The Improbable Death Of Susan Keegan
by Bruce Anderson, February 25, 2011
Peter & Susan Keegan
Shock and disbelief were almost simultaneous. One of the Ukiah Valley’s most active and popular figures, Susan Keegan, had been found dead in her South Ukiah home on Whitmore Lane.
The shock of the terrible news had no sooner ricocheted through the Ukiah Valley than a unanimous disbelief set in: Susan Keegan could not have died the way she was said to have died.
By noon Thursday, on the perfect late fall day of November 11th, the most prevalent story went like this:
“Susan was drunk and on drugs when she fell in her bathroom, hit her head and died. Her husband, Dr. Peter Keegan, found her about 7:00 in the morning.”
According to sources close to the investigation, a neatly arrayed tableau of the painkiller medication Vicodin, a couple of marijuana roaches and a glass of whiskey were found on Mrs. Keegan’s nightstand. The fatal injury was described as “blunt force trauma to the head.”
Mrs. Keegan had never been seen drunk or seriously impaired, although her circle of close friends knew she used marijuana regularly and enjoyed the occasional cocktail. As active as she was in the community someone certainly would have noticed the telltale signs of uncontrolled substance use, the permanently flushed face and broken veins of drinking, the missed appointments, whole days spent incommunicado. Instead, Susan’s friends and family saw the same steady, reliable, prudent woman they’d always seen, rather more matronly in her middle fifties, but a person whose personal behavior was unchanged over the years.
The only person who would say that Susan Keegan was a clandestine substance abuser was her husband, and he’d only begun saying that to his wife’s best friends and family about the same time he’d told Susan, 55, that he wanted out of their 32 years of marriage.
Which was early in October.
There hadn’t been a word from the doctor about Mrs. Keegan’s sudden descent into dipsomania and indiscriminate pill popping until a month before the doctor found her dead in their shared home. The couple had traveled together that summer, and the people they visited saw nothing amiss in their relationship. Prior to October, the doctor had made no mention of his wife’s alleged dependence on opiates.
Both Keegans were well known in Ukiah, so well known you could say that they were synonymous with the community. Parents of two grown sons, the Keegans had lived in Ukiah for many years. Dr. Keegan had functioned as family doctor “to half the town one time or another,” as a former patient put it, while his wife Susan fashioned a social and professional life that ranged from work as a newspaper reporter, English teacher at Mendocino College, and head of the local American Cancer Society, to after-hours commitments to a book club, a singing group and the area's amateur theater troupes.
In early October, Mrs. Keegan's husband of 32 years had told his wife he wanted a divorce. The demand had surprised Mrs. Keegan, but it hadn't plunged her into the immobilized depression that often paralyzes a spouse caught unawares. Susan Keegan wasn’t one for self-pity. She immediately began to plan a new life for herself.
Shortly before she died six weeks later, Susan had written a friend, “Things have been bad here, at least for me. It is hard to have a choice made for you, especially one as big as this, and with what seems to me to be no warning.”
Dr. Keegan had had a heart attack the year before his surprise announcement that he wanted out of his marriage. Mrs. Keegan had pushed him to get medical care and urged him to make some lifestyle changes; the doctor told friends he was grateful for his wife's help and support. But Susan had also told her closest friends that he could be moody, and the couple’s marriage had survived a rough patch of marital turbulence a decade prior. The heart attack seemed to bring home a sense of mortality to Peter and his behavior became more erratic. By the last month of Susan’s life, the doctor had become impossible.
Susan told a friend, “Much venom has come my way…. He has these brain stutters from time to time, and this feels very like the others. They are not fun.”
Becoming alarmed at Susan’s accounts of the verbal abuse heaped on her by Peter, at least three of Susan’s close friends offered her the sanctuary of their homes.
“I am feeling,” Susan wrote of her life with Peter, “like he is trying to push me out, so I am not going anywhere. Besides, I have the play [Hamlet at Mendocino College] and there are rehearsals almost every day now, so going away is not going to happen for me….”
In a reference to Peter’s calls to family and friends telling them that he was the victim in the relationship, that it was his wife’s descent into alcohol and drugs that had forced him into the divorce courts, Susan had written, “Don’t be surprised if Peter calls you soon. He is very concerned about ‘who knows’ and has already contacted others to get his story in first…this feels very familiar — we’ve been here many times. This time, however, the boys are grown and I don’t feel at all threatened. At some level, he is giving me a very easy out if I want to take it. I am worried about him tho — I don’t believe he really wants a divorce, and I know he would be devastated by any divorce settlement. I like the counselor, and she saw Peter years ago. He picked her, and I think he showed himself clearly enough in our first session that she can see a bit of where this is coming from. If after 32 years of marriage he can’t think of anything he likes about me, that says way more about him than it does about me. I am hopeful that she can reach him and find some way to get him to see what he is doing. If not, a divorce would not devastate me. Sometimes it seems like an easy way out. Thanks for offering your place to stay. I am relying on my friends to get me through this, and so far, that is working well. I am sad, angry, feeling betrayed and more, but I don’t feel threatened. I will get through this just fine. I, am, however, worried about Peter, who is feeling very alone, abused and unwanted. I don’t know if I can take care of him any longer, but I do think he needs help. Hopefully, the counselor will be able to be his friend.”
Meanwhile, the doctor was telling mutual friends and family that the problem was all Susan, that not only was she drinking heavily and promiscuously popping Vicodin pills, she was denying him access to the marital bed. The suffering husband even complained that Susan hadn’t been leaving his newspapers neatly folded and ready to read when he returned from his two days a week at the Round Valley Health Center in Covelo.
Susan, under the enormous pressure of suddenly being faced with life on her own, had carried on. In the week before she died, she had performed in a Mendocino College production of Hamlet, had hosted a cast party at her home for which she’d done all the cooking, put in an unknown number of hours on her contract job with Breathe California, attended a rehearsal with her vocal group, enjoyed a Tai Chi class, and had even found the time to bring a sick friend a container of turkey soup.
And on the last day of her life, Susan Keegan had attended a 9am art class, and then enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a good friend. By four that afternoon she was driving south on 101 to meet two close friends in Santa Rosa for a working dinner.
They had offered to help Susan assess her looming new financial situation as a divorced, single woman. Susan hadn’t wanted a divorce but her husband was insistent, and now she needed to determine exactly how much money she would have to begin her new life.
At her friends’ Santa Rosa home, Susan had one drink at about 5:30pm. They enjoyed a dinner and then sat down to go over Susan’s finances.
“It was a serious working evening,” one of the friends recalls. “We had that one drink before dinner and that was it. She was tired but focused and engaged. There was nothing about her behavior that was unusual or self-destructive.”
As the friends walked Susan out to her car, Susan commented on their garden. “She'd noticed that the lilies in our pond were still blooming, and she’d said how beautiful they were. A depressed person wouldn’t have noticed.”
It was 9pm when Susan headed back to her home in South Ukiah, a drive of about an hour from Santa Rosa.
The next morning she was dead.
Dr. Keegan said he'd noticed that “all the lights in her bedroom were on.” When he went into the bathroom adjoining his wife’s room, Susan was on the floor with an apparently lethal gash to her head. When the police arrived, the doctor told them that his wife had a drinking problem, and that she was also prone to taking Vicodin, an opiate designed for the relief of physical pain. The doctor told police that his wife had probably become so impaired by a combination of the Irish whiskey she preferred and Vicodin that she’d fallen in her bathroom, hit her head and died.
In other words, at the end of a busy evening in Santa Rosa, and with her usual full day ahead of her the next morning, Susan had arrived home at ten at night to wash down prescription medication with enough alcohol to transform her into a staggering, accidental death.
“I’d never even seen Susan stumble,” says a close friend, “and are you telling me she comes home in the middle of the night and commences to get so loaded she is falling down drunk? And how convenient. She falls hard enough and hits her head in just the right place to kill her.”
The Keegans weren’t sharing a bedroom at that terminal point in their deteriorating relationship. He lived at one end of their modest ranch-style house, she at the other. He said he hadn't heard any sounds from his wife's end of the home the previous night.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department determined that the injury to Mrs. Keegan's head could have been sustained by a fall but they were careful to take a blood sample which, as of this week, has still not been made public. Four months is a long time for a toxicology report.
Mrs. Keegan's friends are unanimous that she had never been a heavy drinker, although they acknowledge she was a pot smoker and used prescription painkillers periodically. “If she had two drinks in one night that would have been a lot for her,” a friend says. “This lady got up every morning and did things. There was nothing in her everyday behavior that even hinted that she would go home at night and get bombed.”
The only person who claimed Mrs. Keegan was a secret drunk was her husband, and he'd only begun saying that right about the same time he'd begun telling mutual friends that he couldn't go on living with a person who drank so heavily and used so many narcotics.
Dr. Peter Keegan was much less socially engaged than his wife, but he enjoyed a reputation as a pleasant, affable man who’d become mildly notorious a few years ago as one of the public faces of marijuana on the advocacy end of the issue. For a while he advertised himself as a go-to guy for medical marijuana prescriptions. But he could be volatile. A Ukiah politician remembers the doctor “going completely off at a meeting of the Ukiah Planning Commission when we were discussing an ordinance against backyard grows. He was yelling so loudly people could hear him out in the hall, and came into the chambers to see what was going on.” Dr. Keegan took his marijuana very seriously.
Lately, the doctor has had his own problems. He’d been working at the Round Valley Indian Health Center in Covelo, where a few weeks before his wife’s sudden death, he’d been placed on suspended status because of an error he’d made having to do with an errant prescription, the wrong medicine for a patient unable to safely consume it. Dr. Keegan’s personal physician, Dr. Gary DeCrona of Ukiah, then arranged for Keegan to be placed on state disability, which pays the suspended doctor a portion of his salary while he’s not practicing. Susan wrote to a friend, “his point was that this will greatly reduce spousal support, since he won't be making his regular salary.” The doctor will reportedly be returning to his work in Covelo in March.
The news of their pending separation surprised everyone, and over the next few weeks Susan told friends and family that Dr. Keegan had become verbally abusive. When he learned that his wife was entitled to half their assets in their divorce, the doctor was said to have become even more unpleasant to his wife, worse than unpleasant, “ballistic,” was how Susan described his reaction to a friend.
Apparently, Dr. Keegan hadn't known that in California the wife gets half.
The couple had been seeing both a marriage counselor and a divorce mediator. At a meeting with the marriage counselor, Susan told close friends the counselor had asked Peter Keegan to name the “good things” about his wife.
The doctor paused and then said he couldn’t think of one.
Susan told another close friend, “He’s doing everything he can to be mean to me and to hurt me. He unrealistically wants this divorce over by Christmas. He wants it all to be over right now. He just can’t wait to be rid of me.”
Another friend remembers becoming worried when Susan told her, “He comes into my room without knocking, he reads my e-mail, he belittles me, and he's been reading my journals and making fun of the personal things he's found there.”
Peter could be manic, but there was never anything manic about Susan. From all accounts she was unvaryingly the same person — sensible and careful, the last person who would suddenly become a clandestine substance abuser.
An attractive woman whose appearance in middle age can fairly be described as sedate without seeming stolid, Susan was adopted as an infant by a New York couple named Ettinger. Her adoptive father survives her as does her birth mother, Jeanne Russo. Always a good student, Susan was a champion debater and briefly attended Radcliffe College. After becoming a couple, Peter Keegan and Susan headed west in the middle 1970s, settling first in the Potrero District of San Francisco, then in Ukiah. Susan subsequently earned a master’s degree in English literature from Sonoma State University. “Always the smartest person in the room,” Susan was a voracious reader, perhaps the single most committed patron of the Ukiah public library and liked to start every morning with the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Susan’s memorial service at Ukiah’s United Methodist Church drew nearly three hundred people. Mourners could not help but notice that Doctor Keegan was not among the speakers and had sat on the opposite side of the hall from his two sons. He did not seem sad.
Asked about his behavior, a mutual friend of Peter’s and Susan’s said: “His demeanor? He acted like some guy hosting a dinner party. If he was grieving he was doing it his own way.”
A family member who attended the service asked Peter if he was indeed grieving. He purportedly replied, “I’m not grieving now, I grieved before, when I realized the person I once loved was gone.”
Peter, in the weeks before his wife's death, had been telling friends things like, “Susan used to be the smartest person I knew, but the drugs destroyed that.” Everyone else, however, said that Susan's considerable intellectual abilities were as sharp as ever to the day she died.
Immediately after his wife’s death, the doctor seemed almost jubilant. Peter soon had a personal trainer at the Redwood Health Club in Ukiah, spent many hours bicycling around the Ukiah Valley, took up social dancing, and told a friend that “life is much better and improving all the time.”
He also opened a Facebook page on which he wrote that he was a widower “looking for friendship” and “interested in women.” But an acquaintance is quick to point out that anyone joining Facebook answers the same questions about marital status. Still, an on-line post days after your wife of 32 years has died strikes most people as unseemly. The doctor’s page was soon revised, but he is known to be seeing a Ukiah woman.
Only last week, Dr. Keegan appeared at the Sheriff’s Department where he met with Sgt. Poma to review the Coroner’s report on his wife’s death. Persons close to the investigation described Keegan’s demeanor that day as “uncooperative and kind of belligerent.”
Some of Susan’s friends and family have pooled their resources to hire their own private investigator.
The Sheriff’s investigation of Susan Keegan’s death now rests with newly-elected District Attorney David Eyster.