Tragedy At Well No. 2
On Oct. 3, 2009, a 17-year-old Rock Bridge High School senior ended his life near the water treatment plant in McBaine. Stuart Eiken’s tortured path to a lonely end left his family and friends searching for answers.
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Beth Eiken sat shielded from the crisp October air in a friend’s van at Moberly High School. As she watched her 13-year-old daughter play softball, her thoughts turned to her 17-year-old son, Stuart. She hoped he’d awakened early enough to get to work mowing grass — he hadn’t responded to her wake-up calls and texts, despite his request the night before that she call and wake him. It wasn’t the first time he hadn’t answered her calls.
Her cellphone rang. Caller ID told her it was an unknown number. When Beth answered, she found herself speaking to a Columbia policeman.
Detective Bryan Liebhart introduced himself and the reason for his call: Stuart.
“My heart just sank,” Beth says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what has he done now?’ I thought they were going to tell me, ‘He’s down in jail. You need to come bail him out.’ ”
Instead, Liebhart told Beth: “Your son, Stuart, is dead.”
Stunned speechless, Beth finally composed herself enough to ask what happened. She expected Liebhart to describe a car accident, a drug overdose or even a fight, but nothing could have prepared her for the detective’s answer: “He hung himself.”
Ten miles south of Columbia, 12 water wells rise 20 feet above the straw-colored floodplain near the Columbia water treatment plant in McBaine. Well No. 2 is no different from the others; it’s the same size, color and shape. But on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, Well No. 2 differentiated itself with a gruesome addition to the structure.
Two motorists heading south on Burr Oak Road called 911 around 7 a.m. after spotting Stuart Eiken’s limp body dangling from a ladder on the north side of the tower. By 7:25, Columbia Police Officer Robert Bennett was en route to McBaine. When he arrived, he found fresh tire tracks in the grass surrounding Well No. 2; Bennett surmised that Stuart was heading north on Burr Oak Road in his black Ford Ranger before he pulled off, made a U-turn and backed up next to the well.
The officer found a bottle of Tanqueray gin in the Ford’s cab and several empty Bud Select cans under the seat. One lone can stood next to the open toolbox in the truck bed. Apparently, Bennett says, Stuart finished his last beer, walked from the truck to the well — nylon cord in hand — and climbed the ladder of Well No. 2. He tied one end of the yellow towrope around the 11th — the highest — rung. With the other end of the rope fashioned in a noose encircling his neck, Stuart climbed down the ladder into strangulation.
The truck, bearing license plate STU22, remained at the base of the well. The keys were still in the ignition, the driver’s door was ajar, and loud country music drifted through the open windows.
Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, was the last time Brad Eiken saw his son alive. Stuart’s lawn-care business was responsible for mowing the grass at Inside the Lines, Brad’s commercial interior supply office. The teenage entrepreneur had about 20 other clients for the company he called Bert’s Lawn Care, a play on his middle name, Bernard.
A constant preacher of responsibility and hard work, Brad remembers being especially impressed with his son’s attitude that particular evening.
“That was an awesome night,” the 47-year-old recalls. “We had our differences, but that night was a great time. We didn’t get into it about anything. I noticed he committed himself to doing a good job. He was more gentle with the equipment and took responsibility.”
Even though his son was supposed to cut the grass at Inside the Lines for free, Brad knew his ex-wife’s birthday was coming up at the end of the week. He gave Stuart some money so he could take his mother out to dinner Friday night.
Beth remembers Stuart as unusually quiet — almost serene — during those last few days of her son’s life.
“It was the first time in a couple of weeks that he had been as calm as he was,” she says. “Knowing what I know now, that was a prelude to what was going to happen. Normally that means they’ve made their decision.”
Beth’s 44th birthday arrived on Oct. 2, and Stuart went out to dinner with his mother and his sister, Maribeth. The trio dined at G&D Pizzaria; Beth recalls that Stuart ordered spaghetti but didn’t eat much, unusual for a boy both parents say “loved to eat.”
“He saw some of his friends [at the restaurant] and probably ended up spending more time with them than with Maribeth and me,” Beth says. The family’s conversation over dinner consisted of obligatory small talk about the day and plans for the evening.
“Normally, I give him a hug and tell him to be safe and to come back to me, but I didn’t do it that night,” Beth says. After the trio returned home, Stuart left to join his best friend and backyard neighbor, Kyle Willcoxon.
“As he was leaving, Stuart said, ‘You need to call me in the morning, because I need to get up and cut grass. I have a lot of work to do in the morning,’ ” Beth recalls. Her son did not flash his signature smile as he walked out the door.
Stuart and Willcoxon headed to a friend’s house in Columbia where they met up with about eight other teenagers. Willcoxon recalls seeing Stuart drinking and using cocaine that night. Alcohol was relatively common in high school, Stuart’s friends admit, and although drugs appeared less frequently, they often showed up at parties. Stuart’s cocaine use had begun about six months earlier, Willcoxon says.
Around 11:30 p.m., Stuart drove the duo back to his house so Willcoxon could borrow a pair of football socks for the Rock Bridge-Helias game the next day.
“I literally walked out of his house and across the backyard like I would have every other night,” Willcoxon says.
“That was back when I still prayed every night,” he says, noting he had never prayed for Stuart before that night. “I prayed to God to keep him safe and watch over him, because I knew what he’d been doing.”
Stuart, who no longer played football, wasn’t ready to call it a night. After his best friend went home, he went to another friend’s house until about 2:30 a.m.