NOBLE — For days, the 11-year-old lay there dead, dressed in a purple T-shirt decorated with a butterfly pattern. Stephanie Wilcoxson committed suicide, a state medical examiner concluded. Death caused by very high levels of methadone in her body. But the questions don’t end there. A methadone overdose, a finding of suicide, Stephanie’s young age, her father’s suicide in 2005 and a continuing investigation all combine to shroud the girl’s December death in more questions than answers. Conjecture and some innuendo have circulated around Stephanie’s hometown of Noble, a growing one-high school town of 5,800 people situated just south of Norman. "I don’t think anybody knows what to think,” said Cassie Huddleston, who taught Stephanie in kindergarten. "Nobody could imagine Stephanie taking her own life. What could be that bad?” The medical examiner’s suicide determination places the 11-year-old in a small, tragic group. Suicide accounted for the deaths of 195 U.S. children ages 5 to 14 in 2007, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency calculated 6,091 deaths for children that age in 2007. What caused Stephanie’s death is not so uncommon. Methadone, which is killing people at a greater rate than other prescription painkillers, is used to treat both pain and drug addiction, according to the CDC. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation continues to look into Stephanie’s death and has not changed its approach in light of the coroner’s conclusion earlier this month. "No, it would not (change), especially when you’re talking about a young girl like that,” said OSBI spokeswoman Jess-ica Brown. "(Stephanie’s death) is not the only thing we’re focused on. ... You have to ask yourself where she got those drugs.”
Stephanie’s lifeStephanie was born May 12, 1998, to Darrell and Janice Wilcoxson, who married in 1992. Stephanie grew up in Noble. By all accounts, she was a polite and loving sixth-grader when she died. "My child is a 6th grader with Stephanie, on the last day of class before break my child noticed Stephanie getting a hersheys from the vending and splitting it between a few of her friends, celebrating another ones birthday ... What a sweet, unselfish, thoughtful thing Stephanie did,” wrote a parent on a Web site set up for remembrances. One child wrote, "she is the best freind i ever had. she is very nice to me.” "Stephanie was a very positive outgoing child,” said Stephanie’s grandmother, Kay Wilcoxson. "You’d ask her, ‘How was school today?’ and she’d say, ‘awesome, awesome, great, great.’ She loved her little friends.” While life at school was good, life at home was not always as pleasant. On July 3, 2005, Steph-anie’s father, Darrell Wilcoxson, 41, committed suicide by shooting himself, Noble Police Chief Keith Springstead confirmed. Stephanie was 7. Stephanie and her father were especially close, Huddle-ston recalled. "She was his everything and you could tell.” Before Darrell Wilcoxson’s suicide, Stephanie’s parents were active in school, Huddleston said. After his death the participation fell off. "After her father passed away, her and her mother went through a really hard time,” Huddleston said. Stephanie and her mother continued to live in the same home on Noble’s south side in a neighborhood mixed with well-kept and somewhat neglected homes on large lots. The mailbox still has Darrell Wilcoxson’s name on it. Weeds stick up between several cracks in the driveway and the garage door has several rotted wooden panels. Both Janice and Darrell Wilcoxson had battled drug addiction, said Darrell’s father, Don Wilcoxson. After his son’s death, Janice Wilcoxson continued the struggle, he said. Janice Wilcoxson has gone to a clinic once a week for at least three years to get methadone to fight her addiction, Don Wilcoxson said. Don and Kay Wilcoxson describe themselves as estranged from Stephanie’s mother, Janice. Janice Wilcoxson did not return several phone calls made by The Oklahoman.
Stephanie’s deathAuthorities found Stephanie dead in her home on the afternoon of Dec. 23. According to the autopsy report, Stephanie had become injured or ill Dec. 17. Stephanie’s body was decomposed and showed signs of partial mummification, but no visible signs of trauma. Stephanie was wearing a purple T-shirt with a "butterfly designed print on the front,” according to the autopsy report completed by pathologist Chai S. Choi. Stephanie had been dead for several days before her mother called police, OSBI’s Brown said. When officers arrived, Janice Wilcoxson was "mentally disturbed” and said Stephanie had committed suicide, according to a Noble police report. Keith Wilcoxson, Stephanie’s uncle, said a law enforcement agent told him that there were signs that Janice also tried to kill herself by slicing her wrist. The Christmas Eve autopsy concluded Steph-anie’s death was suicide caused by "acute methadone intoxication.” "The conclusion is based on the comments made at the scene from the family members that were there,” the evidence collected by medical examiner’s office, investigators at the scene and the high levels of methadone in the system, said Cherokee Ballard, spokeswoman for the state medical examiner’s office.
Children and suicideWhile death by methadone overdose is not rare, the suicide of an 11-year-old is uncommon, but that also is changing, said Tom Taylor, executive director of HeartLine, which offers a suicide prevention program for central Oklahoma. "It’s kind of unusual for an 11-year-old to do that,” Taylor said. "But the second leading cause of death between the ages 10 to 24 in the state of Oklahoma is death by suicide.” Taylor said a family member’s suicide doesn’t necessarily make another family member more susceptible to suicide. "That’s part of the stigma that people think about suicide — if we talk about suicide, people are going to complete it,” he said. "Some family suicides actually insulate and protect other family members because they first hand witness the pain that the family left behind goes through.”
The investigation continuesStephanie’s death has left behind a large amount of pain and questions that many hope further investigation will answer. The OSBI is progressing, but still wants to do more interviews, Brown said. "I think we’re in the wrapping-up stages,” Brown said. "That could mean a few more weeks; that could mean a month.” Stephanie’s grandparents said they are willing to wait for answers. They can’t believe the 11-year-old girl in the butterfly shirt would end her own life. "She was not a troubled child at all,” Don Wilcoxson said of the girl. "Stephanie was not a girl that was going to commit suicide. There’s just no way, shape or form.” Kay Wilcoxson added: "I just cannot figure her taking methadone ... She was looking forward to Christmas.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24 in Oklahoma, according to statistics from HeartLine, a suicide prevention program for central Oklahoma. The group formed in 1971 and provides suicide prevention outreach and listening and crisis intervention.
• For more information on the program visit www.heartlineoklahoma.org.
• For a suicide crisis, call (800) 273-8255.