Young man’s suicide leaves only questions

By Adam Strunk

On Oct. 14, as Bethel College’s Fall Fest took place just up the road, Newton Police investigated an unattended death in Centennial Park.

They found a pistol next to a 21-year-old man. A tattoo on the man’s arm read, “Be a better brother, better son.”

In his wallet, they found a card with a number for his therapist in Newton and a card for adult mental health services in Sedgwick County as well as identifying information.

The man’s name was David Montelongo.

***

At the urging of friend Corey Helsper, Montelongo told his parents about a gun three months earlier on a ride to Newton from a larger family gathering in Moundridge.

Corey thought I should tell you I’m not doing very well,” his father, Jason Miller, recalled Montelongo saying during the conversation.

I remember thinking at the time, in my naive state, that I thought he needed it to feel safe in his apartment,” his mother, Melanie Krehbiel, said.

As the conversation set in, however, Miller became worried.

Eventually, Miller and wife Krehbiel pushed Montelongo on the subject. Montelongo eventually said he intended to kill himself with a gun but had yet to purchase it.

I told him either you’re being serious about it and we get help for it, or you’re not serious, but saying this, it will end you up in the hospital,” Miller said.

Montelongo regularly talked about suicide to those closest to him. Helsper said he’d had countless conversations on the subject since he became friends with Montelongo in middle school.

After some years of that, it wasn’t even real anymore,” he said. “It became another break down. Eventually, you grow desensitized.”

This time was different, however. The conversations with Montelongo about the gun worried his parents.

We were staying in contact with Corey and people around David and keeping tabs on him,” Miller said.

Montelongo told his family that he didn’t plan on doing anything until he completed the triathlon he was training for in August.

Miller said he knew that gave him two weeks time to figure the situation out.

Miller pushed him to get back into therapy, which Montelongo did starting on Aug. 7.

Miller also contacted a friend of his, Lt. Bryan Hall with the Newton Police Department, to see if there was anything he could do to intervene.

Hall recommended contacting the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the issue, which he did.

I was limited in what I could do to help Jason,” Hall said. “I can’t act to unlawfully deny a person’s constitutional rights. I encouraged him to contact the store and communicate with them and intervene. My hope was medical professionals could do something.”

Miller made a call to the FBI. He said they were helpful. However, because of privacy rules, Miller couldn’t find out if Montelongo would be flagged in a background check.

Miller learned of two laws, one preventing guns from being sold to people who have been unwillingly institutionalized for a mental condition and one preventing a gun seller from knowingly selling a weapon to someone they suspect will harm others or themselves.

So Miller called Academy Sports. Montelongo worked there, and that’s where he planned on going to purchase the firearm.

He got a hold of the manager and told him of David’s mental state,in hopes of preventing Montelongo from killing himself.

***

If someone pointed a camera at Montelongo, he would either flash a smile or goof. He presented the picture of a happy college student on his Facebook feed. Fit, good looking and with long hair, he cheers with fellow Wichita State University college students. He

David Montelongo smiles as he officiates the wedding of his previous teacher and friend Mollie Sultenfuss.

leans with two friends over the deck of his apartment. He flexes at the Newton YMCA with his buddy Helsper.

He mugs in a picture with roommate Jace Schmidt after completing the Salty Dog triathlon.

David Montelongo looks like a great guy to be around. And a lot of the time, according to the friends and relatives interviewed for this story, he was.

He’d put others before himself any day,” Schmidt said. “He loved to talk to people and get to know them. He didn’t like awkward silences, and nine times out of 10, he filled them with a joke out of line or just right for the audience.”

Few spoke about Montelongo without alternately laughing and crying. Words came up over and over. Outgoing. Gregarious.

He was over the top; he was not afraid at all; he would like to push buttons,” friend Kyle Houseman said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who would touch you as a human being. He was always one to fit in with a family and make them feel at home even if it was their own.”

Newton art teacher Ray Olais had both Montelongo and Houseman in his art class.

Olais said he saw a bit of himself in Montelongo, who like him, was a “Mexican kid from California.”

I almost saw him a little like a son,” Olais said. “It’s nothing like I ever said to him, but it’s something I thought internally.”

Olais told the story of Montelongo in high school during an assembly yelling “Art Club” as loudly as he could in a way to drum up support for the Newton Art Department.

Through his years at Newton High School, Olais said the “Art Club” yell became a rallying cry and something that still echoes at the school on occasion today.

David Montelongo’s self portrait hangs in the Newton High School Art Room.

Olais said, as an outstanding high school artist, Montelongo always wanted to be different. While classmates sketched their portraits on the walls, Montelongo cut his picture with a laser. The metal fabrication still hangs in the NHS art room next to a drawing of Houseman.

Houseman and Montelongo formed a quick friendship and would spend time playing video games together or drawing.

Montelongo became a well-respected member on the Newton swim team and participated in the Nitros Swim Club. He liked to pick the longest, hardest races coach Sarah Vogt said.

I could tell that he cared about other people, and I knew that he cared about himself,” she said. “He was one to stand up for what was right.”

Montelongo graduated from Newton High School. He went to Monmouth College in hopes of continuing swimming and in hopes of becoming an artist. He continued to set high goals for himself.

Flash forward a few years and Montelongo had dropped art and swimming competitively, his father Jason Miller said. He came back to finish out school at WSU. He had spent much of his student loans. He struggled. Helsper sawthis all.

The peripheral people, they think he was gregarious,” Helsper said. “At his best, he was really fun to be around.”

But below that surface, Montelongo dealt with a difficult past.

***

David Montelongo’s first hospital records list that he had methamphetamine and cocaine in his system at the time of his birth.

At two days old, Montelongo entered the California foster care system. At 27 days old, the state returned him to his mother in rehab.

For the next six years of his life, Montelongo lived through constant moves, child abuse, neglect and suffering, as a foot-high stack of foster care and state records kept on Montelongo document. He and two siblings ended up in foster care. Another sibling is currently in prison.

Montelongo wrote about his childhood during his time at Monmouth College.

School was my sanctuary where I was safe to relax and focus on things like homework and nap time instead of where my next meal was going to come from or where I was going to hide from [his mother’s] drunken rage that night,” he said.

Eventually, Montelongo’s grandmother gained guardianship over him and his younger sister for six years; he found stability and a small amount of happiness before tragedy struck.

His grandma contracted brain cancer and died a month later, Miller said. Before she died, family members arranged for Montelongo to go to his biological father’s family back in California.

I remember fear sweeping through my body and crying over grandma in her hospital bed,” Montelongo wrote. “I did not want to leave the small amount of home I had begun to make behind to move to some huge city with someone I only knew from mention of my father’s family.”

Montelongo stayed in California for three months until his mother called from prison and asked for him back.

David’s parents kept piles of official documents chronicling his life through homes and the foster care system.

Montelongo then spent two months living with his mother’s boyfriend, as his mother was in jail. After she got out, Montelongo lived with the couple for another four weeks before abuse caused him to again be removed from the home and go to live with his sister in Newton.

Six months later, he ended up in the foster care system again.

That’s where his adoptive dad, Jason Miller, entered his life. Miller served as Montelongo’s court-appointed special advocate.

During his time in Newton, Miller said he watched Montelongo get moved between four different foster families.

There had been several of them where he was told, ‘This is for as long as you need it,’ then he’d have to be gone this week,” Miller said.

His first stay lasted eight months until a former foster child reported abuse against those who took him in. At the time, Montelongo had been told he could live in the house until he was 18.

Though Miller said the abuse report wasn’t substantiated, Montelongo and his sister were moved. He was moved from another home after it was found out that it lacked hot water, stayed at a third temporary house for a week and a fourth house.

Miller said the lack of security compounded the issues Montelongo and his sister Nadia had following child abuse.

He was so freaked out by this lack of control,” Miller said. “I remember the OCD thing, and he was hand washing. He would go to the bathroom every four to five minutes. His system was so high on alert. His body was so hardwired. He had no idea where he was going next. It was very visible to people around him. He would constantly sit down with me and ask, ‘So where are we going to go next? Let’s figure this out.’ He was trying to make something stable.”

The control practices grew from washing his hands and going the bathroom to making lists—very detailed lists.

He would have these scrawled lists trying to make sense of things, and he would just make lists and lists and lists. He got more practical as time went on,” Miller said.

After Montelongo and his sister continued to be moved from house to house, St. Francis, the agency that contracted through the state to provide foster care for Montelongo, thought it might have to move him to western Kansas or Kansas City.

Miller said, by that point, Montelongo and his sister had friends established in Newton as well as access to services such as counseling at Prairie View. Plus, Miller had a relationship with the children.

They would ask, ‘Couldn’t you just take us?’” Miller said.

To keep from moving the brother and sister again, Miller said he was approached to consider taking them in as foster children. After talking it over with his wife, they became a family of four.

Montelongo recounted the day he found out he was gaining foster parents in a paper written while in college. A paper titled, “It gets better.”

I had never felt so happy in my life,” he said. “Someone actually wanted me; they did not have to take me like family, but they wanted me, and somehow that felt even better.”

***

At the time the couple began fostering Montelongo and his sister, Miller and Krehbiel were living in a camper as they renovated their house. They had two weeks to decide if they could make fostering the children work.

They found a three-room house to rent through acquaintances. They had the house inspected. And they packed to move.

We all four moved into this house at the same time,” Krehbiel said. “We all slept here for the first night together.”

The couple received retroactive certifications to be foster parents. Montelongo and his sister had a home.

What I remember of all of that, just a few days after we moved in we were already starting to see the effects of trauma on the kids,” Krehbiel said. “There was a lot of behavioral stuff resulting from their trauma.”

Today, most doorframes in the house have cracks in them, either from where the children slammed the doors or were trying to break them down to get in, Miller said. They could have behavioral meltdowns. There was violence. Miller said they called the police to their house multiple times to help handle situations that arose.

That was so hard from our perspective, because everyone around us would say they were good kids; they did what their teachers asked. Then our close family and friends starting to hear what was going on at home; it was hard for them to understand.”

There were the behavioral issues for Montelongo as well issues with eating.

Miller said he didn’t think Montelongo had access to a whole lot of food growing up, so he just became an eating machine.

His body and his brain learned when there was food and there were resources, just stuff full of them,” Krehbiel added.

Eventually, Montelongo grew to 280 pounds.

Behavioral issues for the children continued in the following years.

Montelongo wrote about his feelings.

Before getting adopted, I looked at adoption as my holy grail, the thing that would happen and everything would change and I would leave my past behind. It did not happen this way at all,” he said. “I became angry that I did not feel any different; I felt cheated and hurt again, and all the emotions from my past began to rise to the surface. I had fits of rage where I would break things and scream because I could not handle what was happening to me at the time.”

The couple worked to curb the behaviors by seeking treatment for the children.

Krehbiel said by the time they started to seek treatment for Montelongo, the state mental system was going under restructuring under the Brownback administration.

They tried to get him admitted for short stints with mental health services and ran into issues with barriers.

They would say, ‘Has he actually hurt anybody?’” Krehbiel said.

She recalled a story where Montelongo had a meltodown and was punching a wall when he was around 15.

I was to the point to step between him and the wall so I could get hit and he could get hospitalized,” she said.

Miller said Montelongo was hospitalized for mental treatment three times for short stints of four to seven days due to behaviors of self harming as well as emotional and physical outbursts.

Montelongo received treatment and eventually learned to somewhat manage the difficulties he dealt with, or at least kept them contained.

Key to that growth was pursuing activities he liked or wanted to. He started swimming “because under water I can think,” he wrote.

He became captain of the swim team. He lost weight.

In total, following high school, Montelongo lost 112 pounds following a commitment—or obsession, as Helsper called it—to getting healthy and building muscle.

He was such a hard worker,” Helsper said. “It was the first thing we saw that he focused on something where he used his obsessiveness in a positive way.”

Miller and Helsper thought the obsessiveness and goal setting was a way of continuing to exert control on his life.

David Montelongo flexes with friend Corey Helsper at the Newton YMCA.

Despite losing the weight, Montelongo wanted six pack abs, Helsper said, adding that Montelongo looked the best he had ever looked.

He never could be at peace or content with everything,” Helsper said. “He always set the goal higher. It was one of the things I loved about him, but it was one of the things that killed him, to be honest.”

Helsper said it helped cover up the hole from his childhood, something that Montelongo kept trying to fill.

Miller agreed with that assessment. He said Montelongo wanted to be a normal guy, but his past, his childhood, was anything but normal.

David could never accept that,” Miller said. “He wanted to compare himself to others, and it made him feel like a failure.”

***

As this past summer advanced, those around Montelongo said he went to a darker and darker place. He could be fun, and he could be hurtful. Helsper said that was a regular trend. He’d get close to someone and then hurt them to push them away or because he didn’t know better.

Helsper would spend a few months not talking to Montelongo, and he would be back.

Yeah, he could be an utter asshole at times, but he was always my asshole,” Helsper said. “I always had his back no matter what, but honestly I feel like he betrayed all of us who worked so hard to support him.”

Elizabeth Epp, who knew Montelongo for two years through Helsper, said she butted heads with Montelongo but understood him, as she also battled depression.

As long as I knew David, I knew he struggled, and I was surprised that some people didn’t know he struggled,” she said. “He was a great guy to talk to, and he had a lot of insight on things, but it was hard to be him and hard to be around. He could be completely careless and just say those things and something you were struggling in at the moment, and he could throw it in your face and cross the line.”

Epp said Montelongo’s actions hurt her along with his words.

The good parts of David were really good,” she said. “The bad parts were really bad, unfortunately.”

Montelongo’s actions could distance him from the people he relied upon for support.

He had distanced himself from a number of people over the summer.

His roommate, Jace Schmidt, recalls him not talking and then giving his stuff away. He gave away tickets to a concert of his favorite band. He grew despondent. Schmidt said he didn’t really get back on good terms with Montelongo until his final two weeks.

Miller said he hoped the counseling and school routine starting in August would help Montelongo.

There were times he hurt people really, really badly,” he said. “And he was afraid of becoming his mom. I think he felt out of control.”

***

In mid-October, Montelongo went to Academy Sports and tried to buy a gun. That was the last thing he had written on one of his lists.

Miller’s call to management flagged him, as did the paperwork Montelongo filled out, where he admitted being institutionalized.

Montelongo went across the street to Cabelas, filled out the same paperwork but this time left off that he was institutionalized. He purchased one of the cheapest handguns he could buy—a Taurus 9 millimeter on sale for under $300.

According to Miller, who’s attempted to piece the timeline together using Montelongo’s electronics, on Friday, Oct. 13, around 7 p.m., Montelongo got the gun. He “watched movies and played video games until late and then spent a few minutes searching for how to shoot himself in the head,” Miller said.

At 1:51 a.m. on Oct. 14, he called Helsper on the phone. Helsper did not pick up.

I felt like I had failed him for good,” Helsper wrote. “I had tried so desperately for so long to prove to him that he could trust me to be there no matter what, no matter how many times other people in his life had let him down.”

At 2:02 a.m., he played music on his phone. And shortly after, he made the final decision.

Montelongo owned a gun seven hours before he used it to end his life.

***

Friends and family gathered for a simple service at Shalom Mennonite Church to remember Montelongo. The group lit candles. Friends read remembrances of him.

Contributed photo. Friends and family gather for David Montelongo’s funeral.

And they left the church carrying pieces of Montelongo, both the good and the bad.

Montelongo left behind many people he helped and hurt.

I’m going to really miss his sense of humor,” Krehbiel said. “I’m going to miss the opportunity to be a positive mother figure for him.”

Montelongo spent his life trying his hardest to overcome how it started. Sometimes he was successful. Other times he was not.

Miller has tried to find answers. He has thought about scenarios. He last stated that he doesn’t think any comprehensive narrative of the “why” can be put together.

Instead, he is stuck replaying the scenario about the gun that now sits in the evidence locker at the Newton Police Department. He says he doesn’t know what to do about that. Part of him wants to return it to the store, except they don’t take refunds on guns or ammunition.

He wonders what would have happened if Montelongo couldn’t have purchased the gun. His background check didn’t flag him because he wasn’t put into an institution against his will. As a minor it was his adoptive parents who voluntarily institutionalized him.

People told me, and I agreed, and said that not getting a gun wouldn’t have made a difference,” Miller said. “But David was so impulsive.”

And others who knew him are just left processing what happened.

With this going on for so many years, I’ve imagined how it feels when David would kill himself,” Helsper said. “I was so confident I would be so furious at him that I would hate him, but I haven’t been able to. I’m just so disappointed with him; I can’t feel the hate. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s easy to say that hole wouldn’t go away. But at the time, you always had hope for him.”

If you or someone you know needs help:

Suicide rates in Kansas are higher than the national average with 16.3 people out of every 1,000 deaths resulting from suicide compared to the national rate of 13.3. According to the CDC 477 people took their life in the state in 2015.

If you are struggling or believe you know a person who is, the suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Locally services and counseling are offered as well at PrairieView Inc. Contact them at 800-992-6292 and if someone is in a mental health crisis call 800-362-0180.