BOBBY HAD A GUNAND ASU'S MOST PROMISING WRESTLER TURNED IT ON HIMSELF
No one paid much attention when Bobby Janisse excused himself from the off-campus bash last March 9. "Be right back," he told a young woman he had met earlier that Saturday. "Save my seat, okay?"
Bobby stepped into the bathroom at an apartment near Arizona State University in Tempe. He locked the door behind him and placed a strawberry margarita on the counter. He stood in front of the mirror above the sink and stared at himself.
Then he lifted a .38-caliber revolver out of his pants pocket, put the gun's muzzle to his right temple and pulled the trigger. A bullet raced through Bobby's brain. The gun fell into the sink. Bobby dropped to the floor.
Everyone at the party--including Bobby's best friend in Arizona, two teammates from the ASU wrestling team and an assistant coach--rushed to the bathroom door at the sound of the explosion. His roommate, fellow wrestler Jeff Theiler, stood outside the closed door and urged Bobby to stop his fooling around. Bobby didn't respond.
Someone looked under the door and saw Bobby's hand. Apprehension turned to panic. Finally, Theiler kicked the door in.
Blood was everywhere. Theiler put an ear to Bobby's chest. Nothing. Bobby's friend, Homer Moore, felt for a pulse. Nothing.
Someone dialed 911, but it was too late. Bobby Janisse was dead. The native of Portland, Oregon, was five days short of his nineteenth birthday.
PEOPLE IN BOBBY'S hometown reacted to his death with shock and a terrible sense of loss. Hundreds attended funeral services for a young man who had reached folk-hero status in Portland during high school. Bobby Janisse was a black kid from a decent, middle-class family, a "role model" for other black kids.
He'd won three straight Oregon large-school wrestling titles, compiled a career mark of 123-2, was a member of the National Honor Society--straight A's his senior year--and had earned a full scholarship to ASU, one of America's foremost college wrestling factories.
That accounted for a chunk of the adulation that came his way from all corners. But it was Bobby's personality--ebullient, but not stuck on himself--that solidified his many friendships.
Bobby's teammates at ASU saw him as a determined sprite of a 126-pounder who someday would have helped them reach their goal of winning an NCAA championship. They shake their heads in frustration as they recall how he was giving all-American Shawn Charles all he could handle at practices in his last weeks.
"Bobby had national champ written all over him," says wrestler Rex Holman. But the scrapbooks that detail Bobby's athletic accomplishments tell only part of his sad story. "I don't see why he would want to give up his life," Holman says.
"No one knows why people kill themselves," George Howe Colt wrote in his new book The Enigma of Suicide. "Trying to find the answer is like trying to pinpoint what causes us to fall in love or what causes war."
Some friends insist Bobby was too "positive" to commit suicide. They theorize that his gun was faulty and he killed himself accidentally.
"Maybe that's what I have to think to get through," concedes ASU academic adviser Bettie Julkes, who was probably closer to Bobby at the university than any other adult. "I thought he was a happy, together guy."
Citing the bizarre, sudden circumstances of Bobby's death and the absence of a suicide note, Tempe police investigator Paul Guitteau listed the death as "other."
But Maricopa County chief medical examiner Hans Karnitschnig disagreed. "A locked room, a contact wound, and three live bullets in a five-bullet weapon--that's not Russian roulette," Karnitschnig says. "It adds up to suicide."
About all everyone does agree on is that Bobby Janisse was a whiz in the classroom and had the courage of a Nubian warrior on the wrestling mat. The aftershocks of his death are still being felt. Most people, when prompted, speak of Bobby with an array of emotions. Some--including 49-year-old tough-guy head wrestling coach Bobby Douglas--get tearful.
"Some people think I have a shield of steel," the coach says, "but that's far from true. I always thought I knew when one of my kids was in trouble, but I didn't. I'd just like to know what Bobby was feeling."
Many are angry--at themselves, at the university, at their God, and at Bobby for having been fool enough to turn a gun on himself.
Some friends say the shooting may have been spurred on when Bobby's girlfriend--then a Tempe McClintock High School senior--broke up with him. But they add quickly that the split wouldn't have been enough to make him suicidal.
"It's still a shaky time here," says volunteer assistant wrestling coach Keith Walton. "None of us will be so naive as to think it won't happen again."
Jeff Theiler and Bobby Young--the two members of the wrestling team present when Bobby killed himself--quit school for the semester. And Bobby Douglas says he "hasn't been the same guy" since Bobby Janisse died, even with the joy of Douglas' recent selection as head coach of the 1992 Olympic wrestling team.
Bobby Janisse's death has raised more than the spectre of the nation's teen suicide "epidemic," which claimed 5,000 victims last year in the United States. It also has raised serious questions about the responsibilities that colleges and coaches have toward their recruited athletes.
Coach Douglas saw Bobby as a well-adjusted young man on the verge of making great contributions to the top-drawer ASU grappling program. He saw a young man who worked like a fiend at practice and hit the books almost as hard as he did the wrestling mat.
"All I saw in Bobby Janisse was someone who was improving as fast as any freshman I've ever recruited," says Douglas, a man not prone to exaggeration. "I have a great moral responsibility as a coach, but my mind is preoccupied with wrestling. My guilt comes from not having had the insight to have seen something, anything. There were things some of my assistants knew, but they didn't tell me."
Bobby's pal, Homer Moore, also knew more than the coach. "He had a lot of pressures on him," Moore says. "He was real homesick, he wanted to be near his mom, he wanted a steady girl, he wanted to look good, he wanted great grades, he wanted to kick ass in wrestling. He was a beautiful guy. But shit can build up."
TEMPE POLICE DETECTIVE Paul Guitteau searched Bobby's room for clues in the hours after the shooting. The detective found nothing there that indicated plans for suicide. But he did find some items that led him to ask pointed questions of Bobby's distraught roommate Jeff Theiler.
There were two expensive bicycles, one of which still had a sturdy lock attached to its frame. There were two fancy backpacks. The detective saw several unopened packages of film and numerous sundries. He also found a plastic change container, with an inscription from the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
Theiler told Detective Guitteau that Bobby had stolen each of these items. Through his many interviews, the detective discovered a Bobby Janisse who was more than a fun-loving pal and talented wrestler.
This Bobby was a part-time thief whose recent past included a stint with the Crips gang in Portland. He had told Theiler and others he'd occasionally sold crack for the gang. This Bobby had been toting a .38 around Tempe for weeks.
Days before he shot himself, Bobby loaded one bullet and looked down the gun barrel as roommate Theiler watched. On another occasion, fellow wrestler Bobby Young says, Bobby Janisse also pointed the gun at his own head.
They tried to stop Bobby from such foolhardy behavior, the wrestlers told the cop, but he'd just shrug and laugh.
ROY PITTMAN FIRST noticed Bobby Janisse at the neighborhood recreation club he co-founded in Portland during the 1970s. Bobby's mom, Brenda Polk, was playing volleyball at the Peninsula wrestling club and six-year-old Bobby--her only child--would tag along.
"I talked his mom into letting him wrestle," Pittman recalls. "He was so tiny, but our club is a sanctuary for all kids. We have lots of what the system calls dysfunctional kids, and Bobby needed some help in his formative years because his folks had split up and all that. I became like a father to him. He became like a son to me."
Few could resist the wisp of a lad with the cherubic smile and eager-to-please nature. Bobby became a favorite at the club, but his popularity was due to more than a winning personality.
"Man, did he love to compete," Pittman recalls. "He'd always smell like baby powder, always look so innocent, but he'd do the job on you and he'd get on out of there. He hated losing so much that he disciplined himself not to lose."
By the time he was a teen, Bobby had earned a reputation around Oregon as a wrestling dynamo. He was a fluid competitor with exceptional balance and positioning, a must in freestyle wrestling. And, says Donny McPherson, his coach at Portland Jefferson High School, "He was a giver. He would talk to the younger kids and he would spend time with the older people, too. He was a kid who you wouldn't mind losing to, he was so humble.
"But," McPherson adds, "he was a kid, and he did the things that kids do." In high school, those things included hanging out with members of Portland's burgeoning gang population.
McPherson puts this spin on it: "Bobby wasn't a gang member, but he was infatuated with gang activity. He had been on top for years, winning tournaments, making A's, but he wanted to be one of the boys. A lot of boys in his neighborhood are gang members. It's not easy to keep kids away from the gangs, my own son included."
That version seems benign, if Bobby's own accounts to his friends are to be believed. "From what he told us, in his area of town, you got to join a gang," says his friend Bobby Young. "He wasn't bragging about it at all. They're either your friends or your enemies. But he said that when he came down to Phoenix that ASU was going to be a new life for him, a new group of friends. He said the gangs were nothing but trouble."
Bobby told roommate Jeff Theiler that rival gang members in Portland once had shot out the rear window of his mother's car when Bobby was at the wheel. Roy Pittman says he counseled Bobby in vain not to associate with the gangs. "But he had no choice, really," Pittman says. "That's the way things are up here. Sometimes, I'd go out and get him. At least the gang guys knew he had a ticket out of town with a scholarship and they didn't want to spoil it for him."
Bobby Janisse survived high school in one piece. Actually, he did far more than survive. By his senior year, sportswriters were touting the first-team all-American as perhaps Oregon's greatest high school wrestler ever. He also excelled in the classroom and won a mantel full of academic and service awards. Among them: Jefferson High's award as its top all-around student; the "Young American Medal Award" for community service; and the coveted "Spirit of Portland" award.
The periodical Amateur Wrestling News listed Bobby as one of the nation's top college wrestling prospects. Every major program made its pitch for him, but Bobby's coach Donny McPherson was thrilled that ASU wanted his superstar. "I steered him to Bobby Douglas," McPherson says. "Bobby is a black man and my Bobby always had had black men for coaches."
But, McPherson adds in a painful moment of hindsight, "I don't think I was really listening to him. He was a homebody, and I think he wanted to stay at home."
"I KNEW BOBBY would be an excellent college wrestler," says Bobby Douglas. "He's real lean, real muscular, extremely strong, flexible. I watched him in high school. He had speed, endurance, all the right things."
Douglas is speaking from his cramped third-floor office at Sun Devil Stadium. He has grudgingly consented to speak about Bobby Janisse. This ordeal has been uncharted turf for a man considered by many to be the prototype of a major-college coach: He's a consistent, relentless teacher concerned with winning championships and graduating his wrestlers.
Douglas has built a national powerhouse in his seventeen years at ASU by finding wrestlers with the heart, ability, and maturity to flourish under his abrasive tutelage.
Douglas' single-minded style is his strength and his weakness as a coach. He inspires unbending loyalty from those who make the very difficult cut. But, he admits with a brief grimace, "It's hard for me to put my arm around my guys. I have a real weakness in that I don't get real, real close with people. I don't think I'm too approachable to anyone, especially to a freshman."
Bobby Janisse moved into a dormitory with the other ASU wrestling recruits last August. Douglas told him he would be "redshirting"--sitting out his freshman year, but retaining four years of college eligibility.
"We try not to put pressure on freshmen," Bobby Douglas says. "We want them to get their feet on the ground academically and to work them into our training program. But the redshirts do the same thing everyone else is doing. Bobby seemed to be right on track. He was a little homesick, but almost everyone gets that way."
Junior wrestler Ray Miller remembers his freshman year as "a very fragile situation, really. Coach was the same with Bobby as he was with me. He's very, very tough, but you learn a lot. He'd call us aside once in a while to see if we were having any problems. But he didn't interfere with our social lives."
Making it as a wrestler at ASU takes tremendous dedication and self-discipline. An average day: study hall at 7:30 a.m., then to class all morning. Practice is from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. On Saturdays, the team runs up Squaw Peak at dawn, then returns to ASU to lift weights and wrestle until noon.
Bobby soon became close to the wrestling team's academic adviser Bettie Julkes. "He was a wonderful person, very mannerly, and I loved him," Julkes says. "My twelve-year-old son looks something like Bobby and one of the guys always used to ask me how my `little Janisse' was doing. All I was getting from his teachers and everyone else was serious praise about Bobby. I didn't know the other side of what was going on."
Bobby spent much of his free time with fellow freshmen wrestlers Jeff Theiler and Bobby Young, white kids from Iowa and Montana respectively. He'd hit it off with the pair at wrestling tournaments during high school and they'd resumed their friendships at ASU.
"We could have fun wherever we went, whatever we did," Young says. "We did everything together. Bobby was cool and he was a real friend, always there."
Adds Jeff Theiler, "He was like a typical teenager. He was crazy, but not bad crazy. He was a total entertainer--he'd be crossing the street on a red light and he'd run in front of a car and fall in front of it and lay there. Then he'd stand up and start laughing. It was like he had no cares in the world."
Teens typically consider themselves impervious to physical harm--teenage wrestlers even more so. "I was bulletproof when I was in college," says ASU volunteer coach Keith Walton. "When you're a wrestler, you think you're invincible--you almost have to be--but you're not. I tried to tell Bobby that."
Another volunteer assistant, Rudy Isom--who was at the party when Bobby killed himself--says bluntly: "This kid had jumped out of two- and three-story buildings before, he would run full steam into walls at malls. He wasn't scared of anything, and that included guns."
AS BOBBY'S FIRST semester at ASU moved along, he hooked up with a Phoenix kid he'd met at a national wrestling tourney. Homer Moore was a 1990 graduate of Maryvale High School, where he'd been an undefeated state-champion wrestler and team captain in his senior year.
The pair had much in common--they were black teenagers who loved to party, loved the ladies and loved to wrestle. The main difference was in academics: Bobby enjoyed school, while Moore's high school grades were too low to get him into a major college.
Moore enrolled at Phoenix College--Arizona's sole community college with a wrestling program--but he spent more and more time in Tempe, often sleeping on a floor at the dormitory.
"It wasn't all partying, no way," Moore says, as he pulls out a handful of photos at the east Phoenix apartment he shares with his aunt and nephew. He peers at a snapshot of himself and Bobby for half a minute before continuing.
"He was helpin' me come around with the studies. Really. He could figure out shit so quick. He had the biggest smile you ever saw and we was tight as vice grips. He'd wake me up at four in the morning to study--sleep an hour here and there. He'd holler at me like my dad, but he really cared about how you felt."
Moore invited Bobby to his mom's home for Thanksgiving dinner. "He was lonely, even though he had a lot of friends," Moore says. "He missed his own mom a lot. He ate like a horse, ate and ate and ate. It was a happy day."
But Bobby Janisse's demons were silently eating away at his fragile psyche. "He was like a role model to me with the studying and all," says Moore, "but I'll admit that when no one was around, we did some bad things. There was no stopping him. It was me and him against the world--that's the way it was."
By his friends' accounts, Bobby didn't associate with Phoenix's gangs--"The gangs wasn't Bobby no more," says Homer Moore. "He wasn't bangin' down here."
But Bobby Douglas' prized recruit was a thief. His friends and Tempe cops say Bobby Janisse stole thousands of dollars of merchandise--bicycles, schoolbooks that he'd sell to the ASU bookstore, and about anything at convenience stores.
One time, Homer Moore says, "He got caught stealing a tape from Tower Records. The guy was going to have him arrested, but Bobby put a move on him and ran away. He left his bike behind."
Bobby finished his first semester at ASU with a low-B average, a decent enough start. His academic adviser Bettie Julkes says she was planning to recommend him for ASU's honors program. He told her he was considering a career in law enforcement, ironic considering his ongoing thefts. As the spring term started, Bobby continued to steal from fellow students and convenience stores. He was drinking more and more often, though there's no evidence he was taking drugs. One female friend says Bobby was acting "crazier" than normal--dancing faster, laughing louder, cutting up incessantly.
His relationship with his girlfriend provides a clue to his mental state at the time. Bobby had met the McClintock High School senior through his friend Homer Moore. He liked her well enough and vice versa, but the couple couldn't seem to go more than a few days without breaking up, then making up.
Shortly before the fatal night, Bobby Young saw Bobby Janisse exhibit a rare temper tantrum. "Bobby was talking on the phone to his girlfriend. Homer Moore said in the background, `Let that bitch go,' and she heard it. She hung up and Bobby freaked. He grabbed this wooden chair and threw it up against the wall, busted it into splinters. Then he ran out and didn't come back for an hour. When he came back, he was fine. We couldn't figure it out, because we didn't think he was hung up on her." There was far more on Bobby's mind than girlfriend problems. He confided in Homer Moore that he was worried about his mother's pending surgery for gynecological troubles. He said he couldn't wait to go home for spring break.
In February, Bobby had found himself a handgun. Roommate Jeff Theiler says a young black man from South Phoenix sold Bobby the .38 for a twelve-pack of beer and a stolen bicycle. Bobby told his new girlfriend that he needed the gun "for protection" in Arizona. He didn't specify from what.
Theiler bought bullets for the gun--in Arizona, you're supposed to be 21 to purchase ammo, and Theiler looked older than Bobby. Bobby took to firing the gun in a field near the dormitory. One night, Tempe police responded to reports of shots being fired on campus. They chased Bobby Janisse, but he escaped.
Jeff Theiler later told police that Bobby tacked a handwritten note on his dorm-room wall around this time. "Do not sit on my mutha-fuckin' bed," it read. "It's not a couch. Don't make me shoot you."
It seemed everyone in the ASU wrestling program but Coach Douglas knew that Bobby had a gun. Douglas was preparing for a run at his second NCAA team championship in four years. But it was clear to most of Bobby Douglas' staff that the team's wayward freshmen were running wild much of the time.
"I continually had to baby-sit those guys," says volunteer coach Rudy Isom. "They were pushing people off bikes and stealing stuff, and it was turning into a nightmare."
Isom says he saw the gun days before Bobby shot himself: "I told him, `You're going to kill yourself or hurt someone with it.' Obviously, we didn't think the kid was uncontrollable. But he was uncontrollable."
Assistants Keith Walton and Brad Penrith cornered Bobby a week before he shot himself. "I heard he had this gun," says Penrith, a world-class wrestler with a chance to make the 1992 Olympic team. "I told him, `What's going to end up happening to you?' He lied right to my face, he put up a front. He said he'd given the gun to someone else. I think maybe he just wanted to be a bad guy."
A few days before Bobby died, his old club coach and mentor, Roy Pittman, flew to Phoenix to attend a "Children at Risk" conference. Pittman didn't consider that his "son," as he calls Bobby, was at risk himself.
"We laughed and joked, like a father and son," Pittman says of their meeting at Sky Harbor Airport, one day before Bobby shot himself. "We talked about all the tough times--I knew he wasn't any goody two shoes--and the good times. I told him that all I wanted him to be was himself."
Being himself may have been part of Bobby's problem, Pittman says. "People in the majority take their cultural identity for granted, but black students in Arizona are isolated. Bobby was afraid, in a sense, down there and it worked on his self-esteem. He was on a pedestal as an athlete, but he still was a young black kid away from home for the first time. Things happen."
THE LAST DAY of Bobby Janisse's young life, March 9, 1991, began uneventfully. He worked out in the morning, then spoke on the telephone with his mom. "Everything was fine," she says. "There wasn't a cross word--absolutely nothing. I wish he had talked about what was in his head. We didn't hide stuff from each other."
That afternoon, Bobby went to a mall with some friends and made plans to go to a party that night. At about 7 p.m., according to Bobby's estranged girlfriend, she broke up with him again during a nasty telephone conversation. Bobby told Jeff Theiler after the call that he wanted to "get loco"--very drunk.
Bobby went to the party with the usual crew: Homer Moore, Bobby Young, and Theiler. His friends later told police they hadn't known he had taken his gun and a pocketful of bullets.
BOBBY DOUGLAS SPENT that Saturday night at home with his wife, Jackie, before the big trip to Iowa for the NCAA wrestling championships.
His telephone rang at about 11 p.m. Assistant Rudy Isom was calling with the news of Bobby Janisse's self-inflicted death. "I wanted to believe it was a bad dream--it wasn't true," Douglas says. He tried to call ASU athletic director Charles Harris, but Harris was out celebrating an NCAA-tournament-clinching basketball win for the resurgent Sun Devils.
"My next concern was to call Bobby's parents," Douglas says, "but the police wanted me to hold off. I felt very uncomfortable in that I'd told them I'd take care of their son like he was my son. I was confused about what to do."
Bobby Janisse's stepfather, Jerome Polk, called Douglas around midnight. "I said I hadn't heard all the facts, but I'd been told that Bobby killed himself," Douglas says. "I heard this chilling scream in the background--it was his mom. I felt like I was hit with a ball bat. I hear that scream now. It's like a knife in my heart."
Douglas stayed awake all night, then went to practice as scheduled. "I wanted to tell the guys one by one about Bobby as they came in," he says. "Guys would flinch or grab themselves in the head. It was terrible. I called it quits ten minutes after we started."
The pressures were immense: The coach had a flight to the NCAA wrestling tournament within hours, and the team was to join him in a few days. "I wanted somebody to tell me it wasn't my fault," he says. "I was very, very angry. That's a natural reaction, but I felt guilty for having it."
Bettie Julkes, Bobby's academic adviser and surrogate mom, flew to Portland for the funeral as a representative of ASU. Bobby Young, Homer Moore and his mother, and Bobby's ex-girlfriend also attended the services. "I had to go, to look at his things, his trophies, his room," Julkes says. "I know he would have done so well in life if he had survived and I felt the need to seek some sort of answers. I didn't really get any, but it was important to be with his family."
On the day the NCAA wrestling championships started, Bobby's family and closest friends sang "Happy Birthday" to him as they lowered his casket into the cold, wet ground.
Things went poorly for the ASU wrestlers in Iowa. The team finished a disappointing thirteenth and returned to Tempe. "I remember very little about the NCAAs," says Bobby Douglas. "I wasn't sleeping or eating. A lot of my guys weren't, either. I was acting--we all were acting."
Douglas vows to try something different this fall. "I'm going to try to get a little closer to my guys without going against how I've been coaching forever," he says. "There has to be a way. I've got to come out of this experience with my eyes open wider."
Athletic director Charles Harris bumped into Douglas in an ASU parking lot after Bobby died.
"He was crying," Harris says. "`I missed this one, Charles,' he told me, `I lost this one.'"
"Bobby had national champ written all over him."
Everyone agrees that Bobby Janisse was a whiz in the classroom and had the courage of a Nubian warrior on the wrestling mat.
"I always thought I knew when one of my kids was in trouble, but I didn't." "He'd always smell like baby powder, always look so innocent, but he'd do the job on you." Sportswriters were touting the first-team all-American as perhaps Oregon's greatest high school wrestler ever.
"He wasn't scared of anything, and that included guns."
"I think maybe he just wanted to be a bad guy."
use this one
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Another Teacher-Student Sex Scandal — and What Happened to Metro Phoenix's 10 Most...
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Arizona Driver's License Rules Change Drastically for REAL ID
- Cockfighting Suspect Arrested With 45 Roosters at Phoenix Home