Dakota Theriot’s ex-wife, experts wonder if early mental health treatment would have helped alleged killer — (The Advocate)

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The Advocate

BY EMMA KENNEDY | EKENNEDY@THEADVOCATE.COM

APR 6, 2019 – 5:56 PM

Under the harsh fluorescent lighting of an empty garage, two teenagers danced.

Their senior prom the week prior had thrust Dakota Theriot and Kimberly Patman arm-in-arm together, but their first dance together was cut short before the song ended.

So when a gangly, awkward Theriot messaged Patman a few days later flirtatiously claiming he was owed a full dance, she found it endearing and obliged. That boy would become her husband within a year.

But, swaying in that garage to Patman’s grandfather’s favorite song — Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” — neither knew about the demons in each other’s minds.

Theriot didn’t know Patman had started seeing a psychiatrist for her borderline personality disorder when she was 11, and that she had been medicated on and off ever since.

Patman didn’t know that in the years to come Theriot would start to hear voices, but would vehemently and sometimes violently deny there was anything wrong with him.

There was no way for either to comprehend the spiral the latter’s illness would take, Theriot’s choices and his apparent resistance to his family’s attempts to get him help before it was too late.

Now, five years later, Theriot stands accused of carrying out a quintuple murder in Livingston and Ascension parishes, facing the possibility of the death penalty, and Patman is left piecing together the shattered remains.

“The hardest part is basically watching someone destroy themselves from the inside out,” Patman said Monday, sitting at her parents’ Norco home, glancing at the fingerprint-smudged frame that holds her wedding photo.

***

The former couple exemplifies two extremes of mental illness, of the system that serves those conditions and the combination of choices and circumstances that contribute to someone’s life.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne categorized Theriot’s case as a horrific example of the nation’s mental health system shortcomings.

Sheriff: Dakota Theriot case is ‘extremely horrific example’ of failed mental health system

Champagne said there are thousands of people like Theriot across Louisiana whose mental illnesses are poised to endanger public safety if left untreated, but who could probably successfully contribute to society if they took care of themselves.

Police, doctors and family members can’t know which of those people will carry out violent acts.

Authorities believe Theriot, now 21, killed Summer, Tanner and Billy Ernest — a family he had been temporarily living with — in their Livingston Parish trailer on the morning of Jan. 26. They say he then drove to Ascension Parish and killed his parents, Keith and Elizabeth Theriot, before driving across the country to Virginia in what the Associated Press reported was an attempt to kiss his grandmother goodbye.

Community mourns Billy, Summer and Tanner Ernest; funeral avoids mention of Dakota Theriot

Community mourns Billy, Summer and Tanner Ernest: ‘Our hearts may be broken’ but their legacy isn’t.

Police have not released a motive for the rampage, but the Livingston Parish District Attorney announced his office would seek the death penalty in the Ernest family slayings. The DA, Scott Perrilloux, said his office is aware of prior mental illness episodes but found nothing yet to deter them from a capital punishment case. Perrilloux, said he expects Theriot’s attorneys to come forward with an insanity defense.

Police reports show a lengthy cycle of minor crimes, violence, and involuntary hospitalizations that would keep Theriot medicated for schizophrenia in the short term, but also had him turning to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Records: Dakota Theriot hallucinated, threatened arson before allegedly killing five people

John Nosacka, with Capital Area Human Services, said that cycle is common in schizophrenia patients who are not medication-compliant.

Nosacka is part of a team working from a Baton Rouge courtroom trying to identify people like Theriot who have slipped through the cracks.

Their program, called assisted outpatient treatment, allows those involved with a mentally-ill adult, like a doctor, coroner or family member, to file a civil petition that would mandate a treatment plan, threaten the subject with an injunction if they don’t comply, and implement oversight from CAHS to ensure service providers are following through.

Theriot likely would have come under CAHS’ service area while living with his parents in Ascension Parish, Nosacka said. He estimates CAHS treats 10,000 mental health patients each year, but after whittling down the children, those who need more intensive long-term care and those who are self-sufficient with outpatient treatment, the target demographic would be no more than 100 at most.

Judge Don Johnson, who oversees the 19th Judicial District’s implementation of the assisted outpatient treatment program, said the law has been on the books since 2008. But, he said, the verbiage made it almost impossible for providers to actually implement, so his team has spent almost two years working on legislative fixes. They finished in the fall, and now are pushing to get cases on the docket.

“It’s imperative, I think, that the leadership gets on top of this law throughout Louisiana and pushes it,” Johnson said.

***

Patman had been with Theriot more than a year when she first noticed him acting strangely. They had hurriedly married at the Kenner courthouse in December 2015, both 18 years old.

Her family didn’t approve. They thought she was too young, that she would wind up divorced.

They didn’t see the fun-loving Dakota that she saw. The boy whose home life had been difficult with a violent and controlling father, the one whose gift on the piano “could make anyone fall in love,” and the one who was self-conscious of the missing patch of hair in his eyebrow that made it stick up like an arrow.

Theriot was leaving for basic training in the military the next month, and being married would not only allow Theriot to make more money but Patman could move with him wherever he went, she said.

But when he returned less than six months later, having been kicked out, he started hearing voices and slipping away from family and friends.

“He didn’t believe they were voices, he thought he could hear voices of other people miles away in his mind and it was a gift from God,” Patman said.

Records: Dakota Theriot hallucinated, threatened arson before allegedly killing five people

Patman says she and Theriot’s mom, who many knew as “Ms. Lee,” tried countless times to get him professional help. Patman remembered the family calling the hospital three times within one month begging for an involuntary hold.

Patman kept coming back into contact with Theriot again and again — even after the divorce, after he had knocked all her teeth out in the middle of the night because voices told him she was cheating, and after he ran them into a ditch at 110 mph under the same suspicion — knowing he needed help.

“Every time (I came back) it was just the thought that maybe he got the help, maybe he got what he needed,” she said.

Patman said she doesn’t believe her ex-husband should face the death penalty for something he never would’ve done in his medicated state, but she also grapples with the fact that he resisted help time after time, unable to comprehend his illness.

DA seeking death penalty against Dakota Theriot, who pleads not guilty to Livingston Parish killings

DA seeking death penalty against Dakota Theriot, who pleads not guilty to Livingston Parish killings

***

Patman remembers a time, at about age 9, when her sister tattled to their mom about drawing on the kitchen table.

Patman threw a fork at the sister’s head and began uncontrollably screaming until their mom sent the hysterical girl outside with a hammer and piece of wood to hit until she felt calm.

She ran inside, screamed into a pillow and then cried. “Why am I like this? Why do I do this?” she asked her mom, exasperated.

She was treated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder for much of her childhood and even saw a holistic healer before eventually being medicated for borderline personality disorder and anger issues.

She’s been in and out of jail, kicked out of home and has dabbled in using weed and synthetic marijuana throughout her teenage years.

But now, she says, she doesn’t use drugs and drinks less alcohol, she can hold down a job and her hobby of studying psychology articles has helped her better understand the workings of her own mind.

She isn’t regularly medicated, though, and says her psychiatrist has recently stopped taking her insurance, meaning a $300 appointment every time she needs one. Many of the places that will accept her insurance aren’t taking new patients, Patman said.

Mental health advocate Janet Hays, who founded Healing Minds NOLA, has pushed for the assisted outpatient treatment program in Louisiana for years. She traveled to other states like Ohio and New York that had successfully implemented the program and studied them.

She sees people like Patman who understand they function better with help, but also those like Theriot who don’t. Hays pushes for not just medication, but wraparound services like counseling, housing assistance and transportation access that will help support those people to stay on track.

“It’s not just treatment it’s also care, and we have to be offering both,” she said. “I think the worst thing about Louisiana is that they know it’s a problem and they aren’t doing anything about it.”

Hays talks of families who call police when their loved one is in crisis, not knowing what else to do. She hopes with the implementation of assisted outpatient treatment, it will give families a plan, and an option to turn to outside of critical mental illness episodes.

The program is something Patman says she thinks could have helped Theriot before he spiraled too far. She refers to him now as “beyond help”, and thinks even if he did receive treatment while in prison, he wouldn’t return to the man she knew.

“I know he’s not coming back, he’ll never be out of prison and he shouldn’t, but I can tell his episodes must be lasting longer now, he even looks different in photos on the news, his face looks more sunken and his eyes look different,” she said.

When they were together, Theriot would talk to himself for a few hours at a time, or would write nonsense in journals every now and then.

But to have driven across the country the way police say he did, Patman believes the untruths in his mind could have merged with reality. She questions if there’s more she could or should have done.

Theriot called her the week before the slayings saying he’d been kicked out, asking if she could come see him, but her truck wasn’t running and she couldn’t get to Ascension Parish from Norco.

As she talks, Patman thumbs at the heart-shaped tattoo between her thumb and first finger. She and Theriot went to the shop on Patman’s 18th birthday to get their first tattoos, but Theriot backed out after the heart was done on his girlfriend.

Patman would give Theriot his first tattoo a few months later on their wedding night: a fleur-de-lis drunkenly inked onto Theriot’s chest, in a procedure performed in his parents’ chaotic living room, strewn with band instruments, alcohol, food and laughter often until after 4 a.m. night after night.

Her demeanor changes when she talks of early memories of Theriot. She talks of ‘Ms. Lee’ and ‘Mr. Keith’ as if they haven’t died, at least once talking of her ex-mother-in-law in the present tense.

Patman has spent the last three years going back and forth to Theriot, believing his violence and instability was a filter put over the awkward but troubled teenager she remembers from the Norco garage.

But there’s no coming back this time.

“He would’ve been institutionalized if people saw the way he was, and he would’ve been on the right medication,” she said, “but it’s too late.”

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