Shared joy & pain

Two Deaths in Independence: Mason Atagi and Dylan Thompson

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candles for Mason Atagi and Dylan Thompson

I live in Independence MO, which is an unusual town in many respects. It is overshadowed in terms of size by Kansas City to the west, but Independence is the older city, and the county seat. It is the first home of the Latter Day Saints before they moved west, and when they left they left the Community of Christ, an offshoot of the LDS church, to form their own religious center here. Both churches firmly believe that Independence is the literal paradise the Bible promises, which many find ironic due to the severe methamphetamine epidemic that swept through here in the late nineties and still leaves its mark on the town. Independence is also the home of Harry Truman, and the town from which pioneers headed west left in their wagons.  Like our town, the people are a well of contradictions, and this is reflected in these two deaths.

And two teenage boys died last week here, Mason Atagi and Dylan Thompson. I didn’t know either of them, but this is a small enough community that I was affected by both of their deaths, and my youngest sons was “friends of friends” with both of them. What I say here is colored by the news reports and things my son and his friends have said about both boys, both to me and in social media.

Mason Atagi was 16 years old, an honor student and athlete, and died in a tragic ATV accident while at a relative’s home on March 15, 2015. He had been next in line to be the starting quarterback for the football team next year. Above all, he was remembered as genuinely kind and loving.

Dylan Thompson was also 16, but he struggled in school and went to Independence’s alternative high school. On March 20, 2015, he went with his friend Dustin Donlon, and Phillip Kisnet his mother’s long time boyfriend, to rob the home of Jimmy Faseler, a man known locally as a Royals baseball “superfan”. Reportedly, Mr. Faseler confronted Mr. Kisnet, who shot Mr. Faseler and critically wounded him, and then shot Dylan, who died later that evening. Dustin fled the scene. Friends of his of my acquaintance also describe him as genuinely kind and loving.  In a bit of irony, Dylan had a fresh tattoo on his arm in memory of a friend who’d been killed while riding a motorcycle the previous year and was hit by a drunk driver.

The Monday following Mason’s death, his high school had grief counselors on hand, and there was a rally at the high school that drew a huge crowd, filling the center of the field full of grieving students and community members.

The Monday following Dylan’s death, his best friend and his father figure were charged with his murder. I have been told there were no grief counselors at his school, and that students were discouraged from talking about his death despite their grief. If this is true, this is a terrible mistake on the part of the Independence school district. The kids who knew Dylan have just as much grief as those who knew Mason, and in many cases are far more vulnerable than Mason’s friends.

Neither boy came from a wealthy family. There is very little wealth in this town. Mason had a large and close extended family, while it seems that’s not the case for Dylan. Mason racked up honors throughout high school and Dylan racked up warrants.

And yet, a lot of the same people are grieving both boys. Those of us who live here understand how easy it would be for a kid in this town to turn down one road for the other, and those of us who have worked with troubled kids in this town know how often troubled kids succeed in turning it around and being awesome fathers, and husbands and even business owners.

Dylan Thompson’s public memorial will be held tomorrow, March 28, at 7 pm at Hill Park in Independence, and it would not surprise me if it were nearly as well attended as Mason’s public service.

Let’s not slight either of these deaths. Both boys were robbed of long lives in tragedy, and both boys have literally hundreds of friends and family and community members grieving for them now. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be either of their mothers now – or rather, I can, and my heart just breaks for both of them.

And not lost in all this, Mr. Faseler is reported to be off the respirator he was on, conscious, and “regaining his sense of humor”. I sincerely hope that Dylan’s step father spends a very long time in jail, for it is clear that his actions not only gravely harmed an innocent man, they also caused the death of a boy who trusted him and looked to him for leadership.

For those who believe in God, surely God has enough love for both of these boys in addition to Mr. Faseler, to the mothers of both boys, to Dustin Donlon who was also led down the wrong road, and for Dustin’s mom. Prayers would definitely be in order for healing for all involved, and for justice.

Pardon me while I go light a candle.

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