When Seth Franco moved to Boulder almost a decade ago, he pulled into the parking lot of The Source — a shelter for unhoused youth on North Broadway — and his car immediately died. It was the car that carried him away from a rough childhood, the one he’d saved up for, purchasing it as soon as he could after turning 16, the car that had brought him out West from Florida.
“He came out here for all the reasons that people come out here, you know, he wanted to take advantage of the opportunities,” says Chris Nelson, CEO of Attention Homes, who was at The Source the day Seth arrived. “He was young and fresh faced and trying to just eat the world — very curious about everything.”
Seth died by suicide March 2 of this year. At the time, he was a resident at a halfway house in Boulder, operated by the local nonprofit Intervention Community Corrections Services (ICCS). In October, I interviewed more than half a dozen current and former residents at the community corrections facility, many of whom mentioned Seth. (See News, “Everything here is frustrating,” Oct. 22). The residents shared with me ways in which they felt staff at the facility hindered their progress, discouraged and disparaged them, and ultimately set them up for failure. They were the same concerns Seth had shared with his family, his lawyer and others as well.
“I just feel like he’s just one of the ones that got lost in the system and totally got taken advantage of in every way possible,” says his half-sister Jessica Cirino.
“He was a beautiful soul,” Seth’s younger brother Sage adds. “He had a lot of life left to live and experience and grow.”
They remember a gregarious and caring young man, one who loved to skateboard and wire wrap gems to create jewelry he’d often give away. He was generous and compassionate, prone to listen more than talk about himself, with a contagious wisdom despite his young age. But he also had a rough go of it.
“He’s just a kid that got dealt a really difficult deck, really difficult hand and continued to try to make it work and looked at the magic in the world to support him in that,” says Wendy Gaylord, a friend and former therapist.
According to interviews with his siblings, Nelson, Gaylord and others, along with documentation provided by his lawyer, Seth’s childhood was marked by domestic violence, divorce, parental drug addiction, foster care and trauma.
“We did have a really rough childhood, it was all over the place,” Sage says. “I remember always wanting to be with Seth. Wherever he went, I wanted to be, but it got to a point where we couldn’t because we were going through foster care.”
As a teenager, Seth lived with his dad and stepmother for a time and spent a lot of time with an older stepsister. At 16, he was almost beaten to death at a party, sustaining a significant traumatic brain injury (TBI) that left him in a coma for a week, and experiencing periodic seizures. His dad died soon after, and Seth decided to leave, to head out to Boulder where he had a friend and photos online enticed him.
He first lived at The Source, working with Attention Homes to enroll at Boulder High School and eventually graduate.
“One of the things that always amazed me about him was this it’ll-be-better-tomorrow attitude in spite of all that would happen,” says Gaylord, who first met Seth through her work at BVSD as the liaison for youth experiencing homelessness. When she left the district to start private practice, she saw Seth as a therapy client for years until she moved away from Boulder in 2016. After, she says, she would talk to Seth every six months or so, catching up about life.
Gaylord says Seth’s TBI would present in “classic ways” like feeling overwhelmed by impulse control and emotional regulation. He also had a hard time staying organized and being on time.
“It was a barrier to him sometimes in life and as a result of that, he’d make impulsive choices sometimes that weren’t in his best interest in that moment,” Nelson says. “We worked with him on just how to live with that kind of brain injury, with the way that it impacted him, both from a life skills perspective, but then also from a therapeutic perspective, a clinical perspective, and he was wildly responsive.”
In November 2014, he fell while hiking the Flatirons, sustaining another serious TBI and landing him in the hospital. When Nelson went to visit him that day, he says Seth was upbeat and jovial, thanking him for the hospital visit even though he was obviously bashed, bruised and injured.
It was the fall from the Flatirons that jogged my memory — I had met Seth my first year reporting in Boulder. We were hanging out at The Source, as I was looking to do a holiday story about homeless youth reconnecting with family. Seth showed me his wire wrapped jewelry and described his Flatirons fall in detail. We exchanged numbers and planned to meet up again, although it never panned out.
Even after graduation, Seth remained a part of the Attention Homes community, Nelson says. He lived in subsidized housing, got a cat named Stella and often stopped in at various locations to say hi or ask for help. Sage eventually moved out to Boulder to be with his brother, and Seth often tried to convince Jessica to do the same. He worked at a variety of local businesses and restaurants around town, his favorite being the Dushanbe Tea House, according to family and friends.
“But then he’d get himself in trouble over the dumbest things too,” Nelson says with a laugh, remembering a time several years ago when Seth made headlines for leaving Stella tied to a rock, after she refused to run with him on a leash.
In 2016, he was arrested on the Hill when a group of officers approached a group of kids skateboarding with an open container, according to his lawyer, Christian Griffin, who represented Seth for about two years before his death. After telling one of the cops to stop yelling at a girl using his skateboard, Seth was arrested, tussling with one cop in the process.
“I’m not minimizing anything that he had done wrong,” says Jessica, who lives in North Carolina. “But he would speak up maybe when he shouldn’t, when he thought he was sticking up for somebody, which then brought more attention to him in a negative way.”
On the advice of a public defender, Seth pled guilty, resulting in probation.
This marked the beginning of his involvement with the criminal justice system. A year later, his probation officer called 911 for a welfare check on Seth, after she says he was “despondent and suicidal,” according to court documents.
The same officers who arrested him on the Hill a year prior eventually found him with friends at the Tea House. They arrested him again, but the case was ultimately dismissed by a judge, who ruled the arrest violated Seth’s constitutional rights. (Griffin is currently seeking damages in federal court on behalf of Seth’s estate in the case. The lawsuit, against the City of Boulder and four police officers, is currently pending as the officers have claimed qualified immunity.)
In the meantime, Seth picked up a few more criminal cases — for stalking an ex-girlfriend, which his friends, family and lawyer claim is all a big misunderstanding — that ultimately led to a community corrections sentence in March 2019.
Living in the halfway house was difficult for Seth, according to his family and Griffin, especially after ICCS took over in January. After that, Griffin says, Seth began calling him almost daily, complaining about how he was being treated.
“While a ‘normal’ person might be able to weather this kind of culture, someone like Seth, with a history of TBIs and a full scale IQ of 80, cannot, as evidenced by what happened to him,” Griffin says.
Jessica says Seth would call and tell her how he thought staff was humiliating him in front of other residents, or that he’d been put on restriction for something he never did or something trivial.
“It wasn’t the right place for him to be,” she says. Seth felt trapped at ICCS and threatened to buy a rope to hang himself a few times, according to both Jessica and Sage.
Sage claims the facility didn’t take the time to get to know his brother or find out what would help him be successful.
“He didn’t get the proper help that he needed and that’s not fair. He was kicked while he was down. He wasn’t given any hope for his future at all. … He wanted to be heard,” Sage says, “and he felt that he wasn’t.”
Seth turned 27 on February 2. A month later he was gone.
Nelson ran into Seth just a few weeks before he died, as Seth was riding his bike to work, and Nelson was walking from his Pine Street office to Pearl Street.
“What was very clear to me is that he was struggling,” Nelson says. “He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s just such a punitive place. It’s just like, it feels like punishment to me.’”
The two had a brief back and forth, Nelson says, as he encouraged Seth to stick it out just a little while longer.
“The conversation quickly moved to his excitement about when he left there, getting a new place to live and pursuing his dreams and goals,” Nelson says. “It wasn’t clear that it was that much of a struggle for him being there, just that it was hard.”
The last time Sage saw his brother was about a week before he died. Sage went to ICCS to pick up his brother and take him to fill a prescription at King Soopers. The brothers got in an argument with staff over how long it should take, staff saying he only had 30 minutes, the brothers saying it would take longer.
“[They were] just setting him up for failure,” Sage says. “They found stupid miscellaneous things to put him on restriction.”
But Seth was close to completing his sentence and being released, a fact that motivated him to keep going.
On March 2, Griffin stopped by the facility to add some money to Seth’s account. Later, he got a thank-you text from Seth. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Griffin texted back. The next morning, he got the call that Seth was gone.
According to audio of a meeting with his case manager the day he died, provided to BW by Griffin, Seth and his case manager argued over different situations and rules, and Seth apologized for an outburst and explained that he had impulse control issues. He was also told that his progress would be pushed back 60 days for a violation. Toward the end of the conversation, the case manager asked him about texting about another client’s drug test. When Seth questioned what she was talking about, the case manager demanded he put his phone on her desk and asked for his password so she could search it. When Seth asked if he’d be able to get his phone back that day, the case manager said she’d try, but that she had the right to hold it for 24 hours. Then the meeting ends.
A few hours later, he was found hanging by a bedsheet in his room.
In the police report, ICCS staff said Franco had “his phone taken away for using it to talk to a non-resident client,” and although they were aware he was upset about it, they didn’t think it would motivate him to hurt himself.
Both Jessica and Sage say they believe that if Seth had his phone that afternoon, if he had been able to call either of them, he wouldn’t have done what he did. Nelson adds that Seth was “religious about reaching out to his support systems, that it was mystifying to learn that nobody had heard from him.”
“Taking away his ability to reach out to his support system when he’s having a hard time would send him into a place where he couldn’t manage those big emotions,” Nelson says. “And that was the hardest part about his TBI was that he would have these very valid, big, big feelings, but couldn’t, in those moments, figure out how to manage his way through those feelings.”
According to a critical incident report signed by ICCS executive director Brian Hulse, Seth did “not express, present, or have any history of suicidal ideation that was known to ICCS.” But Griffin says this isn’t true. He provided the facility with a 2018 neurophsychological evaluation (reviewed by BW) that includes a “history of suicidal ideation,” although the performing physician wasn’t concerned about self-harm at the time. Additionally, Griffin points out the police report states that ICCS staff were aware that Seth “self-harms when he becomes overwhelmed.”
Hulse and ICCS never responded to comment requests for this story. In previous interviews with BW, Hulse declined to comment about Seth’s suicide.
Sending a notice of claims in May, Griffin plans on filing a case against ICCS on Seth’s behalf, claiming a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. As a form of incarceration, the halfway house showed “deliberate indifference to a risk that they were aware of. Everyone who worked there knew that Seth was brain injured. Everyone who worked there knew that he would self-harm,” he says.
Seth’s death caught Nelson, and most people at Attention Homes, off guard. Gaylord was shocked, though not necessarily surprised given his history. Jessica says her kids had been looking forward to Seth’s visit after he was released, with plans to skateboard together.
“I miss everything about him,” Jessica says. “I miss his positivity, I miss the way that he saw the world, he tried to see the good in everything until all of this. He had me view things in a different way.”
Sometimes, while searching his phone for a particular contact, Nelson will come across one of Seth’s many phone numbers over the years and a wave of grief will wash over him.
“If only I could reach out to him one more time,” Nelson says. “This is a life loss that anybody who ever met Seth feels and will feel for their lifetimes.”
Gaylord says she often thinks of Seth when she sees repeating numbers — when she can’t sleep and the clock reflected on the ceiling says 3:33.
“He loved that stuff, “ she says. “He just saw the world as a wonderfully mysterious place.”