Cornell’s Barton Hall, site of its police department’s HQ. (Courtesy of Eflon on Flickr)
Cornell’s Barton Hall, site of its police department’s HQ. (Courtesy of Eflon on Flickr)

Ithaca, N.Y. — Custodial workers found the alarming note around 3 a.m. in a computer lab on Cornell’s campus.

On plain lined notebook paper and filled front and back, the author’s note suggested a serious potential for self-harm.

“There was a timeline in there that made it clear that this was imminent, not a ‘some day’ kind of thing,” said Kathy Zoner, Cornell’s chief of police.

“There were a lot of goodbyes.”

The custodians brought the note to the attention of Cornell police on Thursday, May 23, immediately after finding it. But officers didn’t have much to work with.

There was no way to tell if it was written by a student, a professor, a Cornell staff member, or if the author was even affiliated with Cornell. The person had signed with first name only, but left no surname.

The first name was slightly unusual, Zoner said, but one that could belong to a man or a woman.

“We didn’t actually have an incident to investigate beyond the potential suicidality of the person who wrote this letter,” Zoner siad.

The stray note could have been ignored, or filed as an unsolvable mystery.

What unfolded instead was an around-the-clock investigation by Cornell police during graduation weekend, one of the busiest of the year, that ended with a resolution.

A few days after the “goodbye letter” was discovered, police managed to find its author. The person was out-of-state and had only been in Cornell on a temporary assignment. The author was doing better and had moved beyond suicidal thoughts.

Relief swept through the Cornell University Police Department when the reassuring contact was made, Zoner said.

A few weeks later, on Monday, six Cornell police officers – Lt. Daniel Murphy, Sgt. Anthony Bellamy, Inv. Daniel Gonzalez, Inv. Denise Schulze, Inv. Stanley Slovik and Inv. Charles Alridge – were honored for their efforts. They were awarded the Kiwanis Frank G. Hammer Officer of the Month Award.

Inv. Denise Schulze, right, was also recognized in 2012. (Courtesy of Cornell police)

“Sometimes these things come up and we never find the author” of a suicide note, Zoner said, “and we just have to go on crossing our fingers that nobody acts upon their writing.”

“The impetus here is to make contact with the individual and to let them know that someone cares … which we hope will continue to move them along a on a positive path.”

But finding the man wasn’t easy.

When they first got the letter, Cornell police investigators began by working with Cornell Information Technology to try and find those whose first name matched the name on the letter.

They came up with almost 100 names. They tried tracking down students but struggled in large part because it was graduation weekend.

“All the students are gone from their usual place of residence: They’re graduating, or they’re moving out, or they’re moving on,” Zoner said.

The officers went to different houses only to find “For Rent” signs. Then they realized that Ithaca High School students spend time in Cornell’s library. A handful of students at the high school had a matching first name.

Zoner had the department’s entire six-man investigative unit on the case. Other officers pitched in while working on their other caseloads.

They logged a significant number of hours, spoke discreetly but persistently with dozens of friends and family members and made their way about two-thirds through the list of nearly 100 people.

“We’re looking for someone in danger,” Zoner said, “and time is of the essence.”

Eventually, one investigator found the author. Zoner responded quickly when asked how they ultimately identified and reached the person.

“Perseverance, team work, legwork and phone calls,” she said.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.