The family of a Columbia University student found dead in his dorm room five days after authorities refused to carry out a welfare check have told of their devastation as they fight for answers and call for changes to the school protocols that, they say, left them powerless in the face of tragedy.
Gage Bellitto was just 19 years old when, on December 27, 2017, he was found dead in his room in Columbia’s Carlton Arms building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He died of an accidental overdose.
That would be tragedy enough for any family. But for the Bellittos there was more anguish to come. Coroners put the time of death five days earlier, on December 22.
The finding was a hammer blow. Because that was the very day that, driven by a gut sense of dread, Gage’s uncle, Doug Bellitto, had gone to his nephew’s dorm and begged authorities to carry out a welfare check only to have his request repeatedly rebuffed.
Today, in an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, Bellitto, 59, and his sister, Gage’s aunt, Robin Stettnisch, 55, describe Gage’s death, and the wall of silence with which their entreaties to Columbia have been met, ‘soul shattering.’
Gage Bellitto, 19, was found dead in his room in Columbia’s Carlton Arms building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on December 27, 2017
In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, Doug Bellitto, 59, and his sister Robin Stettnisch describe Gage’s death, and the wall of silence by Columbia
Bellitto said, ‘Gage was a bright, wonderful, hopeful young man, who was looking forward to building a life in New York City.
‘He loved his family, his parents, his sister, his aunt and his uncle. He made some bad choices and he passed away from an accidental overdose in his dorm.
‘But I don’t know that I can ever get past the thought that he possibly could have been saved when I was there that afternoon and no compassionate or responsible attempt was made to help me.’
Handsome and popular Gage had recently transferred to Columbia where he was studying economics and in his sophomore year after completing his freshman year at Bates College, Maine. He had made Dean’s list at Bates but Gage had Ivy League ambitions in keeping with the rest of his family.
His father, Glenn, and mother, Kyle Moran, both graduated from Harvard and his older sister, Dale, 25, was a student at Dartmouth.
According to his uncle, ‘Gage was very excited to be in New York City at this Ivy League school and had hopes for a career in finance, on Wall Street and was doing everything he could to make that happen for himself.’
But, as hard as he worked, Bellitto admits, his nephew was not without his issues. His family was aware that he used drugs and worried about what they perceived to be a very real problem.
Gage had been prescribed several different medications to treat anxiety and attention deficit disorder. According to Bellitto the prescriptions he had been issued in his younger teenage years that led him to opioids and addiction.
He said, ‘Unfortunately that turned into a need for other substances. He did have a drug problem and the whole family was involved in trying to help him, to do anything we could to get him the treatment he needed.’
The coroner ruled Gage died of an accidental overdose five days earlier – the same day his uncle Doug requested a welfare check but was denied by the school. His father, Glenn, and mother, Kyle Moran, both graduated from Harvard and his older sister, Dale, 25, was a student at Dartmouth
Doug, his brother Glen (sitting) and Gage are seen in a sweet snap from 2000. Glen died last year of Covid-19 after contracting it early in the pandemic
Gage trusted his uncle Doug Bellitto enough to open up to him about his drug use. He went with his uncle to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation outpatient center in Chelsea the summer before his death. They’re pictured together in 2016
Gage was raised in Bronxville, a suburb of Westchester where his mother still lives. In a double tragedy his father, Glenn, a financier and Eastchester councilman, died last April of Covid-19 having contracted it early in the pandemic. He was 62 and according to his younger brother had no co-morbidities, his only ‘vulnerability’ Bellitto said, was his broken heart.
Gage trusted Bellitto enough to open up to him about his drug use. He went with his uncle to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation outpatient center in Chelsea the summer before his death.
Bellitto recalled, ‘We went to this evaluation and Gage was very honest about his usage and the counselor told him he sounded like a casual college drug user and that their treatment program certainly wasn’t appropriate for him.’
For Bellitto it was a view that minimized the problem. He said, ‘To me any drug problem is potentially a huge problem. But Gage heard the message that he was just a casual college drug user and [took the attitude], ‘So why is anyone worried about me?’
Over the next few months, the family watched Gage’s health deteriorated as his drug use accelerated.
Bellitto said, ‘In October  he collapsed in his dorm suite and had to be rushed to hospital.’
Bellitto does not know the details of what Gage had taken and, as a 19-year-old, Gage did not have to share them with his family.
But, he said, ‘I would have thought it certainly indicated [to Columbia] that this was a student who was having some kind of trouble.’
Under their worried eyes Gage became more distant from his family. He decided to spend the holidays in college instead of going home. It was a decision that wounded the family but, while he went off the radar as far as his parents were concerned, he maintained contact with his uncle in the city.
Bellitto explained, ‘He was still keeping in touch with me because I lived in the city and he trusted me. So, in December I was making every effort to keep tabs on him, to keep in touch, to make sure he knew that I was a safe place for him to be. I’m also his godfather – we’re a Sicilian family and that’s an especially powerful bond.’
The only communications that the family have had have been from the Associate Dean of Family and Student Support who has expressed sympathy for their loss and directed them to log onto the school’s website for student wellness
Gage was one of the very few students to remain in halls during the holidays, but he had agreed to spend Christmas Eve with his uncle.
Bellitto recalled, ‘In the days leading up to Christmas Eve I was calling him and texting him trying to finalize our plan and I wasn’t hearing back. And I just thought that was odd.
‘I got really concerned about his non-responsiveness and on December 22 I went to his dorm myself.
‘I just knew on a gut level that something had to be wrong.’
Today it is very difficult for Bellitto to recount the events of that day. He arrived at the Carlton Arms building at around 2.30pm.
He said, ‘I approached the front desk and identified myself and told [the guard] that my nephew was a resident and I was very concerned for his safety because I hadn’t heard from him.
‘I told him he hadn’t been responding to texts or voicemails as he normally did, and I asked if I could go and knock on his door.’
The guard said no and explained that Bellitto wasn’t on any guest list and so could not enter.
Bellitto continued, ‘Gage’s door was actually feet from the front desk. So, I asked if he could possibly call Gage and tell him that his uncle was waiting for him in the lobby.’
Again, he was told no and that there were no direct lines to rooms. When Bellitto asked the guard if he would call Gage’s cell, thinking perhaps Gage might answer a university number where he had not answered his, the guard once again refused.
He said, ‘At this point I was getting more and more frustrated and distraught. So, I asked to speak to the dorm manager and after a few minutes he came out and escorted me to his office off the lobby.’
Bellitto explained his situation and his concerns. He again asked to knock on his nephew’s door and was again told, no. He asked the dorm manager if he would knock and was told no.
Bellitto said, ‘He said these kinds of requests have to go through campus security and when I asked where that was, he just said, ‘It’s on 116th street, just walk up there and ask a police officer where the office is.’
Bellitto was escorted back out. He stood outside his nephew’s dorm house for roughly half an hour desperately dialing his cell, texting and leaving messages.
He said, ‘I thought about walking to the security office but the dorm manager also said to me that I was ”just” an uncle so it would be almost impossible to convince anyone to check on my nephew.
‘He said, ”Frankly it would be even difficult for a parent to convince campus security to check on their child.”’
Today it is very difficult for Bellitto to recount the events of that day. He arrived at the Carlton Arms building (pictured) at around 2.30pm and was denied a welfare check
Bellitto recalled, ‘In the days leading up to Christmas Eve I was calling him and texting him trying to finalize our plan and I wasn’t hearing back. And I just thought that was odd.’ This prompted him to go to the school and request a welfare check
Dejected and distraught, Bellitto started walking back to the subway but, he said, ‘Halfway there I thought, ”No. I won’t accept this.”’
He retraced his steps and appealed to the dorm manager once more – this time man to man.
He explained, ‘I framed it kind of like, whatever the college protocols are around this, let’s put that aside – please – and just as another human being could you go upstairs and knock on his door? And he said, ‘No.’ He said it was outside his ‘jurisdiction.’
‘And I just left, defeated. And that was the day that Gage died.’
Gage was last seen alive on surveillance footage at approximately 10.30pm on December 21 and did not leave his room again after that.
Five days after Bellitto’s visit Gage’s mother, Kyle, was forced to file a missing person’s report to have a welfare check carried out on her son. She had gone to his dorm room and was outside when her son’s body was found.
What’s made it even more difficult to process, to move on from is that there has been no acknowledgment from Columbia administration at all that I was in the dorm asking for my nephew to be checked on the day he died.
Today the family is tormented both by the questions that Columbia cannot answer and the questions that they will not answer.
Bellitto said, ‘Could he have been saved if someone had helped me? If someone had compassionately assisted me? And if he was already dead but someone had done that welfare check at least my sister-in-law would have been spared the agony, five days later, of finding her son’s body in his dorm room.’
It is three years since that awful week. During that time Bellitto and his sister Robin have exchanged dozens of emails, amounting to thousands of words, with Columbia university’s leadership.
They have received no direct response from school president Lee Bollinger and neither an acknowledgment nor an explanation as to what happened on December 22.
Nor have they received an answer to their repeated question of whether or not the same thing could happen again to another family.
Bellitto said, ‘This was a soul shattering experience for the family, not just for me, and what’s made it even more difficult to process, to accept, to move on from is that there has been no acknowledgment from Columbia administration at all that I was in the dorm asking for my nephew to be checked on the day he died.
‘There’s been no explanation for those horrific events. And there has been no follow-up explaining what protocols may have been changed since that day so that another student doesn’t die unnecessarily, and family members have the ability to check or have a check done on their kids when there’s a crisis situation.’
Bellitto and his sister returned to Gage’s dorm on the first anniversary of his death. Bellitto thought, angry as he was, that the dorm manager might have some remorse or regret at his inaction that day. He wanted clarity and so he asked to speak to the man.
Bellitto recalled, ‘I said to him, ”Now that we’re a year forward would you have done anything different that day, knowing what the outcome was?” And he said, ”No and I don’t even know why we’re discussing this.” And at that point he turned his back and walked away.’
‘I will go back to the dorm room every year on the anniversary of his death in remembrance of my guy and to be a thorn in the side of Columbia, reminding them that nothing was done to help me that day,’ Bellitto said
In a double tragedy his father, Glenn, a financier and Eastchester councilman, died last April of Covid-19 having contracted it early in the pandemic. He was 62 and according to his younger brother had no co-morbidities, his only ‘vulnerability’ Bellitto said, was his broken heart
The only communications that the family have had have been from the Associate Dean of Family and Student Support who has expressed sympathy for their loss and directed them to log onto the school’s website for student wellness.
Bellitto said, ‘You know I’m sure these are very effective tools for kids who are struggling with mental illness or addiction, but they have nothing to do with the questions and concerns we have about the day Gage died.’
According to Gage’s aunt, Robin, ‘When Gage died Columbia had had a spate of student deaths: seven student deaths in the sixteen months before Gage – it made the news.
‘My brother shows up and says he’s worried about his nephew’s life. And they do nothing. What have they learned from all those other deaths? Do they not matter?
‘My beloved nephew died – what might have been done to save him?’
She explained, ‘We want to make sure that Colombia has changed its policy so that if anybody is concerned for the life of a student there is an immediate check.
‘And it’s not just Columbia. Colleges everywhere need to have that policy. There’s plenty of forms that parents and students fill out when they go to college. One of them should be something that says, if somebody fears for my life, I give you permission to check on me.’
For Gage’s family there would be some comfort, however cold, in knowing that his death made a difference.
Until then, Bellitto said, ‘I will go back to the dorm room every year on the anniversary of his death in remembrance of my guy and to be a thorn in the side of Columbia, reminding them that nothing was done to help me that day.’