Jake’s parents say a breakthrough came when they enrolled him in fourth grade at The Diener School in Potomac, which offers small classes for children with learning differences. “Everyone knew you could count on Jake to be a friend,” says Kathy Chumas, then an occupational therapist at Diener and now its head of school. “You always knew you could go up to Jake and say, ‘Do you want to play?’ It was almost a given he’d say yes.”
The teachers were equally charmed by him. “At most schools, you’re not supposed to hug, but just about every staff member will tell you that they took hugs from Jake,” Chumas says. “I remember time and time again when teaching class, looking over at Jake and him giving me a quick wink.”
Jake emerged from Diener, where Chumas keeps a picture of him on her desk, far more confident than when he entered, and his subsequent years at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac were largely successful, both academically and socially. He threw himself into activities such as acting, landing a supporting role as Drake the butler in an eighth grade production of Annie Jr. He served as the equipment manager and water boy for younger brother Owen’s Rockville Football League team, and took on the same jobs for the junior varsity football squad at Churchill.
Jake was in Churchill’s autism resources program, but he was mainstreamed for most of his classes and he befriended a wide array of kids, regardless of whether they had special needs. Diego Garzon was one of them. He knew Jake, liked Jake, but he was hesitant to get close to him.
“Even though our relationship progressed, I still felt like I had been pushing him away,” says Garzon, now an 18-year-old senior. “I was having a weird year—I pushed lots of people away. He always came back. One day I got mad at a teacher. I walked into the bathroom and I was punching things and screaming and yelling. Jake walked in and started asking me questions, with a huge smile on his face. I asked him, ‘Why are you so happy?’ He goes, ‘God put me on this earth to be happy and to smile.’ I laughed, and he was like, ‘Ha, got you, you smiled!’ ”
As Jake matured, his church youth group and the Boy Scouts occupied much of his free time. Like the rest of his family, he was a devout Christian. “He would wear this cross around his neck and he would wear it proudly,” says Drew Martinez, a youth pastor at McLean Bible Church Montgomery County in Rockville. “He would tell people, ‘This is the cross I wear because I love Jesus.’ Some teens are reluctant to express themselves, but Jake would clap and jump and shout and would help cultivate an atmosphere where you could be free to be yourself.”
Jake transformed from a timid kid into something of a thrill seeker. After much coaxing, he finally boarded the Loch Ness Monster roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. When it rolled back into the station, an obsession had been born. Jake would tell people that he wanted to be a “roller coaster enthusiast,” and talk about starting a YouTube channel where he would review the world’s great coasters. Zip lining, skiing, cycling—if he could record himself doing it on his GoPro camera, he was into it.
Being a Boy Scout also helped push Jake out of his comfort zone. “Every year we go whitewater rafting on the lower Youghiogheny [River] in Pennsylvania,” says Mike Schecter, Jake’s former Cub Scout and Boy Scout master. “It is a fairly intimidating experience. The first year we were going, he thought about it and said this is not for me. The next year he looked at the photos and talked to the other Scouts and realized that he missed a really cool adventure. He put on his courage and went. The water was running hard, and he had the absolute time of his life. He came back and was telling everybody about how he dominated the lower Yok.”
Only about 5% of Boy Scouts become an Eagle Scout, the highest achievement in the discipline, according to Schecter. Jake was on schedule to complete his Eagle project, the construction of a wooden walkway (known as a puncheon) near a pond at Patuxent River State Park, by his 18th birthday. “We navigated his entire childhood and adolescence with his disability and saw him progress,” Jake’s father says, his voice wavering. “Him standing onstage and getting his Eagle badge was going to be the proudest day of my life.”
Last July 31 was a muggy Wednesday, and as he often did in the summer, Jake decided to ride his bike to the YMCA in Bethesda. He liked to sit and read with his legs dangling into the hot tub.
“We had given him full independence,” Jennifer says. “He had reached this pinnacle where he knew that he could leave the house and be safe and do what he needed to do. I wouldn’t have traded that for the world.”
To get to the Y, about three blocks from his house in Bethesda’s Wyngate neighborhood, Jake usually turned onto Singleton Drive, which runs parallel to the much busier Old Georgetown Road. This time, for whatever reason, he didn’t. His parents believe that while he was riding on the sidewalk along Old Georgetown, he swerved to avoid a trash can and a signpost, which caused him to fall off his bike and into the six-lane road. The driver who hit him had no time to react.
Forty-five minutes after Jake left the house, two police officers knocked on the Cassells’ front door. “I had just been thinking that it was about time for him to start coming home,” Jennifer says. “They said, ‘Do you have a son that was riding his bike?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘He was hit on Old Georgetown and he’s nonresponsive. You need to come with us.’ Both the officers were shaking.”
Jennifer called Steve, who rushed to Suburban Hospital from his office in Washington, D.C. When he arrived, he saw Owen, now 16, and the two fell into each other’s arms, sobbing. The situation was dire. Around 8:30 p.m., doctors told the Cassells that they thought they had the bleeding under control. But Jake’s blood oxygen level was low, and despite the fact that he was wearing a helmet, he had suffered a severe brain injury. They suggested medevacing him to the University of Maryland’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.
“He and I got on a helicopter on the roof of Suburban and flew to Baltimore,” Steve says. “I’m sitting next to a pilot, I’ve got headphones on, I’m listening to him and air traffic control, and I can listen to the two paramedics in the back working on Jake. Meanwhile, it’s like 3:30 in the morning and it couldn’t be a more beautiful night. The sky is clear, there’s the twinkling lights of the city, and the helicopter ride was like I was laying on a cloud it was so smooth. That was the most surreal experience of my entire life.”
A few minutes after the helicopter landed, doctors told Steve and Jennifer, who had arrived by car, that Jake’s brain was no longer capable of sustaining life. He was being kept alive by machines. “We were totally destroyed people,” Steve says. “We had seen this Herculean effort to save Jake, but at that point there was no doubt. Typically, when someone’s taken off life support they pass in a couple of minutes. For Jake, it was almost instantaneous.”