who was starting out in the real estate business, about getting a steady job. Jim Jr. - like his father - was ambitious and confident, a go-getter. And he wanted nothing more than to help his brother, whom he regarded as his best friend. But despite Bobby's optimism, something was deeply troubling him.
What others had seen as aimlessness or a lack of ambition was something more, the family would learn just one day after Bobby had spoken to his brother.
On Feb. 17, 1993 - the day before Conor's 15th birthday - a Maryland state trooper spotted a red Chevrolet Corsica parked on Bunker Hill Road in Gunpowder Falls State Park. When he got closer, he saw a figure in the car. It was immobile.
Jim, then Maryland's secretary of transportation, was at work in Annapolis. Torrey Brown, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who had been alerted by the Maryland State Police, broke the news to his friend. They were mistaken, Jim told him. It couldn't be Bobby.
His son was discovered in white sneakers, jeans and a Notre Dame sweat shirt. Bobby, 23 years of age, had died of acute carbon monoxide intoxication, the chief medical examiner's office ruled. A hose had been connected to the car's exhaust pipe and inserted in the car window. Towels sealed the window opening. Bobby had wet a rag to keep the hose from getting too hot and slipping off the tailpipe. His clothes were wet, suggesting he had immersed himself in the river. A trooper told Jim that people who commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning sometimes wet their clothes in the belief that it accelerated the poisoning.
It occurred to Jim that his son had carefully researched how to painlessly kill himself.
The autopsy would note the presence of alcohol in Bobby's blood.
In Bobby's apartment, notes were found. One was addressed to Jim. "I didn't do it to get back at anyone," Bobby had written. "It's nobody's fault." He advised his father to just try to forget this happened and try to move on.
Lynn Krause and his wife, Helen, came to the Lighthizer home that night. Krause, Jim's former law partner, had never seen a man so distraught. "Jim was totally blindsided by this," he says.
Bobby might have been troubled, but that he was suicidal never had crossed Jim's mind.
At the eulogy, Jim talked about when Bobby got his first deer on one of their hunting trips. He said something about his son being good company. Jim didn't say much more.
He knew parents who beat themselves up over a child's suicide. But, as he scoured his memories, Jim simply couldn't detect any warning signs. As far as Jim knew, Bobby hadn't been involved with drugs or heavy alcohol use. There had never been any run-ins with the law, no previous suicide attempts. Nothing stood out as "a cry for help." Had he suspected anything this serious, Jim would have been the first to get Bobby the best of care. Even Bobby's brother, Jim Jr., later said he never suspected anything, either.
Still, the fact remained that Bobby had been in a crisis - one invisible to his father and other family members. Jim tried not to blame or second-guess himself, but how could he not? Questions haunted him, as he grieved privately at Bobby's grave at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery. He planted trees there, watered them, and sprayed them for bugs. He dragged garden hoses out during droughts. Anything to keep those trees alive. And often during these Sunday pilgrimages, he talked to Bobby.
Over time, friends noticed changes in Jim. His exterior wasn't so tough. He took more time with people. When he asked how they were doing, he really wanted to know. He was more solicitous and caring.
And he was more involved with his children.