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By Ellen Gabler of the Journal Sentinel
May 9, 2013
Triple homicide suspect long struggled with mental illness
Grappling with mental health’s most vexing question: Who is dangerous?
Forty years ago, a new legal standard for commitment rose from a Milwaukee lawsuit to become the law of the land. It has proved to be tragically inadequate.
Jaren Kuester hadn’t made sense for days.
Demons were following him. His dead puppy was alive, he thought, and being used in dog fights at the humane society. He was God’s “chosen one.”
It wasn’t the first time the 31-year-old had become delusional. He had struggled with extreme paranoia, anxiety and delusions for at least four years, said his father, Jim Kuester.
But during the last week of April, Jaren had gotten worse. Jim tried to get his son a psychiatric evaluation, but Jaren wouldn’t cooperate. He stormed out of a meeting with a county social services officer, saying nothing was wrong. On Thursday, April 25, he was arrested after becoming belligerent at the animal shelter where he thought his dog was being held.
His father wasn’t going to bail him out. Instead, he went to the Waukesha County Jail and told an officer his son was mentally ill and needed a psychiatric evaluation.
“Anyone with any type of mental health background would realize he was delusional,” Jim said.
But Jaren wasn’t given a psychiatric evaluation, because law enforcement officials said he was not acting unusual. He was released from jail the next day – Friday, April 26 – after a handyman who sometimes hired him posted bail of $303.
Jaren then drove more than 100 miles in his green Mercury Mountaineer, abandoned the vehicle, hiked through the woods, stripped off articles of clothing – one by one, hanging them in trees and on deer stands – waded through a swamp and then, according to police, broke into a farmhouse in Lafayette County and used a fireplace poker to bludgeon and stab to death three people he had never seen before.
Jaren Kuester is scheduled to appear in court Friday after being charged with three counts of intentional homicide for killing Gary and Chloe Thoreson and Gary’s brother, Dean Thoreson.
The Thoreson family declined to be interviewed.
Jaren’s father and his mother, Kathy Kuester, spoke tearfully this week about their son’s history of mental illness and their efforts to get him help – efforts they feel were dismissed by county health and law enforcement officials.
“I’m wondering what more I could have done, one more phone call or something,” Jim said.
County officials say Jaren did not appear to be dangerous to himself or others when he spoke with a social worker and sheriff’s deputies, which means they legally cannot involuntarily commit him.
Waukesha County Sheriff Daniel Trawicki said Kuester was asked a standard set of questions when he was booked into the jail. Do you think about harming yourself? Do you have any injuries?
“There was nothing out of the ordinary that would cause any concern,” Trawicki said.
Mental health professionals are available to evaluate inmates in the jail, but Trawicki said he was unaware if Jaren met with anyone.
He also said he was unaware Jim came to the jail and told an officer that his son was mentally ill and needed a psychiatric evaluation.
Jaren started seeing a psychiatrist in eighth or ninth grade when he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder , his parents said. About seven or eight years ago, his mental health declined. He became paranoid and switched from being a sociable athlete who worked as a bartender and waiter, to a withdrawn man who interacted mostly with his parents and five brothers.
In 2009, he was found soaking wet and disoriented in a Racine County gas station. When deputies arrived after being notified of a suspicious person, Jaren seemed confused and said he did not know how he got there. Jaren handed over his drenched wallet, and deputies retrieved his ID card. He asked them to take him to any homeless shelter, because he was between jobs and homes. Instead, his parents picked him up and took him to Waukesha Memorial Hospital, where he was admitted.
“He thought we were taking him to be tortured,” his mother Kathy said. “He never really rebounded.”
Although his parents declined to detail their son’s most recent diagnosis, they said he was taking medication but not always consistently. He sometimes stayed at the home of one of his parents, who divorced recently, or with his brothers or even in his car.
Jaren was receiving disability payments and saw a psychiatrist through the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services. He did not have a case manager, however, and was not enrolled in any comprehensive support program, his father said.
Jaren was a voluntary patient, as opposed to someone who has been ordered by a judge to receive treatment or services, said Peter Schuler, director of the Health and Human Services Department. As a voluntary patient, he could choose which services he wanted.
Mental illness runs in the family. Jim said many people on his side of the family, including himself, suffer from mental illness.
Jaren’s behavior had become increasingly erratic the last week of April, when he insisted that his dog was still alive. The puppy, a pit bull/Labrador mix, had been hit by a car and killed two weeks earlier and cremated at the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County.
Jim said his son also stated that people were following him and he would soon go to heaven.
There are varying accounts of what occurred that week, yet Jim said he called the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services and told a social worker he had a crisis situation.
He didn’t receive a call back, he said, and a few hours later took Jaren to the Human Services Center to meet with a social worker.
Jim said he explained that his son was seeing demons and was a danger to himself. Jaren said, “I’m not,” and left the building, his father said.
His father then tried to contact other mental health professionals and county leaders, including Schuler, the head of human services, and Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas. He left messages but never heard back, he said.
Schuler said in an interview that Jim left a message for a social worker who was tending to other emergency situations in the community, including a life-or-death event.
A different social worker met with Jim and Jaren, and assessed Jaren, who seemed to be in control, Schuler said.
Had he not been, or had he agreed that he was seeing demons, the social worker could have recommended an emergency detention or involuntary commitment.
There is a high standard to meet before someone can be involuntarily committed. There has to be substantial probability of physical harm to oneself or others, with evidence of recent overt acts or threats.
Robert “Rock” Pledl, a defense lawyer who handles civil commitment cases, said the challenge in situations like Jaren’s is who knew what, and when did they know it.
If law enforcement officials do not see evidence of mental illness, they cannot legally detain him.
“In general, experienced law enforcement officers have seen a lot of people with mental health problems, and they’re the people we count on to make that initial determination if someone should be detained,” Pledl said.
He said Waukesha County has a reputation for readily using the commitment process and connecting residents with county mental health resources.
Accessing that system, however, can be difficult, Pledl said, and many families are not familiar with the steps needed to get someone committed. Families have to learn how to file a three-party petition, for which three citizens go to the corporation counsel’s office in their county, explain why someone should be committed, and if there’s enough evidence, start a process to make it happen.
An incoherent message
After Jaren stormed out of the social worker’s office late last month, his father couldn’t find him. He texted his dad once – “Damn you,” it said – and then mentioned something incoherent about his dad posing for pictures with the dog.
On April 25, Jaren went to the humane society to get his dog. Workers there called police, and he was arrested when officers discovered he had a prior charge for which he had not paid a small fine.
Once Jaren was in jail, officers contacted the county to check on his medication after they found out he was a patient at the Human Services Center, Schuler said.
That is a common procedure, but officers do not get an entire history on each inmate.
“There could be dozens and dozens of people (in jail) who someone in the clinic might have seen,” Schuler said.
Jaren disappeared after he was released from jail the next day. On Friday, April 26, someone noticed his vehicle abandoned on Highway M in the Town of Cadiz, more than a two-hour drive from Waukesha.
Around sunset, Jaren emerged from the woods and came upon the empty farmhouse of Gary and Chloe Thoreson, who were out of town visiting relatives in California, according to a criminal complaint. He broke a window, entered the house, searched for valuables and took clothes and food.
Dean Thoreson, Gary Thoreson’s brother, was regularly checking on the house. When he entered the house shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Jaren hit him with a fireplace poker, killed him, and covered him with a blanket, according to the complaint.
Jaren told authorities he didn’t want the man to leave the house and get help. Later that night, Gary and Chloe Thoreson came home, and he killed them with the poker and also stabbed Chloe Thoreson, again telling authorities he couldn’t let them leave to get help. Before he died, Gary Thoreson hit Jaren.
After killing Gary and Chloe Thoreson, Jaren decided he had to leave and started to grab money, blankets, clothes and a metal bar as a weapon, the complaint states. He stole Dean Thoreson’s blue pickup truck and drove back to his father’s apartment in Waukesha.
Around 2 p.m. Sunday, Jim’s apartment buzzer rang.
“Who is it?” he asked.
Jim pressed the button to let him in. He was relieved his son was OK.
When Jaren walked into the third-floor apartment, the color in his face was drained and he seemed bewildered. He sat down in a chair in the living room.
Jim won’t talk about exactly what he said, but Jaren admitted he hurt three people.
Jim went into the bathroom and called police.
On Monday, his parents visited him in the Lafayette County Jail. Jaren was led into a room wearing shackles on his feet and tight handcuffs so he couldn’t move his wrists.
The parents sat at a counter and talked with their son, who was behind a barrier. Jaren wouldn’t make eye contact and told them birds showed him where to go on Sunday. He thought they were leading him to heaven.
Kathy said she can’t believe anyone could speak with her son and not realize something was wrong.
“They said they followed policy. Bullshit,” she said. “Three people are dead, and my son is going to spend the rest of his days behind bars.”
Lydia Mulvany and Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.