Nestor Lazuka circled the day, June 14, 2018, on a calendar. It was a Thursday, and marked nine-months since his wife's death.
He left several thousand dollars on a desk in his Port Orange home for his mother, and then he drove about 2 ½ miles to the Volusia Memorial Funeral Home on Clyde Morris Blvd. He had been there the day before making his funeral arrangements.
Lazuka walked behind the funeral home and sat near the flower delivery entrance with his back to some hedges. He draped an American flag across his lap.
Then Lazuka stuck a .38-caliber revolver in his mouth and shot himself.
Lazuka had parked his Ford Explorer nearby. Inside police found a note signed by Lazuka describing the order in which he would like his family and friends notified of his death and how his possessions should be distributed. Police also found a note in which Lazuka described the gun he used, saying it was a black, hammerless .38-special. He added: "This was a voluntary suicide."
Demographically, the 70-year-old Lazuka was like the majority of people who chose to end their own lives with a gun in Volusia and Flagler counties in 2018 — an older, white man.
The News-Journal collected and analyzed every local report of suicide and attempted suicide in 2018. The effort was part of a first-of-its kind overall analysis of every incident in which a person was shot during the year in the two-county area. The shootings sometimes involved crimes or accidents. But nearly 80 percent of the fatal shootings were suicides.
Lazuka, like everyone else in the two counties who used a gun to attempt suicide last year, was able to kill himself.
“We often find that a firearm is involved in a completed suicide,” said Nicole Sharbono, vice president of Volusia County Services for SMA Healthcare. “That’s a very lethal way to attempt suicide, which most likely will lead to a completed suicide.”
The News-Journal, like most news organizations, does not typically report on suicides unless the act is done in public or there exists some other compelling reason to report it. As a result, the daily news stream leaves unreported stories of desperation, of people battling mental illness, financial setbacks, loneliness and failing relationships who choose to end their lives.
The high suicide rates in Volusia and Flagler counties are part of an unsettling nationwide trend. Age-adjusted suicide rates nationwide have increased 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The rate nationally climbed from 10.5 per 100,000 population to 14, according to the NCHS. The rate has increased on average by 2 percent per year from 2006 to 2017.
Volusia and Flagler counties are both above the state average for suicides. Flagler County had the highest rate of suicides in the state in 2017.
Guns and the growing suicide rate
The difference in the success rate of those who use a gun to kill themselves as opposed to those who attempt suicide by other means is stark.
Records gathered from all 15 police agencies and the medical examiner show that all 89 people in Volusia and Flagler who used a gun in 2018 to attempt suicide died.
In contrast, last year there were 419 suicide attempts without the use of guns in the two counties. Of those attempts, 63 were successful.
“We know if a person is suicidal, if there is a firearm in the home, one of the first things that need to be done is remove that firearm,” Sharbono said.
Nearly 22,000 people in the United States, including more than 950 children and teens, kill themselves with a firearm every year, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun control and anti-gun violence advocacy group.
Nationally, 85 percent of people who intentionally shoot themselves die of their wounds, according to Everytown, which cites studies from 2004 and 2012.
By contrast, only 5 percent of people who try to end their lives without a gun manage to kill themselves, according to the organization, which cited studies from 2001 and 2012. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of deaths involving guns are suicides.
Older and white
Besides using a gun, people who committed suicide in Volusia and Flagler counties also tend to be older and white.
Of the 89 cases of firearm suicide in Volusia and Flagler counties, 59 were 50 years old and older.
The youngest were two 18-year-olds in two separate incidents. The oldest was a 91-year-old man.
Of the men only five were black and one was Hispanic. Of the 13 women who used a gun, only one was black.
Guns are one reason that there is a higher rate of suicide among men, according to Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“Men tend to use more lethal means than women,” Prinstein said.
Other reasons driving the suicide rates higher for men between 50 and 75 are social isolation, due to the loss of a spouse or other factor, physical ailments, a loss of independence and changes in the quality of their lives, Prinstein said.
Locally, the suicide scourge has drawn help in the way of a federal grant.
SMA Healthcare — a local provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment — was awarded a $2 million grant last year to pay for a suicide prevention program. The grant, handed out at $400,000 a year for five years, includes funding for QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer; and CALM, Counseling Against Lethal Means.
“The goal is that everybody involved in our system becomes aware how to identify someone who is at risk for suicide,” Sharbono said. “How to ask the question, be comfortable asking the question if someone is thinking about suicide or has a plan to attempt suicide.”
As part of the grant, SMA Healthcare has added a suicide prevention person in each Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties. The four counselors started work in November.
Sharbono said that Volusia and Flagler are part of a cluster of counties in the area that have suicide rates higher than the state average.
She said she can only speculate on the reasons, but believes a lack of resources to help people in crisis is partly to blame.
Another factor, she said, is the transient and tourist populations that go uncounted when accounting for rates.
One of the people battling the alarming suicide numbers is Angel Vives III, the suicide prevention trainer for SMA Healthcare. Vives has trained deputies at both the Volusia and Flagler County Sheriff’s Offices as well as AdventHealth Palm Coast.
He said getting information on suicides is not easy.
“Suicide is such a taboo topic, not many people are comfortable talking about it,” Vives said.
He trains people to ask questions. Those questions could be sparked by someone being depressed or someone buying a firearm.
“If someone all of the sudden has interest in guns for no apparent reason, that’s something to kind of raise an eyebrow,” Vives said.
Tough to talk about
PTSD, depression and schizophrenia, which may be factors in suicidal thoughts, are often left out of conversations about what’s wrong.
“People hide things, especially when it comes to dealing with the things that come with suicide ideation,” Vives said.
He believes substance abuse, with the opioid crisis at the center, are among the reasons suicide numbers are up.
The high rates puzzle Carrie Baird, executive director of Flagler Cares, a nonprofit social welfare organization.
“It’s very hard to identify what are the combination of factors that push someone to that point,” Baird said.
But she said there are some warning signs.
Isolation is a big one, particularly with older people who have perhaps lost a spouse and are facing health problems. Other risk factors include people who have had someone close to them commit suicide or attempt it, and people with economic, family and relationship issues.
Flagler County rolled out new programs with the New Year with a goal of decreasing the number of suicides. SMA Healthcare expanded services on Feb. 1 at the SMA Healthcare Crisis Triage and Treatment Unit at 301 Justice Lane in Bunnell to start accepting patients younger than 18.
“There’s a glimmer of hope that our service capacity is expanding and there’s attention to it right now. It’s important that we have the resources to address mental health issues,” Baird said.
People need to talk about suicide, she said.
“We are trying to train a variety of people to understand the signs of suicide and to feel comfortable asking the hard questions, ‘Hey, you don’t feel OK? You’re not thinking about hurting yourself, are you?’ " Baird said.
One family, two tragedies
Gina Miller’s family has twice been shattered by gunshots.
Her husband was the first to die. Edward P. Miller, 52, was shot dead in 2014 when he pulled his revolver from his pocket as a plainclothes Volusia County deputy confronted him outside a tow yard. Her son, Edward D. Miller, 29, heard the gunshots and saw his dying father.
Then on a Sunday last September, the son, who went by “Eddie” — already troubled by bad memories and post-traumatic stress disorder from his dad's death — had been drinking at the home he shared with his mother near Port Orange.
Eddie Miller argued with his mother about dinner. His mother had her back turned when she heard a gunshot. She turned and saw her son had shot himself in the right side of the head.
Gina Miller said her son was haunted by his father’s death.
“The main thing that bothered him was the gunshots and him seeing his father slumped over the steering wheel,” Gina Miller said.
On Sept. 20, 2014, Eddie D. Miller’s pickup had been towed to Fryer’s in Daytona Beach and the father had driven his son to pick it up. They had argued with tow yard employees while two plainclothes Volusia County sheriff’s deputies happened to be there installing a tracking device on a car.
Deputy Joel Hernandez strapped on his gun belt with a badge on his belt and walked over to talk to the elder Miller, who was stopped in his SUV with the engine running behind his son. The younger Miller was checking his truck. Hernandez tried to talk to the elder Miller, who was severely hearing impaired. The windows on Miller’s SUV were rolled up and the situation started to deteriorate. Hernandez then opened the door to Miller’s SUV.
Miller, who had a concealed weapons license, stuck his hands in his pocket. Hernandez drew his gun and said he screamed at Miller to show him his hands. Miller started pulling out a revolver and Hernandez shot him dead.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated and the State Attorney’s Office declined to charge Hernandez, who is a sergeant on the crime suppression team in Deltona.
After the shooting, the family sued the Sheriff’s Office. Volusia County and deputy Hernandez opted for an unusual defense for a law enforcement officer, using Florida’s controversial stand-your-ground law.
Circuit Judge Sandra Upchurch ruled in the county’s favor that Hernandez was standing his ground when he shot Eddie Miller. That put a quick end to Gina Miller’s lawsuit.
The shooting left the younger Miller battling guilt, in addition to the health problems he was already suffering from. He had trouble digesting food.
Gina Miller said his father’s shooting death only made things worse. She said after his father's death her son would sometimes punch holes into walls or rip a door off its hinges at their home near Port Orange.
“It was his car that was towed there, so he thought that if that never happened his father would still be alive. And he thought that he should have been able to protect him. And he just couldn’t get over that,” Gina Miller said as she began to cry.
She said Eddie and Eddie Sr. were close. They worked together on cars, rebuilt a tractor and refurbished a motorcycle engine. They also planted a vegetable garden where they grew broccoli, tomatoes and green beans. And they both had handguns.
“They were together every day. Ed was disabled. Eddie was sick. They were best buddies,” she said.
Who to call for help
Call SMA Healthcare’s Access Center at 800-539-4228 for guidance if you or someone you know is in crisis. You can call any time of the day or night any day of the week.
National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Veterans press 1.
In Flagler, anyone in crisis can go to the SMA Healthcare Crisis Triage and Treatment Unit at 301 Justice Lane in Bunnell for assistance with a mental health crisis (8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday and noon until midnight on weekends). SMA Healthcare staff there can help deescalate a crisis and/or assist with transportation to a Baker Act facility in Daytona Beach.
Visit www.flaglerlifeline.org for local mental health resources and information.
Halifax Health also lists resources for people needed help at https://www.halifaxhealth.org/services-treatments/our-services/behavioral-health/connect-4-hope
Halifax Health Child & Adolescent Behavioral Services, 841 Jimmy Ann Dr., Daytona Beach, 386-425-3900
The Jason Foundation at http://jasonfoundation.com/about-us
AdventHealth DeLand offers Behavioral Health Services to stabilize patients in crisis, treat psychiatric symptoms and provide safe detox from chemical dependency. AdventHealth also offers psychiatric services remotely in the ER at AdventHealth in Palm Coast and New Smyrna Beach.
She said after his father’s death, her son went into a deep depression. Gina Miller said Eddie Miller began seeing a psychiatrist after his father was shot and was taking medication to help with his PTSD.
Besides Eddie Miller’s health problems, the family also struggled financially.
“I mean we couldn’t even afford food,” Gina Miller said. “I was going to food banks to get food and we were not doing well at all until I got my second job and now I’m working two full-time jobs.”
On Sept. 2, 2018, the son and mother began arguing. Eddie wanted to go to a steakhouse. Gina said she couldn’t afford it.
The argument escalated and Eddie went into his room and came out with a knife. Gina Miller took it away from him. He returned with his pistol. Gina Miller took that away from him, too.
She tossed the firearm into his room, an action she wishes she could have back.
Eddie retrieved the gun again and called for his mother. Gina Miller did not turn around but she heard what happened next — a single gunshot.
Her son was on the floor.
Gina Miller said there were no signs that Eddie Miller was suicidal.
“There was no indication at all,” she said. “All he did was tell me that before he did it that I didn’t know how bad his flashbacks were and the trouble that he was having with his stomach and that was the last thing he said to me before he shot himself in the head.”
She has struggled with guilt and sadness since the shooting.
“Throwing the gun in the corner, I feel so guilty about that, because I should have kept the gun,” Miller said. “But that’s something I’m just going to have to learn to live with.”
No good reasons
Tyrone Hartley fit most of the demographics. He was an older man, and a bit of a loner.
The letter from Hartley, a 58-year-old retired postal worker living in Palm Coast, arrived at his friend’s home near Detroit on June 11, 2018.
“What’s up bro?” it began.
But the rest of the letter alarmed Tyrone Rogers, who shared his longtime friend’s first name in a friendship that included yearly get togethers in Florida.
“I’m gon give you 5 reasons why I’m done,” the letter said.
“It wasn’t no good reasons,” Rogers said months later.
Rogers called authorities, but it was too late. From indications in a report, Hartley was dead long before Rogers opened the letter or a Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy opened the door to Hartley’s duplex on Bunker Knolls Lane. The deputy turned on a light and found Hartley’s body on a bed. Nearby was a .38-caliber revolver. He had shot himself in the head.
Tyrone Rogers said he met his friend Tyrone Hartley more than 20 years ago when they both worked at a post office in Detroit. He said the two stayed in touch even after Hartley moved to Palm Coast. Rogers would visit him yearly and the two would take Florida road trips before Rogers would return to Michigan.
He said he was surprised when he received the letter.
He knew that the Veteran’s Administration had denied disability benefits for Hartley, a Navy veteran. And he knew Hartley was unhappy about a car he had purchased. But there was nothing to suggest he would kill himself.
“I usually talked to him at least once or twice a week,” he said.
Rogers saw him two months before he committed suicide. “He seemed like he was in good spirits. It caught me by surprise.”
While Hartley never married, he had five children. Rogers and some of the children traveled to Florida after learning of his death.
Hartley wrote in the letter to Rogers about being unable to sleep and “Depression Big Time Can’t Eat Don’t Wanna Play Lottery or Games or Music.”
Rogers said the reasons in the letter were not a reason for anyone to kill themselves.
“He didn’t like a lot of things that were going on in his life and that’s why he decided to do what he did,” the friend said. “He gave reasons. He didn’t give good reasons.”
A teen cuts short a promising life; family members wonder why
Everything seemed to be going well for 18-year-old Nick Urban.
He had graduated from Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. He was planning on earning a computer science degree and then enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. Urban, a musician, chose the Marines because he believed it had the best band in the military.
Urban picked up his high school transcripts to mail to the Texas school where he planned to study computer science. A week later on Sept. 11, 2018, he picked up a gun and shot himself.
His mother, Sue Urban, does not know what drove her son, who faced a bright future, to end his life. What she does know is that she wants to do whatever she can to spare others the horrible pain that suicide caused her family.
“Hiding it doesn’t help,” she said. “I’ve learned through years of experience through being a paramedic and seeing other people’s suffering. When you shut down and you don’t deal with the situation, nothing is being solved. By addressing it head on and continuing to find answers, that’s what’s going to help that next person, and my son’s story might be able to save somebody else.”
The News-Journal collected and analyzed every local report of suicide and attempted suicide in 2018. The effort was part of a first-of-its kind overall analysis of every incident in which a person was shot in Volusia and Flagler counties.
Urban was one of two 18-year-olds to commit suicide in 2018, making them the two youngest to take their own lives.
Sue Urban keeps a memorial to her son just inside her home in Palm Coast. Two large photos of him are on a table. In between the photos is a simple white box holding Nick's ashes. She hopes to spread them in Ireland someday. There are other mementos with meanings linked to the young life lost. A beer stein lists Nick's name along with all his classmates who graduated from Matanzas High School in 2018. His high school diploma is next to the stein. A U.S. Marine Corps flag, a bottle of Fiji water, his favorite, and a candle are all on the table.
“He’s always with me. He’s always here. I feel him around me,” Sue Urban said, “Whether there’s an afterlife or not, I feel like there is. He’s still here. He is our guardian angel. He’s watching over us. Little things will happen and will make us say, ‘Hi Nick, we know you’re here. We love you, bud.' ”
Sue Urban said they had named their younger son, Nicholas D’Artagnan Urban. “D’Artagnan” was for a central character in the novel “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas. She and her ex-husband got the idea for the name after seeing the movie “The Man in the Iron Mask” while she was pregnant with Nick.
Nick was a skilled musician who played the soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet, piano and steel drums.
“Nick was the kid that would walk into a house or walk into a room and the whole room, the vibe of the room, would change because he was always happy and smiling,” Sue Urban said.
The question of why he decided to end his life remains. Sue Urban said Nick had been hit hard by the death of his friend Michelle Taylor, a 16-year-old Matanzas band member who was struck by a car in March 2017 as she walked along Lakeview Boulevard, a dark stretch of road in Palm Coast without street lights or sidewalks.
Nick Urban’s grief motivated him to join others to push for more street lights in Palm Coast, and the efforts got results. The city announced in November a draft plan to install street lights along Lakeview and Belle Terre Parkway this year at a cost of about $147,000. Forty-two new streetlights switched on last month along a new pathway running by Lakeview Boulevard.
Nick Urban had become depressed after his friend's death and had seen a counselor. But he seemed to be doing OK and had shown no signs of being suicidal before he took his life. The last time he saw a counselor was about a year before he took his life.
The Flagler County School District has worked hard to prevent suicides, said Colleen Conklin, vice chair of the Flagler County School Board. Since the suicide of a student in 2013, the school district has added additional guidance counselors, mental health counselors and psychologists in all the schools, she said.
But she said it can be difficult to get some families to accept services. About 10 percent of families reject them. Sometimes families want to keep things private. Other times cultural reasons are behind the rejection.
“If your child was sick with a fever you’d take them to a doctor. If a child or an adult had cancer, we wouldn’t think twice about them receiving treatment. But when it comes to mental health, we don’t want to do that, Conklin said. “In some ways, that stigma attached to mental wellness is still there.”
Sue Urban, though, said there were no signs her son was about to commit suicide. The Sunday before his death he had spent an enjoyable day with his father at a water park in Georgia.
Both Sue Urban and her ex-husband had been battling health problems, and she thinks that perhaps weighed on her son. She had had open heart surgery in April 2018 and a heart attack in July. Nick’s father, Jason Urban, has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The two are divorced and have another son, Zach, who is 20 and graduated from Matanzas High School in 2016.
“He was struggling (with fears) that he was going to lose both of us,” she said of Nick.
She said that Nick and his brother both were taught about guns when they were only 3- or 4-years-old. They would go out with their parents to a range to fire .22-caliber pistols. As they grew older, they would try out bigger handguns — .40-caliber and 9 mm pistols.
She said Nick's suicide using a gun has not changed her attitude about firearms. She still owns a gun and so does Nick's father.
"I've always been pro gun," Sue Urban said. "Both of my children learned how to use guns when they were very young. I taught them how to respect them and properly take care of them and not to play with them."
She said Nick took the gun he used to commit suicide out of his father's gun safe. He knew where the key was, he was 18, and he was trusted with the weapon.
"It hasn't changed my opinion on firearms," she said. "I still believe everyone has the right to bear arms and be able to protect themselves and their property with firearms."
But experts say guns and a suicidal person are a particularly bad mix, and last year's numbers bear that out. In 2018, all 89 people who attempted suicide with a gun in Volusia and Flagler counties were successful in killing themselves. By contrast, of all 365 local suicide attempts that did not involve a gun last year, only 10 were successful.
Nick did not confide in his mother what was troubling him. He didn’t tell his brother Zack, even though the two were buddies as well as brothers.
In the days before he took his own life, Nick also deleted his social media accounts.
“It wasn’t like there was a detailed note or anything like that. The messages that he did leave were very cryptic as far as, you know, ‘It’s not your fault I did this. It’s my choice,’ ” Sue Urban said. “The only thing that he really indicated that was bothering him was the statement that someone was trying to ruin his life and they pretty much had.”
But there has been no answer as to whom Nick was referring.
His mother carries on, hoping to prevent another young life to be lost.
“My strength comes from knowing that I can somehow help somebody else,” Sue Urban said, her voice breaking as she struggled with her emotions. “And I will do whatever I have to do to make sure it doesn’t happen to another family because it’s torn our family apart. We are missing a piece. I miss a piece of my heart every day."
One year of Volusia-Flagler shootings - how we did it
To report this project, The Daytona Beach News-Journal for the first time ever compiled records on every shooting over the course of a year in which a person was killed or wounded in Volusia and Flagler counties.
Our reporting sought to include every shooting victim from 2018, including those shot by others or themselves, intentionally or by accident.
Police and other government agencies don’t list or track every shooting injury — many are non-criminal — so reporters Suzanne Hirt, Frank Fernandez, Patricio G. Balona and Matt Bruce made dozens of public records requests to all 15 local police agencies to obtain incident reports on the 176 people shot in 2018. The aggregated data and details — provided with analysis and visualization help from Data Editor Dinah Voyles Pulver — became the basis for this project.
We found that shootings that are investigated as crimes are well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and some records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.
READ MORE IN THE SERIES:
We found that shootings that were investigated as crimes were well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings, only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.
The News-Journal, except in rare instances, doesn’t write stories about suicides that are committed in private, so without even a news report, public documents were much harder to obtain weeks or months later.
"The cold fact that the vast majority of fatal shootings turned out to be suicides is something that deserves further reporting," said News-Journal Editor Pat Rice. "Whatever one's thoughts are about guns, it's important that as a community we work harder to prevent people from harming themselves. That's an issue The News-Journal will continue to pursue."
As the data collecting continued, reporters attempted to contact all 64 people who survived a shooting last year. Most were hard to reach or find, but Hirt interviewed several of them and their loved ones, including: a woman whose partner shot her at close range; two children wounded in accidental shootings; two men who shot themselves unintentionally; and the roommate of a man who committed suicide. Other survivors reached declined to discuss their ordeals.
Fernandez looked at gun suicides, which accounted for the majority of local and national shooting deaths last year. Fernandez spoke to a mother whose adult son shot himself to death in their Volusia County home four years after the son witnessed an undercover sheriff’s deputy shoot and kill his father.
Reporters also mined federal government agencies’ databases and reports to bring context to the local data The News-Journal collected. Sources used outside of local law enforcement include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide-prevention and firearms injuries studies and, for fatalities, medical examiners.
John Gallas is The News-Journal's deputy managing editor for digital and editor for crime, courts and breaking news in Volusia County.