Florida student-athlete told police her coach said ‘kill yourself’ a month before suicide
Julia Pernsteiner went to the police about bullying at Jacksonville University
A Jacksonville University long-distance runner told police her coach "degraded her on a daily basis" and said she should "kill herself" two weeks before she died of suicide.
Julia Pernsteiner, who was diagnosed with disabilities that affected her reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic skills, was "fat shamed," called "retarded" and mocked by her coach Ron Grigg for months, a recently filed lawsuit alleges.
She brought the issue to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Oct. 22, 2021, and her interview was recorded by an officer's bodycam and obtained by former Jacksonville TV reporter Samantha Mathers, who shared it with Fox News Digital.
The 15-minute video documented the ridicule that Pernsteiner allegedly faced and months of harassment that included text messages and emails.
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"He would make these offhand statements like asking me, ‘Why do I keep you around if you’re not smart and you're not fast?'" Pernsteiner told police. "He was telling me like, ‘Go kill yourself. You’re awful.'"
A couple of weeks later, on Nov. 8, 2021, she was found dead in her dorm room from an apparent suicide at the age of 23.
Jacksonville University responded to the lawsuit in an emailed statement.
"The students, faculty and staff of Jacksonville University continue to mourn Julia’s tragic death, and we sympathize with the Pernsteiner family for their loss," the university said. "Per university policy, we do not comment on pending litigation."
Fox News Digital's emails and calls to defense lawyers listed in the lawsuit for a comment on Grigg's behalf weren't returned.
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Mathers, a former journalist for Action News Jax who broke the story as an independent journalist in a series of Instagram vignettes and covered it for a year, found Grigg's alleged bullying of his team extended beyond Pernsteiner and dated back years.
Pernsteiner alluded to this in her recorded discussion with police, saying she received messages from other girls who said they had similar experiences with the longtime Jacksonville University coach who had been with the school since 1998 before resigning in 2022.
"Julia’s teammates, for example, were forever impacted by what happened, some greatly," Mathers told Fox News Digital. "Had it not been for their boldness and bravery, this story would have never come to light.
"Through the vignette series, you learned their names, saw their faces and read their words. Their powerful testimonies came together as one collective voice that ultimately led to the resignation of Ron Grigg."
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Grigg has remained quiet since his official resignation from the university in July 2022.
Pernsteiner alleged to police that Grigg tried to keep her quiet.
"He knew I was speaking out against him, and he was basically trying to keep me quiet and saying, ‘You’re going to f---ing destroy this track team,'" she told police.
While Pernsteiner was a walk-on who did not have scholarship money at stake, she told police other student-athletes on the team would lose their scholarships if they did not lose weight or do what Grigg said.
"It got to a point where you're mentally unhealthy trying to please this man," she told police. "I have messages from our assistant coach who used to run for him saying, ‘I tried reporting him, and nothing’s been done.'"
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In September 2021, Grigg cut Pernsteiner from the team, according to the lawsuit, which did not give a reason why.
She told police his reason was because her GPA was too low, but she believed it was retaliation for speaking out against him.
A police report accompanying the bodycam interview, which was reviewed by Fox News Digital, documented the retaliation claims.
"Mayo Security advised that Julia Pernsteiner (complainant) notified a doctor through their online portal that she was being abused by her coach and teammates and feels unsafe," an Oct. 22, 2021, police report says.
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"I was able to make contact with Julia in the Student Affairs office in person. Julia advised that she was kicked off the Track team due to falling grades and her being a ‘whistleblower’ on the head coach.
"She advised that the head coach for track has caused her emotional distress by telling her to lose weight, threatening to kick her off the team, and saying that she is the worst on the team."
Pernsteiner did not press charges against Grigg, according to the report and bodycam footage.
After she was kicked off the team, Pernsteiner "spiraled into a depression," and she turned to social services at the Mayo Clinic, the Safe Sport Helpline and the Women’s Center for help, according to the lawsuit that was filed by her family in Duval County Feb. 3.
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"For 22 months prior to her death, Julia suffered pain, mental anguish, panic attacks, fear and depression," the lawsuit states.
Less than a month before her death, Pernsteiner took her story to Mathers, who continued to follow the case after the 23-year-old took her own life.
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"People often ask why I chose to publish my reporting on social media rather than a traditional news article," Mathers said. "But a two-minute news package or 300-word article could never capture the true depth of this story, one that goes far beyond one athlete and one coach."