Partly because of the layout, it's easy to miss things at Suki's. There are several isolated rooms throughout the bar. The pay phone is one of these areas, located in the Northwest corner. The restrooms, video poker, and front door are at the other end of the bar. The only reason to go to this deserted corner is to make a phone call. And even when people are waiting for the phone, they must stand outside the booth--behind the closed door.
Talk to any bartender, and you'll get some good stories about closing up. But it would be hard to top what was discovered after closing time on April 19th.
When the bartender swung open the phone booth's door, she discovered a dead body. The man was 24 years old, good-looking, very well groomed with short, buzzed hair. His back was to the phone, and he was in a half-standing, half-crouching position. The phone cord was wrapped around his neck.
Later, the medical examiner determined the cause of death to be "hanging by ligature." The weight of the man's body tightened the ligature and caused asphyxiation. However, while the physiological reasons behind his death may be clear, the actual cause remains a mystery. Medical examiner, Dr. Nikolas Hartshorne, classified the manner of death as "undetermined." Homicide was immediately ruled out.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Maxwell Uffelman has left behind so many questions, it's hard to know where to begin. Was it homicide? And if it wasn't homicide, was it suicide? How does one strangle oneself with a telephone cord? Why would someone commit suicide in a crowded bar? And why would he do so when his friends were less than 100 feet away?
YOU KNOW MAX
Maxwell Uffelmen, known to friends as Max, grew up in the tiny town of Stayton, Oregon, outside Salem. He went to a Catholic school and was one of nine siblings. He and his family skied Mt. Hood every winter, which led to Max's love of snowboarding.
He came to Portland about five years ago, in order to pursue a more cosmopolitan lifestyle--he was a server at the classy Paragon, worked at a few snowboard retail shops, and did some local modeling on the side. Friends say he was trying to break into the national modeling scene; a career that he planned would eventually take him to Italy. Max was a popular guy.
"Max was one of those people who, when you went places with him, would know everyone," says a friend of his, who wished to remain unnamed. "Everyone loved to be around him--just so vivacious. But serious, too."
It's natural for survivors to speak well of their departed friends. But there is nothing forced about the incredible amount of affection and admiration that people held for their friend Max.
"Max was somebody that not only went genuinely out of his way to see you, but made you feel good when he did," said Max's uncle, John Uffelman. "I think probably the funeral is a good example of what people didn't know about Max. It was at a large Catholic church, and it was full; wallto-wall, back-to-back. People were standing out in the street; we estimated 1000 to 1500 people. People came from Bend, Corvallis, Albanyit was a major awakening to realize just how far he had reached."
According to many, one of Max's primary joys was meeting and talking to people. He was extremely successful as a waiter and retail salesman, but also ran with the after-hours server scene. People knew him as a regular at Chopsticks, the Low Brow Lounge, Suki's, and the Paragon, among other places.
"If you asked, there would probably be a really strong consensus that Max was very good looking and very charming," his uncle said. "But I think Max was largely unaware of that, of the effect he had on people. I mean, not only did Max meet people and make friends, but he maintained those friendships. He remembered to call people."
At the funeral, the priest noted how many people were in attendance. "Many people have lived much longer than Max's 24 years," he said, "Few have managed to touch as many lives."
THE RUMOR MILL
As soon as Max's body was found, rumors began circulating. People said Max was discovered with extensive bruises covering his neck and shoulders; that he had been strangled in the phone booth with an additional phone cord brought to the scene by someone else; that the cops had taken hours to arrive and handled the case poorly. One rumor even began circulating about another death, identical in method, committed a month before, also unsolved.
"Strangling is such an intimate act," a friend of Max said, looking somber. "You have to look into someone's eyes for five minutes while they die."
To further complicate matters, the Portland Tribune published an article a week after Max died, focusing on the authorities' refusal to consider homicide as a potential theory.
"The cause of death of a 24-year-old man who died early last Saturday in a Portland restaurant still was undetermined Thursday by Multnomah County medical examiner's office, but family members question a preliminary ruling that it was not a homicide," read the kicker.
The article quoted a close friend of Max's saying, "We don't believe it was suicide. Max had everything going for him." They argued it had to be a homicide.
The uncertainty surrounding Max's death clouded the memories of him. He was suddenly suspected of being affiliated with drugs, of being secretly depressed, of being involved in gambling. Max's longtime, on-again, off-again girlfriend was in the bar that night. More than one source suggested that Max's relationship with her was "rocky." At least one person who saw him that night reported he was laughing and dancing with the ex-girlfriend. These same sources also noted that her new boyfriend was also in attendance, and Max had been seen talking to him.
And while these rumors were spawned by the relatively small amount of information released after Max's death, the uncertainty has left a community of people with an inability to grieve for their lost friend. An inability that makes closure seem impossible.
HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?
Granted, the circumstances surrounding his death were bizarre. Though it seems unlikely Max would choose a bar as a place to commit suicide, there are no indicators that he had any significant enemies.
"Max was a good worker," said Joe Moreau, Max's boss at the Paragon. "He would greet people at the door well before I could get to them. I mean, he would just run towards people." Over his two-year period of working at the Paragon, Joe never sensed any desperation from Max. "I've been doing this for 25 years," he explained. "I have very good intuition. I never got any indication of drug use, or coming in unacceptably hungover. He was never, ever desperate for money. Max was steady and consistent, always the guy on the go." Max was also extremely non-confrontational; his friends reported they could only remember one fight he was involved in, a random scuffle outside a bar, which he later laughed off.
Homicide seems to be the most popular theory among those who knew Max.
"I can't believe it," says the friend. "For one thing, I can't understand why he would do it in a public place. But also, he was one of those people who made you think that life is worth living--no matter how down you are."
"I just think it was a case of wrong place, wrong time," said Joe. "He had a new haircut, and it had some carvings on the side. It was very militant looking. Maybe he accidentally witnessed a drug transaction, maybe someone saw the haircut and mistook it for something gang-related." No one who knew Max can even fathom a suicide. "There'd been some talk that he was a little down," said Joe. "But there were no indicators of anything at all serious."
Nevertheless, the medical report is convincing. "He was found unresponsive, facing away from the phone booth, with the phone cord wrapped around his neck," explained Nikolas Hartshorne, a deputy medical examiner who examined Max's body. "His knees and legs were on the floor." While it's hard to conceive of how Max could have possibly gotten himself into this situation alone, Hartshorne explains it would be even harder to get someone else, unwilling, into this situation. In order to kill someone in a hanging by ligature, one would have to wrap the phone cord around their neck and then, while holding it in place, take their feet and knees out from under them.
"There were no signs of struggle on the scene," Hartshorne explained. "There was no evidence of an altercation--nothing out of place, no scratching on the body. Also, the injuries on his neck caused by the cord do not indicate there were any signs of struggle." Thus, Hartshorne gave the case a ruling of "undetermined"--he wasn't sure if it was an accident or a suicide. Of the two, the accident ruling seems the most improbable--Max would have had to wrap the phone cord around his neck, and then slip. Still, it is not impossible.
"Had the person been drinking--which, I'm not saying he was or was not--it would be possible," explained Hartshorne.
MAYBE THAT'S ME
If Max did indeed commit suicide, the strangest part would be the way he chose to do it. The reason most friends are clinging to when arguing against the notion of suicide, is that it was so public and seemingly, so impulsive. But this fact may actually be an indicator in and of itself.
In Derek Humphrey's book, Final Exit, a study of euthanasia, Humphrey highly discourages choosing suicide as a peaceful exit. "Self-destruction by hanging is almost always an act of protest, a desire to shock and hurt someone," he writes. "Therefore most euthanists avoid it."
"I don't think suicide is easy to accept," explains Josh Miller, a social worker specializing in death and grief. "There are reasons that people often try to deny suicide. It's very upsetting to think a person they loved killed themself. There's always a process that people go through of 'Why didn't I help this person?' which complicates the grieving process.
"In a homicide, people aren't forced to question themselves as much," Miller explained. "It's easier for people to demonize others and to think other people are responsible. And it's a place where their fear and anger can be contained. If it somehow could have been prevented, had everyone just followed the rules, well, that's part of the reassuring process, of maintaining the belief that there is some order in the world."
When one is killed via "hanging by ligature," it takes only 10-12 seconds to be rendered unconscious--though it takes three to four minutes before the person is actually dead. While Dr. Hartshorne says he's never handled such a case before, he knows of at least five other cases of suicide where people died in the same way.
CREATING THE LEGEND
Despite the convincing argument the medical examiner makes for suicide, the Portland Police Bureau has not closed the case. They have been silent, except for saying they have no idea when the report will be finished. The accident theory seems even harder to accept, as no one who saw Max that night thought he was very drunk, and it's hard to imagine how he could have accidentally wrapped the phone cord around his neck and fallen forward, even if he was drunk.
His immediate family has also remained silent, and even his uncle, John, chooses not to speculate on the way Max died.
"Most of us prefer just to remember his giant smile and think of him as a model for how to live life as best you can," his uncle said.
"I think of Max every day," said Joe, his former boss. "Part of me hates to think there's someone who was involved in this, who's out there running around free, and the other part of me thinks there's nothing else to think."
While no one wants to believe it's suicide, it may be even more destructive to continue the speculation.
"When something like this happens, people need to establish a narrative immediately," explained Miller. "They will have feelings of fear and trepidation. If they don't have that narrative established--if they don't know what happened--those two elements feed each other. It makes it hard for people to go through a grieving process."
Miller also explained that without this narrative, people attempt to make up their own narrative: rumors. But while this process may feel like they are establishing the facts, it can ultimately be counterproductive.
"In the absence of a credible narrative, people do start to create their own stories, to speculate, but I don't think that it's necessarily grieving," he explained. Speculation, rather than establishing anything credible, merely fuels more and more uncertainty.
Still, it's not a simple matter. Sometimes, when a community collectively endorses one theory about a death--when the rumors stop circulating and people generally accept one story--that story can actually help the community to get through the loss together.
Duff Chingman is a social worker. When a person dies in the emergency room, Duff is the man who sits with the individual and their family through the final moments.
"Immediately after they die, there is this shock that happens," Duff explained. "And then, after a while, 35 or 45 minutes later, someone will say, 'Do you remember the time when ?' They start to reminisce, and create a legend about how he died. That's how a lot of great stories about how people died are created and accepted."
When people can collectively agree on a narrative, especially a well-known and well-loved person like Max, this narrative can help them put fears to rest and move on to other stages of grieving.
It seems that the seeds to this story have already been planted: It is generally agreed that Max was happy the night he died, that he had called a lot of his friends beforehand, and that, late in the night, a little drunk, he had told people he was going to make a phone call. When no one could locate him at the end of the night, the group figured he had simply gone home. "We didn't know what to think," his ex-girlfriend, Kate Riesterer, told the Tribune. "Max will sometimes go off by himself. We just figured Max was being Max." Some people think he had taken an anti-depressant that night, given to him by a friend. Anti-depressants, when combined with alcohol, can cause people to act irrationally.
Still, suicide can be the hardest story to accept. "The ugliest scenario is suicide," explains Duff. "Life is a very selfish experience. It's all about us, and when a death takes place, it's just a mirror of what could happen to me."