MORE AND MORE, POLICE SGT. Terrance Yeakey just seemed to be looking for some peace. Thus, on the night of May 7, four days before he was to receive a medal for his valor in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Yeakey climbed into his maroon Ford. With his Bible and a copy of In Their Names, a commemorative book about the blast, he drove to a field near El Reno, where he had grown up, 30 miles from Oklahoma City, and slit his wrists. Then he staggered half a mile into a gully and shot himself in the head.
With that desperate act, the Oklahoma City explosion, already responsible for the deaths of 168 people, may have claimed another victim. Four nights later, Yeakey’s suicide hung like a pall over the 1,100 people who filled the National Cowboy Hall of Fame for the police department’s awards ceremony paying tribute to its heroes in the April 1995 bombing. “I never thought I’d have to bury my dear friend and receive this award on the same day,” says Officer Jim Ramsey, 27, one of the 92 men and women honored that evening. To Ramsey and others, Yeakey was a genuine hero: Not only had he pulled three men and a woman from the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, but he had dedicated himself to helping schoolchildren. Since August, he had been assigned to a drug education unit and traveled from school to school, counseling students, playing basketball with them and reading to them. “He loved kids,” says Ramsey. “That’s what drove him, the kids.”
What drove him over the edge was a little less clear. A divorced father of four, Yeakey, 30, had his share of romantic and financial woes. He also had a chronic back injury (brought on when he fell two stories through a hole in the Murrah building during the rescue), insomnia and nightmares. Still, says Lt. Joe Ann Randall, “He was in the office on Monday, as lively and happy as could be. You had no idea. We didn’t know the depth of his pain.”
Early on, Terry Yeakey learned to smile to hide bad feelings. The sixth of seven children born to a parks employee in Enid, Okla., Yeakey—along with his brother Leslie and sister Vickie—was adopted at age 6 months by the late Zarakov Yeakey, an aircraft mechanic from El Reno, and his wife, Juanita, a nurse. The family’s practical joker and marathon talker, Terry was also an emotional perfectionist who was reluctant to display anger or sadness. “Every waking moment Terry was thinking of helping somebody else,” says his sister Lashon Hargrove, 29.
After earning an associate’s degree in psychology from Redlands Community College in El Reno in 1986, he enlisted in the Army and became a military policeman. He joined the Oklahoma City police in 1990 and was called up for service in the Persian Gulf in December. There his duties included the mass burial of civilians killed in the war. “When he came back, you could tell there was a major change in him,” says his sister Vickie. “He wasn’t the same.”
Back home in 1991, Yeakey tried to put down roots. He married Tonia Rivera, his college sweetheart, who is now a state clerical worker. They had two daughters, McKenna, 4, and Sheridan, 2, but went through a bitter divorce in 1995. (Yeakey also had two sons, Brandon, 10, and Braden, 20 months, by other women.)
The bombing of the Murrah building deepened Yeakey’s distress. What others saw as his heroism he regarded only as failure. “He’d say, ‘Had I not fallen, I could’ve saved more lives,’ ” recalls his biological mother, Almar Jarrahi, 53. After the bombings, Yeakey apparently fell behind on child-support payments, which forced him to work as many as three extra jobs, at night and on weekends. Last summer, after his adoptive mother died, his sister Lashon grew especially concerned. “He looked distant,” she says. “He said, ‘Man, my sleep is all messed up. I wake up at night, and my bedcovers are wringing wet.’ ”
Yeakey shrugged off suggestions from family and friends that he get counseling. In recent weeks he confided to Ramsey that he felt uncomfortable about receiving a medal and didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. On the night before his death, sheriff’s deputies found him sitting, disoriented, in his car by the roadside. They brought him to his sister Vickie’s house, where, exhausted, he spoke about the explosion, confiding that he was haunted by images of dead children and terrified of his own nightmares. “I’m afraid of what I might do,” he said. Yet after a nap he seemed refreshed and left. That was the last time Vickie saw him.
On May 11, several hundred mourners gathered in the redbrick Wesley United Methodist Church in El Reno to bid Yeakey farewell. The communal grieving helped, but it also served as a sobering reminder that, a year later, the bomb that destroyed the Murrah building still poses a threat. “I hope this is a wake-up call,” says police chaplain Jack Poe, “to our department and the others that are hurting.”
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in El Reno