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Gehring commits suicide in his cell

Death dims hope of finding victims

CONCORD, N.H. -- Manuel Gehring, the man charged with murdering his two children after a July 4 fireworks show last year, killed himself early yesterday in the jail where he was awaiting trial.

Gehring strangled himself while in his bed, and correction officers who checked his cell at least twice during the night saw nothing suspicious. His suicide ends the criminal case against him in the murder of Sarah, 14, and Philip, 11.

But Gehring is survived by the mystery of where his children's bodies lie. Investigators have unsuccessfully searched miles of Midwest flatlands, tracing the route Gehring traveled after he left New Hampshire in his green Pontiac van.

"Today involves . . . a case where tragedy has now compounded with further tragedy," Attorney General Peter W. Heed said at a press conference yesterday.

Gehring, 44, was last seen alive between 11 and 11:30 Wednesday night at the Merrimack County House of Corrections, when he was required to stand in his cell as guards performed head counts, said Simon Brown, a senior assistant attorney general.

Authorities said that at least twice during the night, and possibly more often, correction officers passed by his cell to perform routine bed checks, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"He was in his bed," Brown said. "Nothing looked amiss."

Gehring's lifeless body was discovered, still in his bed, at 4:25 a.m. yesterday, after he didn't respond when correction officers asked him to stand for the first head count of the day, just before breakfast.

Officials would not say whether he left a note or describe the details of his suicide, other than to say he strangled himself with a ligature, a piece of rope or other cord. After an autopsy, Gehring's death was ruled a suicide, but officials said that with no evidence of foul play, the investigation will continue. They did not release other details of the autopsy and did not specify an exact time of death.

In response to a question about how Gehring strangled himself, Brown said, "There are ways other than the traditional hanging from the ceiling where someone could strangle themselves." He would not specify the position in which Gehring was found.

Sarah Gehring's best friend, Sally Foster, 15, a classmate at Concord High School said she spoke yesterday with Gehring's former wife, Teresa Knight.

"She said she was doing okay," Foster said. "We were both hoping he had left some sort of suicide note, but apparently he hadn't."

Gehring was not on suicide watch, but he was in protective custody, in which each inmate is isolated in a cell for 23 hours each day. Officials said inmates are placed in protective custody for a variety of reasons, including when their alleged crimes involved children.

Barbara Keshen, one of Gehring's lawyers, said he refused to take antidepressants after he was diagnosed as depressed by a psychiatrist hired by his defense team.

"He had had a chronic depression virtually his whole adult life," she said. "I think people weren't aware of it because he's an articulate man, he's a bright man and he didn't express it."

Even as Gehring's life ended, the pain over the children's missing bodies lingered. "There will never be closure here," said Gene Connelly, principal of Concord High School, where a grief counselor was available yesterday for students. Sarah Gehring, who would have been a sophomore this year, had been a popular cheerleader at the school.

"It is pretty upsetting, said her friend, Foster, who stayed home from school yesterday after waking up to news of the suicide. "It is really discouraging. You wonder if they are ever going to find them without him helping."

Knight and her family had hoped Gehring would eventually lead authorities to the children's graves, said David S. Phillips, the lawyer who represented her in custody hearings. Yesterday, the family feared Gehring's death would lessen the chances of finding the bodies, he said.

"It was our hope he would remember details that he hadn't disclosed that would have been helpful in remembering where he had placed both Sarah and Philip," he said. "We still remain hopeful that come spring, Sarah and Philip will be found, and there will be final closure for the family."

Knight has not spoken to reporters since her children disappeared. "She has intentionally remained quiet and secluded so she can deal with the pain of these events," Phillips said. "Today revisits all of that."

The two children were last seen publicly on Friday, July 4, at Concord's annual fireworks display. A witness heard Gehring and his daughter argue at the end of the evening, after she arrived late with her boyfriend, and both children were reportedly crying as they left in Gehring's Pontiac van. He was supposed to take Philip to summer camp on Sunday.

Knight called police two days later after he failed to return the children. When Gehring was arrested July 10 in Gilroy, Calif., police searched his van, finding bullet fragments, blood, and brain matter. Investigators believed Gehring killed his children in the van while they were still in New Hampshire and then drove cross-country and buried them along the way.

Gehring pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder. His trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 7.

"Manny cooperated completely with the FBI," Keshen said of the effort to find the children's bodies. "He couldn't locate them."

Investigators who spent months combing areas along a 500-mile stretch of flatlands next to Interstate 80 in the Midwest said yesterday that with Gehring's death, they might have lost their best hope of finding the children's shallow graves. Sheriff Greg Dhaene, who held Gehring in his LaGrange County, Ind., jail in July when the area was being searched, said his death is disheartening to those who aided in the search for the children.

"It is certainly going to be a hindrance, because he would be the person with the best knowledge of where those children are," Dhaene said.

Investigators examined farms at dozens of locations in the region that matched Gehring's descriptions of their burial site.

In Howe, Ind., investigators searched the farm of Marlin and Christy Stutzman in July.

"We were just talking about it the other day, wondering if they ever found the children or if he ever talked," said Christy Stutzman, who learned of Gehring's death during a phone interview with a Globe correspondent. "We are always going to keep our eyes out for them because it sounded like they were somewhere in the area."

Gehring's suicide, she said, seemed like a "last statement to the world that he wasn't going to help find them."

Globe correspondents Steve Eder and James Pindell contributed to this report.

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