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(Photo courtesy of Jake Farris.)

Summers are often defined by unforgettable moments, whether it is a memorable sports game or a fun city-wide event. Unfortunately, in the Town of Highland Park and City of University Park, which encompass Southern Methodist University's campus, the summer of 2012 may be remembered for its unusual tragedies.

There have been a number of abnormal deaths in the Park Cities over the past two weeks, which have shocked the local community and left many searching for answers as to how some of the situations could have possibly occurred.

"It is unprecedented," said Sgt. Lance Koppa, a spokesperson for Highland Park, who has worked for the Town for 12 years. "I was speaking to one of our other investigators who has 27 years of experience, and not even in her career has she seen a two-week period like we just had."

Since July 7, the Park Cities have endured a string of uncommon deaths, including:

  • JULY 7: 18-year-old University Park resident James Harrison died from a fire, which broke out in the kitchen of a duplex where he was sleeping in the 3700 block of Northwest Parkway.
  • JULY 11: Highland Park resident John Rodman Steele, 50, reportedly used a knife to attack his wife at their home, but she was able to defend herself with the help of their 16-year-old son, so John went to the kitchen and then took his own life. Police are still waiting on toxicology reports to find out more information about what happened.
  • JULY 18: 44-year-old Louis Frederick Rothermel, who was a resident of Highland Park, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a hotel in Dallas. Just days before, his 4-month-old son, who had Down syndrome, passed away from suspicious injuries, which caused local authorities to launch an investigation into the cause of death, which is ongoing.
  • JULY 18: Well-known Highland Park resident Charles Pistor, an 81-year-old who was formerly First RepublicBank's vice chairman, died after contracting West Nile virus.

The Town of Highland Park is a tight-knit community, as is University Park, so tragedies, such the ones that have occurred over the past 14 days, can truly affect many residents, Koppa said. 

"While we are located in a metro area, there is a very small-town feel to Highland Park," said Bill Lindley, the HP town administrator. "The reactions from local residents is similar to what you would find in other smaller communities."

Lindley said the Town's extends its sympathy to those affected by the tragedies.

"These are trying times for each of those families," Lindley said. "Our thoughts, care and prayers go out to the families and friends who were impacted."

Steve Mace, University Park's community information officer, said the nature of the incidents that have occurred recently is uncommon to the area, though the City makes sure that its staff and public safety officers are fully equipped to handle all types of situations.

"Specifically speaking to the fire at the duplex, the response (of the City's public safety officials) was certainly what we've trained for and what we anticipate," Mace said.

Christy Walls, a 23-year-old Park Cities resident who has spent a majority of her life in the community, said she cannot recall any similar string of tragic events happening locally in her lifetime. She said everything that has occurred is "heartbreaking." 

"I still feel like the Park Cities is a really safe community," Walls said. "Everything has just left me feeling very sad for the friends and family of the victims."

At John Steele's memorial service on Thursday afternoon at Highland Park United Methodist Church, Rev. Walt Marcum asked a question in his opening statements, which was specifically about Steele but could apply to all of the tragedies that have occurred recently — how could this have happened?

"How can something like this happen to someone that we knew so well and someone that we loved?" Marcum said. "It seems impossible to comprehend what happened that night a week ago. It is literally beyond comprehension."