By Anne Driscoll Alex Tresniowski
May 14, 2012 12:00 PM

On an April morning in 2009, Michelle Stephenson opened her second-floor bathroom window to let in the sunlight. Just over a year before, her daughter Kelly-smart, pretty, just 20 years old-had looped her bathrobe belt around her neck and hanged herself in her uncle’s house a few hours north of their hometown of Bridgend, Wales. Michelle and her husband, Dean, were climbing back from their crushing grief; only the day before, they had finally seen a counselor. “I hoped we’d start to feel better,” she says.

But instead, Michelle looked out the window and saw Dean, 41, in the backyard, using his jacket to hang himself from their 3-year-old daughter’s green swing set. “I ran downstairs hoping he had just done it,” Michelle, 41, remembers. “I went outside, and I knew then he was gone. Our son Dale took him down and laid him on the ground. I sat and held his hand and waited for the police.”

The deaths of Kelly and Dean were unquestionably shocking, but perhaps more disturbing, they are just two in a series of hanging deaths that have taken place in and around Bridgend since 2007. As of February 2012, an astonishing and baffling number of people in the area-79, most of them between 15 and 30-have apparently taken their lives in a gruesome procession of mortality. The mystery of the suicides is deepened by how strangely similar they are. All of them were by hanging, and only a few victims left a note. Like Michelle Stephenson’s husband, nearly all of those who killed themselves had some connection to earlier victims, and most ended their lives without warning-come right after assuring others they would never do it. While some experts believe that suicides, especially among young people, can occur in clusters, the numbers in Bridgend go beyond anything anyone has seen before. “This number of suicides in one area is completely unheard of,” said Dr. Lisa Boesky, author of When to Worry: How to Tell If Your Teen Needs Help. “Here in the States we don’t have anything this extreme, but suicide clusters do happen.”

The suicides have turned Bridgend-a working-class former mining town of some 39,000 people near the western shore of South Wales-into a place of palpable sorrow and dread. Nestled in a valley and often shadowed by dark clouds and thick fog, the town cannot escape the specter of so many unexplained deaths, and authorities there are desperately trying to prevent copycats. Two years ago police asked the media to stop covering the suicides, which has led many to believe the death toll is higher. An officer at the Bridgend police station told a reporter for PEOPLE, “I’m not allowed to talk about it. It would be my job.” And the South Wales police department declined to comment beyond saying through a press officer that “we do not believe the deaths were linked.”

The absence of concrete answers or plans on how to control the deaths has led to wild speculation: Could the deaths be the work of a serial killer? Could there be a suicide cult? Did the victims-most of them normal kids, many with solid plans for the future-make some kind of secret pact to meet on the other side? Prior to the news blackout, police insisted there was no evidence of such a cult or pact. Yet there is no denying the connections among the victims or the feeling each hanging somehow triggered the next-an unstoppable contagion that has left locals terrified. After her husband’s death, “If my son was late getting up, I was petrified, and he felt the same way about me,” Michelle, a schoolteacher’s assistant, says of her son, now 19. “I still wonder sometimes what am I going to find upstairs.”

The horror began on Jan. 5, 2007, when the decomposed body of Dale Crole was found hanged in an abandoned warehouse near Bridgend. Dale, 18, left no note. Just six weeks later, one of his friends, David Dilling, 19-a boy who had recently told his mother, “I’m going to see the world”-hanged himself from a tree behind a church. Then one of David’s friends, Tom Davies, 20, laid out his suit for David’s funeral, walked to the tree where his friend had died and hanged himself from an adjacent tree.

After that the deaths continued at a sickening pace. In August 2007 Zachary Barnes, 17 and hoping to become a fitness instructor, hanged himself from a clothesline in a neighbor’s yard. In January 2008 the first female victim-Natasha Randall, 17, tall and pretty and always cheerful-was found by her father hanging from a banister in their home.

The next month a man walking his dog in a field found Jenna Parry, 16, hanging from a tree in a clearing; she’d used a low branch, so she looked like she was kneeling in prayer. Her mother, Anne, says her daughter left the house upset that her ex-boyfriend was seeing another girl. Still, “I think she made a mistake. She never meant for it to go that far,” she says, fighting back tears. There are other cases like Jenna’s, in which some setback or argument has been followed by a hanging. Liam Clarke, 20, was a champion tae kwon do black belt and stellar employee at a Bridgend recycling company. At a Christmas party he wore a blow-up Santa suit and cracked up his coworkers. But two days after that Christmas in 2007, following an argument with his girlfriend, Liam was found hanged in a playground. “It was like he had a tantrum and said, ‘I’ll show you,'” says his mother, Alison. “I think that’s what a lot of them have done. They’re like, ‘I’m going to show you then.'”

In other cases it seems like some relentless force is possessing the victims. Justin Beecham, 20, “went from being a happy-go-lucky guy to a zombie,” says his mother, Elaine. In February 2010 Justin admitted he was feeling suicidal, and his parents arranged for him to see a counselor. One night he went to the very tree where his friend Tom Davies had died, slung a bathrobe tie over a branch and tried to kill himself. The tie broke, and Justin called an ambulance. Hours later, he told his mother, “Lucky for you, it snapped.” About 1:45 a.m., Justin grabbed a belt and stormed out of the house; his mother phoned police. “I could hear the police yelling, ‘Justin!'” she recalls. “Then I heard a scream, and ‘Get a knife, quick.'” This time, Justin succeeded.

Some believe the wave of hangings has made other young people in Bridgend feel hopeless and drawn to a dark and seemingly popular alternative. “When one person starts doing it, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, it’s cool to do it,’ but it’s not,” says Jack Mantell, 17, who was friends with the youngest victim so far-Carl Robertshaw, a sweet 13-year-old who died in 2010. At the funeral of Liam Clarke in January 2008, his friend (and ex-girlfriend) Kelly Stephenson told her mother, “I cannot believe he would be so selfish,” recalls Michelle. But one day after learning her cousin Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, had hanged himself, Kelly did the same.

Since the hangings began there has been a sameness to the rituals forced on those who lost loved ones: parents trudging to the morgue to identify their children; teens getting tattoos to honor their friends. The sadness is overwhelming, but the people of Bridgend are fighting not to give in to the darkness-not to be, as British tabs have called them, “the town with no hope.” For her 40th-birthday celebration, Michelle Stephenson—who has lost six family members and close friends-invited 150 guests and chose a prom theme. Everyone bought gowns, and a deejay spun old songs-as if, for one night, they could roll back time. “People told me they were proud of me,” she says. “I pick myself up and carry on.”

But in Bridgend a haunting question is never far from anyone’s mind: Why did they all want to go? “This is one of those mysteries where we may never know the answer,” says Liam Clarke’s father, Kevin. “Not in a million years.”