Original article no longer available
July 13, 2000
BY TANYA EISERER, COUNCIL BLUFFS BUREAU
Bluffs Woman Struggled With Depression: Woman Drowns Self, Children
During her final 10 weeks, Karen Duncan was hospitalized three times for mental problems, once after she threatened to kill herself and her three children, her sister-in-law said Wednesday.
Karen Duncan’s husband, Christopher, desperately sought to keep her confined during her final stay in the hospital in late June, said Sherry O’Neill of Council Bluffs, who is Christopher Duncan’s sister. But it was to no avail. Duncan was released after 72 hours.
Less than two weeks later, on Monday night, she drove her truck into the Missouri River. The 33-year-old woman drowned along with her 8-year-old son, Zachary, and her 4-year-old twins, Dylan and Derek.
Her family thinks the deaths could have been prevented if mental-health professionals had listened to the pleas for help. “It’s a nightmare,” O’Neill said. “We were let down by the system.”
David Holcomb, president and chief executive officer of Edmundson Hospital, said federal law prevented him from commenting on Duncan’s case, but he did extend his condolences. Edmundson was one of the three facilities that treated Karen Duncan in the last 10 weeks of her life.
The family of Karen Duncan traces her troubles to mounting concerns about bills and financial obligations. Last summer, the Duncans had opened a roadside diner off U.S. Highway 30 in Missouri Valley, Iowa. Karen Duncan had quit her job to work in the business with her husband, O’Neill said.
The pressures continued to build until May 1, when O’Neill said Christopher Duncan returned home early to make a shocking discovery: He found that his distraught wife had dismantled the furnace and was trying to kill herself and the three children with carbon monoxide fumes. No one was harmed, and Christopher Duncan went to work reconnecting the furnace. Karen Duncan then left with the children and went to her brother’s home. Her brother kept her there until Christopher Duncan arrived.
Then, O’Neill took her to Mercy Hospital’s mental-health unit. On the way to the hospital, O’Neill said, Karen Duncan talked incoherently. “All the way there she talked about how she wanted to take her children to heaven with her,” her sister-in-law said. “It was horrible.” Karen Duncan later repeated the same thing to a hospital staffer, O’Neill said. Karen Duncan remained hospitalized for three days.
“She did admit that she knew she needed help,” O’Neill said. “She just wanted to feel better. She didn’t like feeling the way she did.” About two weeks later, Karen Duncan called O’Neill and told her she planned to commit suicide.
Karen Duncan told her the door would be unlocked and she wanted O’Neill to come get Zachary. The twins were with Karen Duncan’s mother. O’Neill and the Council Bluffs police found Karen Duncan in the bathtub with superficial cuts to her wrists. She also had swallowed the remainder of her prescription anti-depressant pills. Zachary was in the house but was fine, O’Neill said.
The police took her to Edmundson Hospital for psychiatric treatment. She was to stay for 72 hours under a court order, O’Neill said. A doctor decided that Karen Duncan needed more extensive treatment, O’Neill said, and sent her to Iowa Mental Health Institution in Cherokee, Iowa.
Karen Duncan remained there for five days, her sister-in-law said. When she returned home, she went to a neighbor’s house and picked up the twins. O’Neill said she arrived that same day to find Karen Duncan on the floor, passed out, apparently from the effects of her medication. O’Neill got her up and took her to get something to eat.
About two weeks later, on June 23, O’Neill got a call from her brother, who said he had been bickering with his wife at the diner. “He said, ‘She’s sick and I don’t know how much more of this I can take,'” O’Neill said. Christopher Duncan then called his wife’s father to ask for his help. Karen Duncan threw down her purse, ran out the door of the diner and out onto the highway, nearly getting run over, O’Neill said her brother told her. Christopher Duncan chased down his wife and caught her.
“She told him to take her to the bridge, that she wanted to jump,” O’Neill said. “He told her ‘I’m not going to do that.'” That time, the Missouri Valley Police picked her up and she was again taken to Edmundson Hospital under a 72-hour court order, O’Neill said.
It was during that last stay, she said, that Christopher Duncan made a last-ditch effort to keep his wife confined to the mental hospital. He then called county officials, seeking to extend the court order past the 72 hours, O’Neill said. He was told only a doctor could make that decision, she said.
O’Neill said her brother called the hospital and tried to speak to the doctor, but he was told the doctor was unavailable. When he talked to a nurse, O’Neill said, he asked if he was going to have to lose his wife and children before someone would help. There was no extension, and Karen Duncan was released after the 72 hours.
During her last days, O’Neill said, Karen Duncan talked frequently about taking her own life. “She didn’t want to live anymore,” O’Neill said. “She talked a lot about which child she should take. She just couldn’t make up her mind.”
O’Neill said her brother believed his wife might commit suicide, but he never dreamed she would actually harm her children. On Monday, Karen Duncan left her Council Bluffs home about 4 p.m. She took her husband’s truck and told him she was taking the children to the park, O’Neill said. Christopher Duncan told O’Neill that Karen Duncan looked a little blank, but nothing else appeared out of the ordinary.
After leaving their home, Karen Duncan dropped by her mother’s home. She also told her mother she was going to the park. Her mother called Christopher Duncan and told him she thought something was wrong. Minutes later, a cousin called him and said he should get down to the Narrows County Park in Council Bluffs, that something bad had happened.
He had to have a neighbor take him to the river because Karen Duncan had taken the keys to their other vehicle. It was there that he discovered that his wife had driven into the river with their three children. Later police would discover a note in one of the family’s vehicles. It echoed her earlier threats to kill the boys. “Your children will be in God’s hands now,” she wrote.