Hate Crime Survivor Jumps Off Cruise Ship

David Ritcheson, 18, who nearly died in a pipe beating attack and testified on Capitol Hill in support of a federal hate crimes bill, talks to a Houston Chronicle reporter in Houston, Texas, Monday, April 16, 2007. His father said Ritcheson died after jumping from a cruise ship enroute from Galveston to Cozumel Sunday, July 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Karen Warren) **MANDATORY CREDIT**
AP Photo/Karen Warren
As horrific and painful as the past year had been for hate-crime survivor David Ritcheson, his future seemed brighter — a chance to attend college for free, to devote his life to public service and to leave behind a troubled past.

The past 15 months of Ritcheson's life were focused on recovering physically and emotionally from a brutal attack in which he was beaten unconscious and sodomized with a plastic pole by a man shouting "White Power!"

But Ritcheson leaped to his death in the Gulf of Mexico from an upper deck of a Carnival Cruise ship on Sunday morning, according to several witnesses. Although his family has declined to speak publicly about the death, the family's attorney scheduled a news conference for Tuesday.

Ritcheson had endured more than two dozen painful surgeries and relied on a colostomy bag. Perhaps worse, virtually everyone he met knew who he was and what had happened to him that terrifying night in April 2006.

But many who knew him say he appeared to have emerged from that time with a newfound clarity. Thanks to the Anti-Defamation League, he had a full scholarship to the college of his choice. Like many 18-year-olds, he had not yet decided on a career path, but thought he wanted to help prevent attacks like the one he had endured.

"My sense is that he was doing relatively well," said Martin Cominsky, the regional director for the southwest region of the ADL. "We were very optimistic. It was a rather miraculous recovery."

Or so it seemed.

Ritcheson rarely discussed his feelings and declined to get counseling after being attacked at the drug-fueled teen party in April 2006. A year later, he testified before Congress in support of a hate crimes bill.

Ritcheson, a Mexican-American, was beaten and sodomized with a patio umbrella pole. He also was stomped on and burned with cigarettes, and his attackers poured bleach on him before leaving.

He was hospitalized for more than three months and endured some 30 operations. Two men were convicted of aggravated sexual assault in the attack.

Mike Trent, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ritcheson's attackers, said the small, quiet youth always seemed positive and upbeat about his recovery.

"He certainly wanted to see justice done in the case and wanted his attackers punished, but I thought that — considering everything that had happened to him — he had come through things remarkably well," Trent said.

He said Ritcheson had used drugs before the attack but realized drug use played a role in his assault and had promised to quit. According to testimony, the attack was triggered by Ritcheson's drunken pass at another teen's 12-year-old sister.

Ritcheson's death is "just very tragic because I thought he had turned a corner and was trying his best to make something positive out of what happened to him," Trent said. "He thought that he could handle everything on his own."

Although he remembered nothing of the four-hour attack, Ritcheson testified about it during congressional hearings in April on a hate-crimes bill. That bill passed the House and is pending in a Senate committee.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, said she hopes to have the measure formally named "David's Bill" in Ritcheson's honor.

"I could not have been more moved by his commitment to getting things right," Jackson Lee said Monday. "He was able to dig deep over all of the pain and all the humiliation and try to be of help to someone else."