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The Macon Telegraph
April 11, 2002
Author: Don Schanche Jr., Telegraph Staff Writer
Justin Strange often talked of suicide. “He said, ‘Mama, there’s not one day that goes by that I feel good and I feel happy,’ ” says his mother, Theresa Hamilton.
But nothing the 21-year-old Macon man ever said prepared his family or friends for the way he died Nov. 16: shot by Macon police after firing a stolen gun and leading officers on a rambling foot chase up Vineville Avenue.
Hamilton says officials told her it looked like Justin had deliberately provoked police to kill him. “They declared it ‘suicide by cop,’ ” she says.
No such finding has been made official. Police have said little about the case. A coroner’s jury today will be asked to rule on his death.
But what prompted Justin Strange to lead that fatal footrace with police may be a more complicated story than a jury can unravel.
It was clear, calm and sunny when Justin Strange walked up to the Jiffy Lube on Vineville Avenue about 4:30 p.m. His friend Melissa Young was working there at the time.
“He was intoxicated,” she says. “His face was blood-shot red. I could tell right when I seen him he was not in his right state of mind.”
He wanted a ride to the Macon Rescue Mission. But before Young could arrange a ride for him, Justin walked to a car owned by another Jiffy Lube employee and grabbed a .357-caliber snub-nosed revolver from the glove box. Macon police said he began walking up Vineville past heavy afternoon traffic, firing the gun at random. No one was injured.
Police have given this account of what happened next:
When officers arrived, Strange pointed the gun at them, and they began chasing him. Five blocks away, behind Vineville Baptist Church, Strange again pointed the gun at them. Officer Shawn Knight fired at him and missed.
The officers chased Strange to the back yard of a house in the 100 block of Hines Terrace. Strange repeatedly pointed the gun at his head and at officers. When he pointed it at Knight, officer Steven Wesson ordered Strange to drop the gun. When he didn’t and began turning, Wesson shot him.
The bullet struck Strange in the back, tearing through his right lung. Bibb County Coroner Ed Bond called the inquest to explain why Strange was shot in the back. Police say several officers were surrounding Strange when the shot was fired, with Knight in front and Wesson more to the rear.
After Strange was down, police discovered all the bullets in his gun had been fired. But Maj. Gary Adams says the officers had no way to know the gun was empty when Strange pointed it their way.
A drug screen by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.109 — a little higher than the 0.08 threshold for presumed intoxication in a DUI case. He also had the anti-anxiety drug Paxil in his system.
The district attorney’s office ruled it a justified homicide.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe said he did not see how the officers could have responded differently.
Justin Strange was nobody’s idea of a model citizen. He liked to smoke marijuana and get drunk. He had been known to use Ecstasy and crack cocaine.
He didn’t like being told what to do, never held a job for long, and he had a few minor scrapes with police.
Yet the slender man with close-cropped hair and a peach-fuzz beard also could make his buddies bust out laughing.
“He was a clown,” his mother says, smiling sadly.
But something dimmed his sunny side.
His mother says that she and Justin’s father abused drugs and alcohol when Justin was young. And she says Justin’s father, a truck driver who now lives in Oklahoma, had an angry temper.
“He would tell him things like, he was worthless and he would end up in prison and he never would amount to anything,” she says.
Justin’s father, Randy Strange, acknowledges that he and Theresa abused drugs and alcohol. And sometimes, he admitted, “I did deal anger with anger.”
Theresa Hamilton says she became a Christian and quit her substance abuse when Justin was 10. She and Randy divorced when Justin was in his midteens, and she later remarried. She looks back with regret on the chaos of her younger life. She believes it left an indelible mark on her son.
“The first time he talked about suicide, he was about 10,” Theresa Hamilton says. She and Randy sent him to a private psychiatric hospital for two weeks — all the time their insurance would pay for.
Justin did poorly in school and finally dropped out in his midteens. He drifted into drug abuse. Mostly, his mother says, he smoked marijuana and drank alcohol. He tried crack, she says, but quit when he realized it was “crazy.”
Justin was treated four times at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville. Though officials at the psychiatric hospital will not speak about him, citing their obligation to keep his records confidential, his mother says he was admitted for depression and drug abuse.
A few times, his family or the police took him to The Medical Center of Central Georgia for psychiatric treatment. But neither Central State nor The Medical Center ever kept him for more than a few days, his mother says.
Theresa Hamilton and Justin’s stepfather, Jimmy Hamilton, say Justin wouldn’t take his medication. He preferred marijuana and alcohol.
“He always said it helped him numb the pain,” Jimmy Hamilton says.
But it also complicated his mental health treatment.
After one stay at Central State, Justin and his mother went for a follow-up visit to River Edge Behavioral Health Center, the public mental health and substance abuse treatment office in Bibb County.
“He told ’em he smoked pot and he drank,” she recalls. “They told him they could not treat him if he would not quit doing the drugs.”
He didn’t go back.
Eventually, Justin’s stays at home were marked by drunken or drug-fueled rampages in which he vented rage at his sister, mother and stepfather. One time, he broke a truck window, and the family called police. Finally, they told Justin he couldn’t stay there anymore.
Theresa Hamilton acknowledges she wasn’t a perfect mother. But she says the times she and Justin sought help, they failed to find it. For a family of little means, the options were limited. She works for an agency that provides services for mentally retarded clients. Her husband is a truck driver. They did not have insurance for Justin.
She recalls one visit to The Medical Center when she pleaded for the staff to keep him in treatment for more than a few days.
“They said, ‘People without insurance, typically we send them to Central State.’ ” And at Central State, she says, Justin would be filled with psychoactive medicatio
ns and released in a few days, no better than when he entered.
“I’m just angry at the system,” she says. “I know it happens to a lot of people. I don’t think they get the help they deserve.”
Two days before he died, Justin Strange was released from Central State for the last time. He had been admitted involuntarily and stayed there for a week.
His Central State paperwork, now in his mother’s possession, says Justin was admitted for treatment of suicidal depression and substance abuse. His release form says he was “some improved,” when he was released Nov. 14.
He was sent home with a seven-day supply of Paxil and Ativan and instructed to follow up at River Edge.
But two days before he died, he told his mother, “I’ve decided not to do long-term (treatment).”
She told him he needed to follow up — but also told him, “Justin, that’s your decision.”
Then she gave him a kiss.
“I told him I loved him. That was my last conversation,” she says.
Now, Theresa Hamilton goes over it in her mind, again and again.
Sometimes, she daydreams: “What if I’d been driving up Vineville?” She creates a fantasy of finding Justin and preventing his death.
Justin’s notebook — a rambling assortment of dated and undated entries — sheds some light on what was troubling him in the days before he died.
“Why not die by this knife?” he scrawled in huge letters across the bottom of one of the last pages. “I can’t have what I want, and want what I don’t have …”
The final entry is a fantasy drawing of the afterlife. Once past a grim reaper holding a scythe, one enters a flowered land with an assortment of labels: Hope, abundance, blessings, hospitality and peace.
Despite her anger and grief, Theresa Hamilton says she believes now, at least, her son is at peace.
“I really know he’s in heaven,” she says. “I know he’s free from his depression now, and I don’t have to worry whether he’s hungry or anything like that anymore.”
But she added, “I believe he could have been helped.”
— To contact Don Schanche Jr., call (478) 453-8308 or e-mail email@example.com.
Caption: Photo (1) by Nick Oza/The Telegraph
Jimmy Hamilton consoles his wife, Theresa Hamilton, as she talks about her son Justin Strange, who was killed by a Macon police officer Nov. 16. Strange, 21, pulled a gun on police officers after leading them on a footrace in Macon and was fatally shot. A Bibb County coroner’s jury today will be asked to rule on his death.
Record Number: 0204110178
Copyright (c) 2002 The Macon Telegraph