"It don't make sense now, not one bit." Nick Culolias said.
He's sitting alongside his stepmother Renae, in their new home in Yorba Linda. What doesn't make sense to him is the death of his younger brother, Jack Culolias, whose disappearance late last year in Tempe–where he was in his first year of college at Arizona State University–made news here and in Arizona.
The Weekly contacted Renae while search parties were scouring the area in which he was last seen. She had driven his twin Alex, Nick, and Grace, the boys' biological mother, to look for him. It was Grace who found Jack's shoe long after investigators had given up. And in the whirlwind of cameras, interviews and photos, Renae and Nick stood on the sidelines, patiently waiting for their boy to come home.
After Jack's body was recovered in a nearby basin, and investigators determined that he had stumbled in, intoxicated, the media stopped covering the story, and Jack's family laid him to rest. Understandably, they're still struggling with the aftermath.
"Yeah, [it's] not easy, I can tell you that." Nick said, lowering his soft brown eyes. The boys' father and Renae's husband, George passed just a few months before Jack of Stage 4 cancer. Renae had hoped that they would all live together in this new home. "That was the one thing that we wanted before he passed, but he was just too sick," she said.
Renae meet George in 2002, and two years later they were married with all of his boys moved in. "He was my soul mate, he really was my soul mate," she said with happy eyes, "and I met him at a time when I really needed him."
She said that George taught her about spirituality and letting go, to believe that things happen for a reason; if it weren't for this attitude, the loss of George and Jack would've likely crushed her. Nick, at 22 years old, isn't so sure about the reason part, especially since he also lost his grandfather at the beginning of 2012, but Renae's beliefs at least help to keep him afloat.
After their father's death, Nick was the only sibling left to live in Orange County. Alex went to study abroad in Australia; Jack moved to Arizona only a few months after. "Both of them told me that they ran away from it on purpose," Nick said. "They didn't want to be here. They didn't want to think about it. And then when they went away they saw, oh shit, it didn't go away."
The family believes that this was a contributing factor in how Jack lived out in Arizona. He immediately wanted to pledge to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. "I think he really went off the deep end, with the drinking and the drugs and the fraternity," Renae said. She doesn't believe that the fraternity is to blame for Jack's death, but both her and Nick have the same question.
"Where were Jack's friends?" she asked. "They should have gone out with him." After getting kicked out of a bar for being underage and urinating off of a balcony, Jack just vanished. No one saw him leave, and no one tried to follow him.
"I would never do that to a friend," Nick said.
"You don't have to black out from drinking to be brothers or sisters," Renae adds, shaking her head.
Each Culolias is dealing with the loss of George and Jack differently. Alex is now attending Northeastern University in Boston, and "talking to a counselor and doing some soul searching," Renae said. She and Nick seem to be dealing with it quietly at home, spending time with friends and each other. "Getting up out of bed is the hard part," Nick said. "I had gotten through Dad pretty well. But Jack just threw me back way worse. It took me two weeks to want to get out of bed."
Yet it has served to bring Renae and the boys closer together. "You just have to love each other and don't take each other for granted," she said. Nick nodded. Then he left for his internship and said he was going to the mountains that night with his best friend and their girls.
Renae is going back to work soon on a part-time basis, and continues to go to the gym everyday. Beyond that, she doesn't know.
"It's scary to think about the future," she said. "The boys ask me about dating, but I just can't think of being with anybody but George," she sighed. "As hard as it is for me though, I can't imagine how hard it is for them–to be this young and have lost your father and your brother."
"I have to believe that this is the way it's supposed to be," she said. "For whatever reason this is life. This is just life, as sucky as it is. But there are good people in the world, and if anything, this tragedy will make them better men."