On the evening of July 25, 2011, (some 15 months before I would be elected) I attended an Oak Ridge City Council meeting as a citizen. At the same time this meeting was occurring, Alex Heitman’s body was being discovered after a day-long search by his family for his whereabouts.
I would learn of Alex’s death two days later when I read a very small article on page 3 of our local paper entitled something like “School Official Found Dead.” Had I blinked, I might have missed it. When I read that the deceased was an Oak Ridge Schools employee (unlike the print version, the title in the online version of the article would specify Oak Ridge Schools), I was shocked. From my efforts of challenging our school’s spending habits, I knew quite a few people in the administration and had never even heard of Mr. Heitman.
I spent the next couple of days learning everything I could about Alex. I learned that he was an expectant father who’d only recently moved here from Wisconsin. Big things were happening in his career, including his pursuit of his PhD. Though already fairly accomplished at a young age, Alex obviously had his sights set on an even brighter future.
I was perplexed at why such a young man with so much going for him would commit suicide. I talked about it with a few friends, some of whom had had brief encounters with him. We were all left scratching our heads. I recall sharing what I’d learned with a friend in another state just to get an idea of how crazy I was to let this bother me so. She asked me if I thought something other than suicide might have happened. I answered that I had nothing to indicate otherwise and we left it at that. After a few days or maybe weeks even, I let it go and didn’t give Alex much more thought.
In December 2012, my husband handed me a piece of mail addressed to me. The top of the return address read “A. Heitman.” My knees literally buckled.
The letter was from Alex’s mother, Annette. She was looking for someone to help her understand some things and to find out what had happened to her son.
That evening, I called Mrs. Heitman. Though she’d reached out to me, she was initially very cautious in what she said to me. I asked her why she contacted me of all people. (I had yet to announce my candidacy and was not what I would have considered a public figure). She told me that she’d read some of my op ed submittals online and said that I was the only person she found willing to speak out against certain officials.
Early on, Ms. Heitman knew very little. She knew that her son had been subpoenaed as a witness for something multiple times, but no one would confirm this. She knew that he’d been combating fraud, waste and abuse but was being met with resistance and chastisement from those whom he expected support.
In her quest for basic information, Mrs. Heitman encountered obfuscation, disrespect and flat-out lies from numerous local officials in both Cocke County and Oak Ridge and could not understand why. She was at her wits end and it didn’t take long for me to fully appreciate why.
For the better part of the next five years, I spent a significant amount of time and energy working very closely with this family to help them answer a question no parent should ever have to ask: Why and how did my son die?
Along the way, we recruited several individuals who helped us successfully piece together what has to be one of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever known. In fact, had I not personally witnessed evidence and behaviors, I’m not sure I’d believe any of it.
Over the years, we’ve learned a lot, much of which may never be shared since each time the Heitman’s publicly disclosed new findings, they were met with retaliation and ridicule – often by those who could actually help them. Sadly, the more we learned, the more questions were raised and, to this day, we still don’t know much about the final hours of Alex’s life.
I regret that we’ve not made more progress this many years later. I feel blessed, however, to have been part of the process and to have the Heitmans in my life. I also feel personally connected to Alex on a number of levels.
Alex, you were a man of incredible character who valued integrity and treated others with respect, including those who least deserved it. You were driven, above all else, to do what was right, and, for that you paid the ultimate price. You were and are loved both by those who knew you on this earth and by those of us who’ve come to know you since.