For Pitcairn's family, a journey from happiness to grief

Family of slain Hopkins researcher struggles with his loss

October 01, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Tequesta, Fla. — — Gwen Pitcairn drove slowly through the cemetery in Tequesta, the small Florida village where she raised her three children. She stopped in front of her son Stephen's grave.

More than a year after his death, it still was marked by a makeshift memorial, a collection of emblems stacked atop one another: A model airplane, a ceramic koi fish, a kanji a Japanese character — that means "eternally loved."

She had been unable to complete his headstone.

"I started it and then, oh, I don't know, it just got really hard," she said. "How do I describe Stephen in a few words?"

He was supposed to get married and build a home full of precocious boys, just like him. He was supposed to become a doctor and cure cancer.

He was supposed to die of old age.

But he came to Baltimore, and he became a victim.

The Johns Hopkins researcher was stabbed to death last year by a career criminal as his mother listened on a cellphone 1,000 miles away. He was two days shy of his 24th birthday.

His murder outraged the city, spurring demands for change and shaping the political campaign that ousted the city's top prosecutor.

It's a legacy Gwen Pitcairn never wanted.

"He was so much more in life than in death," she said during the first interview she's given since her son's killer was convicted in Baltimore this August. "I would like people to know what was lost, because he was precious."

'The sweetest baby'

Gwen Pitcairn lives in a house full of memories.

There is the childhood construction set in the closet. The books about Japan, on the shelves of a living room bookcase. A folio of songs he wrote at age 5 on the table. The piano he played as his two younger sisters danced.

The house is up for sale.

Stephen "wanted to keep it for generations," Gwen said. But the reminders make it "hard to stay."

Gwen had to fight to have kids. She suffered three miscarriages before Stephen was born.

Gwendalyn Emery met Ian Pitcairn when they were in their teens.

She was a petite beauty, a classical ballerina who became a flight attendant after she injured her spine in a car crash. Ian was "so handsome" and "probably one of the smartest people I've ever [known]," Gwen recalled. They began dating a few years later.

Ian Pitcairn would graduate summa cum laude from Boston University and eventually patent a new method of water ski construction as a mechanical engineer.

They married in their mid-20s. Gwen gave birth to Stephen Bradley Pitcairn on July 27, 1986, two months before her 30th birthday.

He was "the sweetest baby," said his mother, who is now 54. "Very, very active. Stephen was walking by the time he was 9 months old, and talking. Very, very quick out of the box."

He was diagnosed with ADHD — his mind moved too fast for others to keep up. He was constantly taking things apart, including a telescope Gwen bought Ian, and he grew obsessive over topics that interested him: bats, iguanas, his sisters.

Elementary school teachers at the private Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, Fla., dubbed him Professor Reptile and sent him from class to class to teach schoolmates about the animals.

Gwen flips through a family photo album and smiles. There is Stephen's first toy boat, a welcome home, baby gift from his dad; his first Halloween; his first haircut.

Literally glowing

The Pitcairns bought the big house in Tequesta when Stephen was a baby and renovated it over the next 15 years, one room at a time, creating large, open spaces for the family to grow into.

Ian now lives 10 miles away, in a small apartment in Juno Beach. He and Gwen separated about six years ago.

Gwen walks into Stephen's bedroom and clears a space on his bed to sit.

It wasn't until August that she could bring herself to begin opening the boxes from his Baltimore apartment. She has emptied one and spread its contents on his comforter.

There are pictures of him there, diving for lobsters as a boy and smirking at the camera as a young man. One shows him at the prom with his high school girlfriend.

When the young woman married her college sweetheart last month, she carried a rosary that Stephen had given her during their junior year.

He found the beads in the Dominican Republic, Gwen said, on a religious mission trip that changed his life. He came back from the journey surrounded by light — literally glowing, she says — and told her he had met God on a beach.

He opened up in new ways after that, she says. He was suddenly social and developed a real interest in other people.

Before then, Gwen says, Stephen's family was his world.

He and his sister Emily, 19 months his junior, were inseparable, she says. They filled in the holes in each other's personalities.

"He was like my other half," Emily said from Tufts University, where she's studying for her Ph.D. She was always looking out for her big brother, who could be as disorganized as he was bright.

Stephen and his sister Elise, six years younger, were more like partners in crime.

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