Adam Kortes was born in Pittsburgh on Sunday, May 7, 1995. The weather that day reflected his personality, warm and sunny.
His online obituary details some of the traits that made Kortes unique: He possessed a radiant smile, was big on hugs and adored animals of all types. Because his favorite color was red, his parents drove more than 100 miles to pick up a bright red automobile that became Adam’s “chariot.” He listened to Christmas music all year long. During summer, his favorite season, he spent hours outside in the shade, playing with his Thomas and Friends train set. He fancied Uno and the board game Trouble.
At some point, the Kortes family moved to Danville, in the central part of the state. Adam attended high school there, graduating in 2015. Autistic and then 21 years old, Adam was dependent on his parents, Richard and Kristine. He wanted to live in the family’s two-story Danville house instead of moving to a group home.
On the evening of July 21, 2022, news reports state, Danville police responded to a call at the Kortes home and found Adam on the floor. He was dead at age 27. An autopsy revealed the cause of death: “compression of the torso and positional asphyxia due to restraint.” Authorities have charged his parents with multiple counts related to his death.
Police reports filed shortly after Adam’s death indicate he and his father “scuffled” on the night of July 21. Kristine gave her son Ativan in an attempt to calm him, then the parents tied Adam up, and Richard placed himself on top of his son. The couple told police Richard sometimes sat on top of Adam to restrain him.
A trial date for Richard and Kristine Kortes has yet to be set.
Adam’s story is highlighted by those organizing a Pittsburgh vigil that’s part of the world-wide Disabled Day of Mourning, an online event recognizing disabled people who’ve died at the hands of family members and caregivers. The vigil, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday, features a number of speakers, many of whom are disabled activists and organizers.
They’ll be addressing a painful topic.
“A lot of what you’ll hear is very difficult,” said Opal M. of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, which conducts the local vigil in partnership with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national disability rights organization for the autistic community. “It’s heavy. We say controversial and challenging things. A lot of anger comes out. We stand up and say, ‘Our death is the tragedy, not our life.’ ”
More than 1,400 disabled people from around the world have been killed by relatives or caregivers in the past 40 years, according to ASAN. The organization tracks news stories about filicide, the term ASAN uses when discussing such killings, and maintains a list of those slain. The PCAA says 16 disabled people have been killed by relatives or caregivers in Pittsburgh.
One goal of the vigil is to challenge the news coverage these deaths receive. Parents and caregivers charged with the killings are often portrayed in the media as sympathetic figures committing acts of desperation, say event organizers. In addition, the justice system hands out lighter sentences to parents who kill disabled children, the PCAA said in a written statement, and this sets a “dangerous cultural prejudice that says a disabled life is not worth living.”
Organizers want to change the storyline.
“The narrative we’re presenting is that we cannot have empathy for our murderers,” said Opal. “It’s not about a lack of services, a lack of support or what could have systemically prevented these murders. Someone chose to murder us. In the media, most of the narrative we see is, ‘Those poor parents, the things they’re put through.’ Or, ‘Oh my goodness, can you imagine being a caregiver for that person?’ We need space where that is not the narrative.”
Storylines suggesting empathy for those charged or convicted are rooted in fear, Opal said.
“People, broadly, cannot be confronted with the reality of disability. It’s too close to home,” they said. “Anyone can be disabled at any time, and it terrifies people, it shakes people to the core. So they have to tell other stories. The fear is so real for them. Disability is the one marginalized identity that anybody can become at any time, so it has to be ‘othered,’ because of the fear around it.”
The Disability Day of Mourning dates back to 2012. In April of that year, the event’s founder, Zoe Gross, wrote in a blog post that media coverage portraying those who kill their disabled children as “loving and devoted parents” can encourage others to view murder as an option to the difficulties of providing care. “Media coverage like this sends a message that homicide is a normal, understandable response to any discomfort one might experience while parenting a disabled child,” Gross wrote, “and we can’t pretend that other parents of disabled kids aren’t hearing that message.”
The messaging reaches beyond the parents.
“We can’t stop disabled people themselves from hearing that message,” said Kathryn Rose, a volunteer with PCAA and member of the disabled community who will speak at the vigil. “When people say they can’t imagine living with these issues, or would rather die than deal with the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy to internalize that you have a lack of worth. You’re constantly being exposed to devaluation.”
A glance at ASAN’s list of those killed in 2022 reveals 102 names from around the world. Their ages range from 1 year to 93. The deaths occurred in several countries, including Japan, India, Singapore, Belgium, Mexico — an index of all killings dating back to 1980 lists a total of 60 countries. In the United States, the 2022 list documents killings in several states, among them Indiana, California, Texas, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“The lists are very sad,” said Rose. “There are babies less than a year old; there are entire groups of siblings. It’s heavy stuff.”
On the 2022 list is Hunter Drew, 3, of Mount Auburn, Ill. Hunter loved motorcycles, trains, race cars and big, loud trucks. He died of a head injury Oct. 20, 2022. Authorities charged the girlfriend of Hunter’s father with “involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment causing death,” the website states.
In Elyria, Ohio, about 30 miles west of Cleveland, police responded in mid-October to reports that a man had threatened to kill his family and himself. When they arrived, police discovered the entire family dead of gunshot wounds. The youngest member, Matthew, 34, was autistic. His mother, Lisa, 60, and grandmother Bernadette, 92, suffered from chronic illness. All had been murdered by their caregiver, who then killed himself, police said.
One news report quoted a neighbor, who discussed the caregiver’s burden in a manner reflective of what the vigil is pushing against. “That’s a lot for someone to take,” the neighbor is quoted as saying. “I feel like he was overwhelmed, and although I’m against suicide and murder, I don’t judge him for what he did.”
Several years ago, Opal researched the lives of some of those who’d been killed by relatives or caregivers, and was disturbed that so little media attention was focused on the lives of those killed.
“In some cases the only thing I could find was how the person died, nothing else,” Opal said. “In one case, the only thing I could find about a young man murdered by his parents was that he liked to wear baseball caps. That was it.”
A deeper exploration of the lives of disabled people in these cases is important, Opal added.
“I’m an autistic and multiple-disabled person myself. My life is not a tragedy. I’m not better off dead. I have a progressive genetic disorder. One day my bladder and bowels will not be under my control. I won’t be able to hold a fork and breathe, but my life is not a tragedy. My life still has value.”