It was still dark, just after 5 a.m., one recent morning when Darby O’Brien left his South Hadley home and climbed into his Volvo station wagon. He was halfway to the 7-Eleven to pick up some newspapers when he glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed that there was a big hole where his back windshield used to be.
“It was unnerving,” O’Brien said.
It was more unnerving when he got back home and found that whoever put a brick through his back windshield had bounced another brick off the front windshield of his wife’s car.
The cop who showed up to take the report said this was no drive-by. Whoever threw the brick through O’Brien’s windshield had to be standing near the car. The brick went through with such force that it crashed into the front passenger’s seat headrest.
The bricks were a message, O’Brien believes. A message that he is hated because he was a whistleblower. He was the guy who first went public in January 2010, demanding that his town take a look in the mirror after a 15-year-old girl named Phoebe Prince hanged herself after relentless bullying at the hands of fellow students at South Hadley High School.
It’s been almost three years since Prince used the scarf her little sister had given her for Christmas to put herself beyond the reach of the bullies. But the sheer awfulness of the tragedy remains inescapable; the bitterness it engendered lingers.
A new book, “Tread Softly: Bullying and the Death of Phoebe Prince” by E.J. Fleming, was released digitally on Amazon the day before the bricks flew outside O’Brien’s house.
“It’s very coincidental,” David LaBrie, the town police chief, said of the timing of the attack. “It was the only damage in the town of that nature that night.”
So it wasn’t the work of a bunch of boozed-up kids riding around looking to vandalize property randomly.
“The cop who came by said it three times,” O’Brien said. “He said, ‘This was no kid. This was an adult.’ ”
It’s tempting to say the new book has brought bad feelings in South Hadley back to the surface, but that would suggest they went away in the first place. O’Brien thinks there is one particular section in the book that aroused the type of animus that would arm itself with a brick. The book describes a Nov. 21, 2009, party at Prince’s house during which she was possibly drugged and sexually abused amid a mix of booze and drugs. Phoebe’s mother and sister were away at the time, and uninvited teens piled into the house. A neighbor supposedly called police about the noise. Police supposedly broke up the party, but let the kids go with just a warning, supposedly because a number of football players were in attendance. A week after that party, Fleming alleges, Phoebe tried to kill herself by ingesting a bottle of pills. Less than two months later, as the bullying continued, Phoebe succeeded in killing herself.
LaBrie, the police chief, said his officers responded to a report of a disturbance at Phoebe’s home on Nov. 14, 2009, but had no record of anything happening Nov. 21. “The disturbance was caused due to youths speaking over one another,” LaBrie quoted from the report.
“No contraband was found in the residence and youths were sent home,” LaBrie said.
Fleming said he stands by his account, and hints at a police cover-up.
LaBrie said some of the assertions in the book fuel conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories thrive in places like South Hadley, where five teenagers, but no adults, were held accountable for the bullying, and ultimately the death, of Prince.
Betsy Scheibel, the former district attorney who brought charges against the teens, was crestfallen when she heard about the bricks that flew outside O’Brien’s house. She grew up in South Hadley, she lives there, and it drives her crazy that people are still walking around town nursing grudges and throwing bricks. She read about Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old Canadian girl, who hanged herself in October after relentless bullying, and wonders if we’re any more evolved than we were in the days before Prince’s schoolmates hounded her to the grave.
“What have we learned from all this?” she asked. “This continues to go on and young people are being destroyed. I thought what we did in South Hadley made a difference. But you know what? Some people change and most people don’t.”
Tell that to O’Brien. He’s a hero in the new book. But in his own town, there are some people who consider him an apostate, the guy who brought an unwanted spotlight. His wife was a substitute teacher in town schools. But after he went public, criticizing the way the town responded to Prince’s suicide, his wife never got another assignment.
He is convinced the bricks were spawned by the new book.
“It’s been well over a year since someone said anything to me,” he said. “But back then they were throwing insults at me, not bricks.”
He keeps thinking about that party at Prince’s house, whatever date it was.
“Some of the kids at that party come from very connected families,” O’Brien said. “Whoever threw those bricks, I don’t think it’s the last time I’ll be hearing from them. It’s about protecting the connected.”
Prince’s birthday was last week. She should have turned 18.