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Bryan Glenn's Disappearance and Death: Behind the Story

A glimpse inside Patch's newsroom decisions in covering the disappearance, and death, of Woodson High School senior.

It's been an emotional month for the Glenn family, the community that embraced them, and the folks sent to report on all this.

It's been more than two weeks since Bryan Glenn went missing after dropping his younger brother off at Woodson High School.

It's been just more than a week since volunteers found his body on the edge of Thaiss Park.

Hours ago, I returned home from Bryan's funeral at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale to read a thought-provoking rehash by the Washington Post's Tom Jackman of the nightmarish two weeks in which the Woodson-Fairfax community rallied around the search for the senior football player.

Jackman clarifies some points about the Woodson student's disappearance, how police reacted and why the Post didn't give the search and eventual location of Bryan's body the same coverage other media outlets -- including this one -- did.

It was a well-written glimpse into the decisions made in their newsroom.

I thought I'd offer you one of my own.

Fairfax City Patch first posted a brief on the missing Woodson senior on Oct. 3, two days after Bryan dropped off his brother at Woodson High School and vanished. At that point he was a teen who had been missing for long enough to warrant a police report. How often this happens nationwide, and for whatever reasons, has its own set of statistics, but in Fairfax City -- with a population of 23,000 --  it's not often.

For that reason, what was likely just another statistic or news brief for national or regional media organizations was big news for us. Our readers don't come to us for the GDP or the day to day of Congress. They come to us because we have (so they tell us) a pulse on our communities, what they're thinking and what they're talking about.

And this was all Fairfax City was talking about. The next day I received several emails from upset residents and friends of the Glenn family. They felt frustrated Bryan was portrayed as a runaway. Those emails, along with the explosion of community activity on Facebook and Twitter, urged me to consider writing more. 

So I did. I talked with , who had set up an operations center of sorts in his home kitchen. I spent time chatting with Julia Ross, who helped Bryan form his post-graduation plans. I saw Bryan's classmates go to school in all black, and captured the community vigil during their homecoming weekend. For days -- and, in some cases, even now -- I couldn't go anywhere in Fairfax City without seeing his face on missing posters.

I watched as the Woodson community helped spread fliers across Fairfax City, cooked meals for the Glenn family and embraced their neighbors in their time of need.

In all I published 13 stories chronicling the pleas from family and friends for the police and the community as a whole to take their son's disappearance as something more than just the rebellion of a disgruntled teenager.

The end in this series is one I wish I didn't have to write. Bryan's body was found, not by the officers who spent days searching with helicopters and bloodhounds, but by family, friends and volunteers.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how he died and why. Fairfax County police are awaiting a Medical Examiners report that could take months.

So we wait.

Part of doing my job throughout the case was reporting what police put out, but also being attentive to what became a daily struggle for many in this city: waiting, hoping, remembering, yearning for answers. I don't regret that or what I got to see and share: People who didn't know the Glenns donating hours organizing and attending search parties and vigils. Neighbors helping the Glenns track down every lead;comforting them in the saddest hours. Students spelled out "Find Bryan" and eventually, "RIP Bryan" with plastic red cups in the chain link fences of local high schools. 

As evidenced by the packed memorial service Tuesday, this emotional October changed Fairfax City --  through the loss of a young man and the remarkable way its community came together.

Regardless of how Bryan died, and why, that in itself is a story worth acknowledging. 

Paula October 17, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Thank you for following Bryan's case and keeping readers updated about his story. I feel grateful we have a media source that focuses on important situations within our community. Thank you for your thoughtful and caring article today. There is a lot of emotion surrounding what happened to Bryan. His story hit so close to home for me, that I felt I must get involved. There are many things about how his case was handled that upset me. Some readers wonder why people want to know why Bryan died. If it was in fact due to suicide, we want to know what steps we as a community can take to help prevent these tragedies. I don't know if Bryan committed suicide. All I know is a wonderful young man is now gone, leaving behind his family, friends and community to deeply grieve. It is often very difficult to recognize the signs of depression in a young person. They can be good at hiding what they're feeling, and the chance to help them is lost. What can we do to encourage teens to seek help from someone who cares? And how can we better react when a hurting soul does come to us? I don't want Bryan's death to have been in vain. I want his family to know the loss of their son has motivated us to seek answers. In this way we can honor those who left us far too soon, and help other young people who are struggling. Our message to the kids is you are precious to us, and we will help you find solutions to your problems without judging you. You are valuable and we care about you.
MomInFairfaxCity October 17, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Since the day that Bryan was first reported missing, it touched me in such a way that I couldn't explain. Perhaps because I have been a long time Fairfax City resident, and something tragic, like this, happened right in my own backyard. Perhaps because I am the mother to a young teenage son, who played baseball at Thaiss Park for years. Perhaps because this young man had a bright future ahead of him, and no one knows what he could have become and accomplished. At the end of the day, Bryan is at peace, and in a much better place. Bryan's life should be celebrated, and the memories of this young man remembered. It does not matter how he died, and the public needs to be respectful of the Glenn family, and give them the privacy they deserve. The Glenn family needs time to grieve and to heal. What happened to their son is no one's business but their own. Their lives have been turned upside down in the last few weeks. My prayers and blessings go out to the Glenn family - his parents, his brother, extended family and friends. Your lives will never be the same, but will be better for having had Bryan in your life for 17 years. God bless you all.
afcresident October 17, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Whitney - I think you have done a great job covering this story to the best of your ability. We know that you can only say what is being given by the police, family, etc. and you have done it with great dignity. You have kept us informed as much as you can, and you have attempted to calm the fear of the area. Sadly, this case is very different than most. My heart goes out to the Glenn Family - ever since I saw the first missing persons sign in Fair City Mall to the moment that I saw the police and the media trucks in the park - knowing what must be happening, but deep down hoping it wasn't I have turned to you for information. Thank you for handling it as well as you possibly could.
DD October 17, 2012 at 10:13 PM
Now even words of comfort to the grieving are being challenged. Wow.
EDUK8TR October 18, 2012 at 11:57 AM
TB, you should include the parents and not dumping everything on the schools. Parents run that school. Many times students will earn a low grade and parents will complain causing administrators to order teachers to raise the grade or delete the assignments. Coaches are being told not to yell at their athletes. Counselors and parents are throwing pillows around their kids. There is much less accountability for students because many parents will not trust the school, let their kid fail, learn to work harder, and then succeed. That is how self esteem increases. I would hate to attend a school where everyone tells me what I want to hear and no one holds me accountable for anything.
Ellen K October 18, 2012 at 05:31 PM
I have been so grateful for your coverage of this story. For a week, Bryan was a missing teen. As it seemed authorities in this case assumed runaway (and their actions seem to support that assumption). It was so helpful to have a "voice" questioning and reporting. I hope that the investigative parts of this situation are reviewed and that in the future we will see a better response to a missing child. It is disturbing knowing he was missing for 12 hours before he's parents were alerted (by their own schedule - not because of contact from the school). Unfortunately, this "lack of contact" when a child is missing from school is the norm at Woodson. (No - I'm not making an assumption - I've dealt with this numerous times and complained to the school every time. As we can see, nothing has changed). We all know that not every situation can be avoided. Not all tragedies can be halted. But, when we do not learn and adapt based on mistakes from our past, we are doomed to repeat.
News Junkie October 18, 2012 at 07:31 PM
I agree that there should be more education about suicide. Clearly, it is a topic that is uncomfortable for many. As a society, we need to do a better job of talking to our teens about this issue. If Bryan's death was indeed a suicide, it is especially troubling because his parents, tutor, teachers, and coaches seemed to have no idea that he was depressed. It is every parent's nightmare that something like this would happen so unexpectedly and without explanation. However, I feel like I have to stand up for educators here. How can we blame the school for this when his own FAMILY seems to have had no idea there was a problem? It is early in the school year and his teachers were just getting to know him. Most of his teachers saw him every other day for 1.5 hours. He was one of about 30 students in a classroom. The school system already has procedures in place to help students who reach out for it and those students who are referred by a teacher or another adult. Sadly, if someone is committed to the idea of suicide, it is very difficult to prevent it. We shouldn't be looking for someone to blame. No one would every think of blaming Bryan's parents and we shouldn't blame the schools either. Sometimes life gives us heart-breaking tragedies such as this one. The best we can do is examine ourselves as individuals and think of our own friends and relatives who may need a helping hand.
MomInFairfaxCity October 19, 2012 at 04:03 PM
@WTW83 - I agree wholeheartedly that Bryan's family and friends would much rather have him here than anywhere else. I was hoping and praying every day that this would be the outcome, and Bryan would safely return home. But sadly, it was not. We live in such a judgemental, cynical world - one that is filled with anger, war, poverty, etc. I guess my FAITH has a lot to do with believing that Bryan is in a better place -- at least that is how I was raised, and how I am raising my own son. We need to appreciate and hold close our loved ones and cherish each and every day together. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I certainly respect those who choose to express themselves in a thoughtful and meaningful manner.
Mom October 20, 2012 at 11:48 AM
This is all repulsive to me...this is a child, his family is greiving and we don't know all the facts. We can talk suicide prevention, religion and school blaming but what we really should see is what this article is about. A fantastic and sensitive reporter who gave this family the coverage they needed and after Bryan died, we all feel devastated. Don't place judgement as to where Bryan is now (a better place? ask his mother), don't connect two military families (we are one and have hundreds of friends whose kids aren't suffering), blame the schools (education begins at home)...just offer your sympathies to the family and move on in his memory.
peegeejay October 20, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Great job, Whitney. I know this assgnment was difficult for you. We are lucky to have you here in Fairax City.
Mom October 21, 2012 at 01:44 PM
I didn't say ALL teens aren't suffering, I said be careful about placing judgement on a family you DON'T know, about a situation you DON'T know all the facts on and your maybes don't apply...I can talk nuclear war here too, doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about. Speak about prevention, depression, community issues that are critical but don't do it in the name of Bryan because you didn't know him, didn't know his family and don't know all the facts so I caution you against using him to promote your own agenda.
Renner October 22, 2012 at 01:53 AM
VAMom's writing style is awfully similar to a certain "fantastic, sensitive reporter." Just saying.
M October 24, 2012 at 09:29 AM
A better place? If being in the ground is such a better place, as opposed to a family's loving arms, why don't you send someone you love there and have 'em send you a postcard. What a horrible thing to say.
M October 24, 2012 at 09:31 AM
I totally agree with you, WTW. People should keep their platitudes to themselves.
search and rescue coordinator October 25, 2012 at 01:45 AM
Unfortunately, I have seen what these types of situations can do to a family. I have two things to say about this. 1) support, 2) love. Support this family. We don't know what happened to this young man, but pass judgment on the family. Could'a, would'a, should'a...without the facts. what is appalling is that it takes so long to file a missing persons report, too late, especially in cases involving a minor. The police in this case should have taken in the facts presented, not based on anything else. And finally, show love to and for this family. We never know what really goes on, unless we have lived it. If you don't know what to say, to this situation, its best not to say anything. Often times we think the best thing to say is that they are in a better place, it comes across insensitive to those who are living it, or who have lived it.
ITL October 25, 2012 at 03:01 AM
A child was found dead. Please, let's stop arguing and focus on helping his family and praying that wherever he may be, he is safe. This is not the time to argue, AT ALL.
jonathan kanes October 30, 2012 at 03:27 AM
@WTW83 The Glenn family is also christian and they believe in heaven...(at least his brother is because he is a vital psrt of the christian club at woodson) these are all words of grief and i think that everyone is trying to make them feel better... i do believe that he is at peace in a better place and a way to make the glenn family move on from this tragedy is by supporting them.. not by saying that he is better on this earth when saddly we all know he has left us...
Keishla Maldonado November 02, 2012 at 07:19 AM
Everyone needs to shut up Bryan doesn't need this going like this and people arguing about what n where we will find the true results when they come other then that rip Bryan we miss you an you know your Heidelberg family loves you.
Just Thinking November 02, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Wow I am sorry I took the time to make a comment you did not like. Too bad you were never a military child who had to put up with changes all the time.
Just Thinking November 02, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Oh by the way I guess I will unsubscribe to your newsletter also
poi November 04, 2012 at 06:42 AM
@Just Thinking, I grew up as a military kid and the changes are hard, but they don't normally cause suicide.
T. Bird November 04, 2012 at 07:13 PM
poi - the changes that military kids endure don't "normally" cause suicide, but in many cases they do. Thank goodness suicide isn't "normal" but it is a serious threat to military members AND their families. VERY serious.
A reader November 10, 2012 at 11:58 PM
Military or not all kids could consider this. I'm tired of people pointing fingers at military families. How many studies have been done on families whose parents work for other organizations?

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