HOUSTON – More than a year after a horrific bias attack nearly killed him, David Ritcheson masked his pain with a smile, concealing his anguish from the people closest to him, an attorney for his family said Tuesday.
Ritcheson, a Mexican-American who was beaten unconscious and sodomized with a plastic pole by a man shouting "White Power!" in April 2006, leaped to his death in the Gulf of Mexico from an upper deck of a Carnival Cruise ship on Sunday, witnesses said.
Attorney Carlos Leon said Ritcheson had never threatened or talked of suicide and left no note.
"It seemed to everyone that David was climbing back to normalcy in his life," Leon said at a news conference. "What we've learned from this is he just internalized his pain."
The lawyer said Ritcheson boarded the ship Saturday in Galveston with two friends and the parents of one of the friends. The ship was to have gone to Cozumel before returning July 5. Leon said he was not aware of any incident aboard the ship that might have upset the teenager.
Ritcheson's parents did not attend the news conference. Leon said they were en route Tuesday to meet the ship at an unidentified small port in Mexico and accompany their son's body to Galveston. An autopsy will be performed there as part of an investigation overseen by the FBI.
"This comes as a shock to everybody ... to his family, to everybody who knew David," he said.
Ritcheson had endured more than two dozen painful surgeries and had to use a colostomy bag. Perhaps worse, virtually everyone he met knew what had happened to him that terrifying night.
Leon said his client's physical condition had been improving, and he underwent his most recent surgery just 45 days ago. But he said Ritcheson had rebuffed repeated attempts to persuade him to seek counseling for the emotional and mental scars.
"I think he thought wallowing in the pain would make it last longer," Leon said. "David internalized his pain, and I think he thought he could just persevere through it."
Leon said that seemed to begin to change over the last month or two. He wouldn't discuss specifics, but said Ritcheson had recently started to "externalize his pain" to his parents and other relatives.
"He chose to always be happy," Leon said. "And that turned out to be a fault."
Ritcheson was attacked at a party, beaten and sodomized with a patio umbrella pole. He also was stomped on and burned with cigarettes, and his attackers poured bleach on him before leaving.
He was hospitalized for more than three months. Two men were convicted of aggravated sexual assault in the attack.
Mike Trent, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ritcheson's attackers, said the small, quiet youth always seemed positive and upbeat about his recovery.
"He certainly wanted to see justice done in the case and wanted his attackers punished, but I thought that — considering everything that had happened to him — he had come through things remarkably well," Trent said.
He said Ritcheson had used drugs before the attack but realized drug use played a role in his assault and had promised to quit. According to testimony, the attack was triggered by Ritcheson's drunken pass at another teen's 12-year-old sister.
Ritcheson's death is "just very tragic because I thought he had turned a corner and was trying his best to make something positive out of what happened to him," Trent said. "He thought that he could handle everything on his own."
Although he remembered nothing of the four-hour attack, Ritcheson testified about it during congressional hearings in April on a hate-crimes bill. That bill passed the House and is pending in a Senate committee.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said she hopes to have the measure formally named "David's Bill" in Ritcheson's honor.
"I could not have been more moved by his commitment to getting things right," Jackson Lee said Monday. "He was able to dig deep over all of the pain and all the humiliation and try to be of help to someone else."