On November 7, 2011, Ashley Marie Billasano stayed home from school so she could kill herself.
The 18-year-old Rosenberg high school senior told her closest friend, who drove her to school every morning, that she wasn't feeling well. Then, from 6:44 a.m. to 2:08 p.m., she issued 144 tweets, many of which alleged years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father John Billasano, when she lived with him in Round Rock and Pflugerville.
At the urging of friends, Ashley had reluctantly told a teacher about the alleged abuse in spring 2011. The teacher notified Child Protective Services. The investigation would prove inconclusive. At 1:37 p.m. the day of her death, Ashley tweeted about a call she had received from a CPS caseworker: "Weeks passed then I got the call. They said, 'Sorry, but there isn't enough evidence.' I hung up. That's when I changed. I didn't care anymore."
In addition to her tweets, Ashley left behind a four-page suicide note that her mother, Tiffany Ruiz-Leskinen, has not shared with Ashley's friends. Her closest friend read redacted excerpts at the funeral. According to friends, Tiffany shared the note with the church minister, who excised the profanity — there was apparently quite a bit. After all, God's house was no place for cuss words.
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But the entire content appears to be one big middle finger to the world. In the note, Ashley thanked YouTube and Wikipedia for giving her the tools to fashion her suicide kit: a pressurized tank of helium and a plastic bag.
Ashley's body was barely cold before her mother rushed in front of every camera she could to blame authorities for leaving her daughter without hope. CNN. The Houston FOX affiliate. The Today Show (although it never aired). Her father, who was barred from Ashley's funeral and never saw his daughter's body before she was cremated, responded with absolute silence.
The story of Ashley's final tweets struck a nerve worldwide. On a Facebook memorial page created by her friends and mother, people who never knew Ashley have shared their stories of abuse and despair. (Despite the fact that Ashley very publicly, and very deliberately, posted the awful allegations in what her friends say was an attempt not only to warn others of a sexual predator but to prove that she was not lying, the Fort Bend County Attorney's Office has sought to block the release of records pertaining to her death based in part on potentially "intimate and embarrassing details.")
The investigation into Ashley's alleged sexual abuse is still open, according to Travis County assistant district attorney Melissa Douma. Neither she nor prosecutor Dayna Blazey, who previously led the investigation, would comment further, so it's unclear how an investigation that apparently went nowhere in the seven months while the complaining witness was alive can effectively remain open. John Billasano has never been charged with a crime in these events, and in the eyes of the law is presumed innocent.
Tiffany and her mother, Ema Cook, have worked hard to control Ashley's story. Initially, Tiffany didn't tell interviewers that Ashley had been sexually abused once before, at age six, by her stepfather, who is nearing the end of an 11-year prison term. And according to Cook, interviewers agreed to refrain from mentioning Tiffany's own five-year stint in prison, which is how Ashley went to live with her father in the first place.
In her 18 years, Ashley suffered a pain she simply could not handle. She was determined to stop her suffering the only way she knew how; a suicide attempt two months before did nothing to take the idea out of her mind.
Her excruciating tweets, half-told in rhymes, seem calculated at least in part to inflict some of that pain on people who loved her. "Hummm wish somebody would text me," she wrote at 9:46 a.m., followed a minute later by "Kinda lonely right now."
Two hours and 19 minutes pass after a tweet at 10:42 a.m. Two hours and 19 minutes in which she could have called her mom, gone to a school counselor, called a friend, called a hotline.
Then, at 1:47, there was a 21-minute gap before her final tweet. Twenty-one minutes to check the pressure in the tank and the seal on the bag, to get down to the actual business of suicide.
At 2:08 p.m., she tweeted: "Take two. Hope I get this right."
Unfortunately, she did.
In addition to her media blitz, Tiffany Ruiz-Leskinen launched a Web site called the Ashley Marie Just Breathe foundation 11 days after her daughter's death.
She sold wristbands for $3 and T-shirts for $20, in her daughter's memory. The money allegedly went to cover funeral costs and then into a fund to help give a lifeline to other girls in Ashley's situation.
Tiffany has applied for nonprofit status and is seeking licensed therapists willing to volunteer their services, which is why it's confusing that the "foundation" also has an e-mail contact for "individual and corporate sponsorship." The foundation's vague mission statement is "to make a positive impact in the lives of children, teens, and young adults."
Yet there is little in Tiffany's background to suggest that she is qualified to make a positive impact on anyone's life.
Throughout Ashley's abbreviated existence, Tiffany continually endangered Ashley's well-being — perhaps as a result of Tiffany's own rocky childhood. (Tiffany did not respond to interview requests.)
When she was Ashley's age, Tiffany also accused her father of molesting her. And Tiffany's mother — Ashley's grandmother — accused her own father of sexual abuse. In each case, all three women waited for years before speaking up. The silence stuck with all three women like a disease. (Tiffany's dad was charged with criminal sexual conduct, but the charges were later dropped; her grandfather died in 1973, and there is no record of charges against him.)
It's not clear if, after moving to Minnesota when Ashley was an infant, Tiffany planned on Ashley ever seeing her father again. But it seems unlikely that Ashley's father, John Billasano, would have ever seen Ashley again had he not received a phone call from Tiffany's aunt Amparo Ortega, instructing him to go to Minnesota and bring Ashley back to Texas.
Somehow, according to family members, Ashley had nearly drowned in a bucket of mopwater, and had to be rushed to the emergency room. She was 11 months old. Hospital bills from the time show that Ashley had received nearly $15,000 worth of undisclosed treatment.
As one of Ashley's cousins puts it, "He went all the way to Minnesota to get Ashley when her mom didn't give a fuck about Ashley." (Billasano declined to speak for this story, saying only, "You can just do whatever you want, I have no comment." Ashley's stepmother, Christina Billasano, did not respond to interview requests.)
Ortega, Ashley's great-aunt, recalls Billasano bringing Ashley back to live with her for a few months while Tiffany stayed behind at her father's place. Ortega recalls Ashley looking wan and pale; Billasano gave her regular injections, but she doesn't remember of what. All Billasano would say, according to Ortega, was that he didn't trust Tiffany with Ashley.
And Billasano had good reason not to. After Tiffany finally returned to Texas, she made a series of disastrous choices that would affect Ashley forever.
Court records in Nevada and Texas show that Tiffany managed to marry two men in 1998; only one of them stuck around long enough to destroy Ashley's childhood. (The other man, identified in Harris County Clerk records, could not be reached for comment.)
Allan Oliver Leskinen was 28 years older than Tiffany. He had a well-paying job at a Houston company that offered a variety of marine shipping and storage services, and could provide for Tiffany and her two children.
The union was short-lived. In 2001, Leskinen admitted to molesting Ashley "on three or four different occasions" the year before. Ashley told an interviewer with the Harris County Children's Assessment Center that Leskinen would come into her room, tie her hands, cover her eyes and have her stand in front of him. Ashley told the interviewer that Leskinen would "put something that was big into her mouth and move it back and forth" until "some gooey stuff came into her mouth and she spit it out."
(Leskinen, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is scheduled to be released from prison in 2013. According to family members, he's quite the craftsman and likes to carve ducks in the prison wood shop. He regularly writes his father in Pennsylvania, and the two look forward to a fishing trip once Leskinen is released.)
Tiffany separated from Leskinen shortly after the abuse, and she divorced him in September 2001. She would remarry him in April 2002. He was in prison at the time. She was headed there herself.
After her separation from Leskinen but before their divorce and subsequent remarriage, Tiffany wasted no time finding another provider for her and her children. While working in a strip club, she met a man about Leskinen's age named Ron. Although Ron and his wife Frances were separated, they were on friendly terms. But Tiffany wanted the woman out of Ron's life for good.
According to court records, on the night of March 10, 2001, Tiffany sneaked into Frances's home, armed with Saran Wrap and a razor blade. Her plan was to subdue Frances, bind her arms with the Saran Wrap and slit her wrists in order to stage a suicide.
Unfortunately for Tiffany, Frances was able to fight back and thwart Tiffany's attack. After Tiffany fled, Frances made two phone calls. One was to the police. The other was to Ron. She told him to "come get his slut."
Tiffany was charged with burglary of a habitation with intent to commit murder, which was later altered to "intent to commit aggravated assault," and given five years' deferred adjudication. However, she violated the terms of her probation by missing appointments with her probation officer and failing to find a steady job, so her full sentence was imposed.
On May 3, she went to prison. Ashley went to Round Rock to live with her father.
Despite — or maybe because of — the fact that she had already endured so much, Ashley seemed determined to persuade the world she was happy.
Her MySpace, created by the time she was 13, is peppered with smiley emoticons and moods of "bouncy" and "flirty." In 2009, by which time the alleged abuse would have been well underway, she wrote "I ACTAULY AM SURPRIZINGLY UBBER HAPPY!!!"
She hardly seemed dark or withdrawn. Her biggest dream at that time "is to save a baby panda bear from Asia, name him Paco, and raise him as my own." She described herself as a "pretty normal person, I'm fairly good at school, no smarty pants, but just above the stupid line." She wrote that "I love a lot and I love to love. If I know you, chances are that I love (or have loved) you at some point...."
In 2007, her father moved from Round Rock to Pflugerville, and she wrote about how much she loved her new middle school.
But Ashley's high school friends told the Houston Press that she had confided in them how rough middle school was for her. The girls called her "Ashley Bitchasano." Ashley herself, in her final tweets, would confess that by sixth grade, "the kids called me fat even though I was a double zero."
To cope, Ashley began cutting herself with razor blades, careful to cover any visible marks with bracelets, Band-Aids and wristbands. She starved herself.
"I began to watch my weight like it was a MTV show," she tweeted on the day she died.
By the time she was 13 or 14, according to her close friend Ayan Ali, she found new ways to cope: pills and marijuana. (It was also around this time, 2007, that Tiffany was released from prison.)
Ashley's bad behavior progressed to the point where, in early 2009, she suffered what her grandmother Ema calls a nervous breakdown. Ema says that, when Ashley spent time with her that summer, she asked Ashley point-blank if her father or his friends ever tried anything with her.
Ema breaks down when she talks about how her own alleged abuse was a catalyst for this worrying over all her grandchildren, and how she told them all what her father had done to her.
"He didn't pay..." Ema says through choked sobs, "the only one that's been paying all this time is me. And this is why I asked my granddaughter if anything was happening..."
But Ema's alleged hypervigilance for her granddaughter is at odds with the fact that, after Tiffany was released from prison, Ashley went on family outings that sometimes included her uncle — Tiffany's brother, Richard Ruiz Jr., a registered sex offender.
"Uncle Ricky" was legally restricted from being anywhere near a child under 18 unless he had written permission from the child's parent and his probation officer.
During the months of February and March 2000, according to Fort Bend County court records, Ricky tried several times to force an 11-year-old female family member to have sex with him. The first time, according to the victim, was when he pinned her down to a bed, kissed her on the mouth and asked her to have sex with him. Another time, at a park, he fondled her bare breast. On still another occasion, while driving the girl somewhere, he suddenly pulled over, parked, removed his clothes, removed her clothes — except for her panties — put his mouth on her breast, ran his hand under her panties, then grabbed her hands and put them on his penis. For this, he would receive probation. By the time he was sentenced to ten years' incarceration for failing to register as a sex offender, he was already serving 40 years for aggravated robbery.
When asked why Tiffany allowed her daughter, who had already been sexually abused once, to be around a registered sex offender who had already targeted another family member, Ema told the Press it was a nonissue.
"He has nothing to do" with Billasano's alleged abuse, Ema said. But when it was again pointed out to her that Ricky was a child molester, Ema inexplicably replied: "Well, so? Are you?"
After Ashley's so-called nervous breakdown, John Billasano enrolled her in a psychiatric care program and transferred her to a small charter school called Harmony Science Academy.
Harmony's small classes fostered a communal atmosphere that seemed to do Ashley good. Friends recall being instantly smitten by the bubbly new girl with the infectious smile and the highly specialized favorite color of seafoam green.
Ashley was in AP English and wowed both her teacher and peers with her essays.
"She was extremely creative, and she had an interesting way of looking at things," her English teacher at Harmony recalled. "...She would always pick up on things that the other kids didn't."
In August 2010, Ashley met Ayan, who would become one of her closest friends at Harmony. Ashley told Ayan that her mother was dead. To Ayan, who had lost her father not long before, it was an instant connection.
Along with two other girls, Ayan and Ashley formed a tight-knit group that they christened with an acronym of the first letters of their names: DAAY. It was these three girls who discovered Ashley making herself vomit in a restroom during a field trip to San Antonio. When they confronted Ashley, she just said "It's a habit that's come back." She swore she wouldn't do it again.
Ashley also had a habit of serial relationships, lasting maybe a month at a time, that inevitably ended in blow-ups. She'd come to school a wreck for a day or two, and then her sadness was gone. It was difficult for some to tell how much of her behavior was just an affectation. Ashley loved theater; she loved dressing up in crazy outfits and was, Ayan soon learned, brilliant with the waterworks.
Ayan, who sometimes lapses into the present tense when discussing Ashley, said, "Ashley — she's a really good actress. She cries to get attention. Like, when me and her would get into a fight, she would cry so I could feel bad and not scream at her anymore." To Ayan, it was one of her good friend's less-charming traits.
Ashley would sometimes cut herself or purge after one of these mini-romances, but at the same time, she seemed to take a casual approach to sex. Ashley told her closest friends she had lost her virginity around age 14, and that sleeping with a guy was not a big deal. It was almost perfunctory.
But then, on a church youth group trip to Waco, Ashley met Anthony. He would change everything.
On Facebook, Ashley wrote that Anthony, a fresh-faced boy with a square jaw and friendly eyes, made her heart "go thump-thump." (Anthony did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
"I'm rambling, I'm sick, OK, but despite the fact that my lips are weak and chapped, all I can say before I go to sleep, is that I absolutely, without a doubt, love [Anthony] with not a piece of, but my whole heart. And I'm not afraid to tell the world. So, ummm, fellas — don't waste your time. And girls, hold your breath, please. I love this guy with my everything."
Although they met at a church-oriented weekend retreat, Ashley wrote in her final tweets that "we met in my typical situation. We were both undressed within a matter of seconds...But there was something different about this guy. He returned the favor and actually said goodbye."
Then, "on the bus ride home we sat next to each other. Talked for hours on end. We held each other's hands and told each other our favorite bands. He looked me dead in the eyes and asked if I would please consider seeing him again. I went home filled with smiles and cheer."
Things were good for a while — real good. And then one day, quite by accident, Anthony discovered a secret that Ashley would later say she fought so hard to conceal.
Since Anthony refused to speak with the Press, the only source for how the allegations came to light is Ayan's recollection of a conversation she allegedly had with Ashley. According to Ayan, Anthony was innocently scrolling through photos on Ashley's cell phone in early 2011 when he came across a nude shot. Hurt, he asked Ashley who she was sending provocative photos to. Her response changed not only her life, but Anthony's as well. Ashley claimed the photos were for her dad.
For years now, Ashley said, her father had been sexually abusing her. Not only that, she claimed, he shared her with his friends. But all Ashley wanted to do was clamp down, make it through to graduation and go off to college so she could finally get the hell away from him. She begged Anthony not to tell. In over his head, not sure what to do and not wanting to hurt Ashley, Anthony's only response was to avoid her. He knew she had to tell someone, and he couldn't stand being around her as long as she enforced his vow of silence.
It was Anthony's distance, not the alleged abuse, that wore Ashley down.
One day in physics class, Ayan recalls, Ashley burst into tears, and not the fake kind. Ayan asked her friend what was going on. All Ashley would say was that Anthony was avoiding her because of a big secret she wouldn't let him tell. Ayan had to drag it out of her.
"She wrote me a letter because she didn't want to say it to me," Ayan says, although she didn't keep it. "So she wrote it down. And I looked at the paper. And then I freaked out."
And then Ashley's story came out. Ayan says Ashley claimed her father caught her with drugs during her freshmen year, at her old school, and he blackmailed her into performing oral sex on him. Soon, she said, it became a regular thing: You want to go hang out with your friends? Okay, but later tonight you have to give me what I want, Ayan recounted Ashley telling her.
Ashley told her that she had tried once, and failed, to convince a police officer that she was being abused. It had allegedly been a little over a year earlier, when, during an ugly fight among Ashley, her dad and her stepmom, Ashley said she had slinked away and called the police. When the cop came, according to Ayan, Ashley told him about the abuse.
Of course, Ashley had been through psychiatric care by that point. She'd been using drugs.
"The police thought she was crazy, because of her background," Ayan recalls Ashley saying. While, according to Ayan's memory of what her friend said, Ashley's dad was apparently stunned into silence, "Her stepmom was all like, 'What the hell is your problem? Are you really this sick?...Just get out of the house if you really want to leave.'"
Ayan adds: "That's basically when she gave up on herself...That's the only chance she had. And that chance, it blew up on her."
And now, after she had learned to just bury it, seal it off and live with it, the only guy she ever loved found out about it. Now everything was ruined.
But somehow, Ayan convinced Ashley to speak up. The girls went to a trusted teacher's office. The teacher called CPS. Ashley called her stepmother, who showed up at school, livid. Ashley went home with her; Billasano spent the next few nights in a hotel. Caseworkers didn't want him around Ashley while they checked out the complaint.
Ayan agonized for days over her friend's future. What was going to happen next?
That's when Ashley made a mistake and forgot about a lie she had told Ayan long before: Her biological mom was coming to get her, Ashley said.
Ayan and the other two girls in their little group couldn't help but wonder if Ashley was lying about the abuse as well. They went back and forth on it. Ultimately, no matter what, Ashley was in pain.
"We just need to support her — I don't care if she's lying or not," was Ayan's conclusion.
Ayan only saw Tiffany that once, when she came to school to retrieve her daughter.
"She seemed like a wonderful lady," Ayan says. Tiffany was in tears. Ashley seemed happy to see her. Tiffany took Ashley to Rosenberg, and Ayan never saw her best friend again.
Ashley found her new best friend at B.F. Terry High School when, during math class, the teacher called "Ashley" during attendance and two girls stood up.
Ashly was instantly intrigued by this new, strikingly pretty girl who shared her name. The next day, the teacher assigned them both to the same math work group, and they hit it off.
From that point on, the girls were so inseparable that the whole "Which Ashley?" thing became annoying. One day, while Ashley was over at her friend's home, she came up with a nickname for herself: "Billy."
But then Ashley's new friend, who, as it turned out, was even more theatrical than Ashley, wanted her own nickname as well. A goth sort of girl whose favorite holiday was Halloween, Ashly anointed herself "Bats."
As "Billy and Bats," they shot themselves in silly movies they uploaded to YouTube. To Ashly's mom Sylvia, Ashley became like a second daughter. Ashley wasn't a guest in the family home — it was her home. And Ashley also had her new friend over to her house whenever she could. It was on one of those occasions, about a month after the girls met, that Ashley shared her secret.
Ashley had started by saying, "I don't want you to think I'm crazy..."
Ashley's friend recalls her claiming that John Billasano "would basically rent her out to his friends...he would leave the house 'available,' is how she put it, for her to earn...to go out with her friends....To do anything. He would use it against her."
Ashley also alleged that her dad would press her for details of these encounters and claimed that "sometimes, rarely, he would have her record it."
The girls cried and hugged each other.
"That first day, I told her, 'I'm going to take care of you,'" Ashly says.
Meanwhile, Ashley was on-again, off-again with Anthony. "Now think about, like this," Ashly says. "This is the first man you've ever trusted, ever thought you could love — really love — because all you've been taught is just sex. You don't know what real love is. You really love this boy. And he dumps you. To her, that means a lot more than a regular girl. So it crushed her."
Then, in September 2011, Ashley received probably the worst news she could have gotten.
As she would explain in her final tweets, a CPS caseworker called and said there wasn't enough evidence in the case against her father.
That month, Ashley's Facebook friends were greeted with a macabre update: Ashley posted a YouTube video of a woman describing how to commit suicide with helium and a plastic bag. Ashley was checking out.
After it didn't work, a very shaken Ashley spent a week at Ashly's house.
According to Sylvia, Ashley asked Tiffany if she could go to counseling, like she had years before in Pflugerville.
"Tiffany didn't have insurance — she was waiting for the new insurance to kick in," Sylvia says. "And I'm sure Tiffany blames herself because of this, but Billy was asking the whole week before, 'Hey, I want to get...I want to go to counseling. I need help.'"
Sylvia pauses. "The insurance didn't kick in on time, I guess — [she] didn't take her."
The next month, October 2011, Ashley mentioned her father on Facebook for the first time: "Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU John Billasano for fucking up my life. You can go fuck yourself. God, if anybody doesn't know that piece of shit, they are blessed. I used to call that jackass 'father.' He can rot in hell for all I care."
That month, she also posted about how she looked forward to her minor role in Hairspray at school.
"I sell my soul to the stage next week," she wrote. "I wish I could stay on that stage forever, and I'm really gonna demand that spotlight on my last line."
On November 7, around the time she was tweeting a public suicide note in which she said she was lonely and that she wished someone would text her, Ashley was actually texting with Ashly.
"I didn't stay home 'cause I was sick," Ashley texted her friend. Ashly wasn't surprised. She had had a feeling that something else was going on.
"OK," she replied between classes. "Expected that. Why did you stay home?"
"I was sad."
"Just a lot of stuff. I failed." Ashly knew what she meant, that Ashley's grades over the past six weeks weren't good enough for her to stay in the Hairspray cast.
"Oh. I see," Ashly texted back.
"Well, I will miss you."
Ashly didn't get a chance to text again until after her next class: "Just remember that I love you."
Ashly is still so horrified to think that Ashley was already dead by the time of that last text that she can barely get out her next words during an interview with the Press: "I don't know when she actually did it, or what time, but...I don't think she got to read the last note, because she never texted me back."
Ashly found out that night, during play practice. She still had her makeup on when she flew to Ashley's house. Sheriff's deputies were there, but no ambulance. That's when Ashly knew for sure that her friend was gone.
She says Tiffany told her later that Ashley had been Skyping with Anthony the night before.
"I don't know what they said," Ashly says, "but if I would guess, she tried to get back with him again and he said no...I'm pretty sure that's what drove her over the edge, along with everything else."
But, Ashly says, Ashley also wanted to prove a point. If there was no physical evidence, if there were no photographs on Billasano's phone or computer, if there was no confession, then there could at least be the evidence of sacrifice.
"She wanted to be heard and she wanted the world to know that she wasn't lying, and she wasn't playing around," Ashly says.
The secret Ashley claimed to hold onto for so long, finally expressed through those tweets, connected her to countless girls and women on a scale that she may have never even imagined. Her Facebook memorial site is brimming with stories from people around the country who say that they were abused and that they, too, were afraid to speak up.
Although her Twitter profile was deleted soon after her death, it has been immortalized on other sites. Ashley's friends and loved ones also have Facebook pages and the Billy and Bats videos to remember her by.
However, one video, viewed in hindsight, has perhaps taken on an unintended bleak tone.
In it, Ashley is sitting on her bed, sucking helium from a smiley-face birthday party balloon while Ashly records her. The room is dark and Ashley's face is only visible when she tosses her head back to brush the hair from her eyes. She's trying to get that funny, high-pitched voice, but the balloon is old, and Ashley says, "I guess the helium died."
She inhales to the point where the balloon implodes, and then there's a long section of silence while she blows it back up again. When it's finally full, she points the smiley-face to the camera and sings, "Put on a happy face," followed by a loud giggle of absolute delight.
Then her voice drops to nearly a whisper, and her last words before fade-out are hard to hear.
"Yeah, that's all I wanted to say...'Put on a happy face.'"
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