WESTPHALIA, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan State Police are investigating the deaths of an elementary school principal and his son as a possible murder-suicide.
On Monday night, authorities found 52-year-old George Heckman and 28-year-old Grant Heckman of Westphalia dead inside a van on a dirt two-track off Tow Road near Boyer Road in Bushnell Township, west of Carson City, according to MSP.
Autopsy results show that both men died of gunshot of wounds and evidences indicates that George Heckman’s wounds were self inflicted, according to Michigan State Police news release.
George Heckman was the principal of Pewamo Elementary School. Pewamo-Westphalia Superintendent Dr. Garth Cooper confirmed Grant was George Heckman’s oldest son. Cooper said he understood that Grant Heckman had “severe physical disabilities.”
The search started with a missing person report in Clinton County, MSP said.
Cooper said when George Heckman didn’t show up at a board meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, the search for him intensified.
“He wouldn’t miss that board meeting unless something had gone wrong,” he said.
Cooper said authorities told him they found the two around 7:45 p.m. Monday. Cooper said he had no idea why George Heckman would be in the Carson City area.
George Heckman was supposed to take over as superintendent of Pewamo-Westphalia schools in 10 days, Cooper told 24 Hour News 8. Cooper is leaving the district to lead Allendale Public Schools starting July 1.
“George grew up in Pewamo, lives in Westphalia and has been the elementary principal for over 20 years. He is very well connected to this community, knows the history of it, knows the people. I don’t know many other people in this area who are more connected then George Heckman was. So his passing is tragic not only for his family but will be a great loss for the people of this whole area,” said Cooper, who asked people to pray for the Heckman family and school community.
THE STRESS OF CARING FOR A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
George Heckman was also the vice president of Austin’s House, a group focused on developing long-term living services for people with disabilities. The group’s website said Heckman’s son had severe cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair.
Luke Pohl is the founder and president Austin’s House, which is in Westphalia. He grew up with George Heckman. The two men both went on to study education and later had sons with special needs.
“He (George Heckman) had a son with cerebral palsy. I had a son with autism,” Pohl said. “He just gave and gave and gave even though he had his issues with his son at home, he continued to feel sorry for us with our son at home and he always wanted to volunteer.”
Pohl knows all too well about how caring for a child with special needs can take you to what he calls a “dark” place.
“There is tremendous pressure in homes with children, young adults, where their parents are taking care of them 24/7, and that pressure builds over a period of years,” Pohl explained.
Beyond the stress is the reality that there is only so much parents can do to help their kids.
“You have a special relationship with your child,” Pohl said. “You see them in agony, you see in them in pain. It hits you in a much different way than anything else because they can’t express it to you.”
He says there needs to be more help and support for the parents.
“There is not, probably not, that safety net with the family,” he said.
He and others described Heckman was a dedicated husband, loving father and passionate educator.
“George was very compassionate. He always was the champion of the underdog student, the one who always came from a struggling background, the one who maybe had special educational needs. He also wanted to make sure every student from (every) socioeconomic background got what they needed to be successful as well. He worked harder than any principal I’ve ever seen in the 23 years I’ve been in education,” Cooper said.
In a message posted on school doors, the district said grief counselors will be available throughout the day Tuesday. The district said its driver’s education, basketball camp, cheer practice, and volleyball practice are all canceled.