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The Indy Star
Michael Anthony Adams , firstname.lastname@example.org
Sep 13, 2015
Sharon Myers was asleep in bed before 11 on the night of Easter Sunday when a loud boom woke her up.
Her mind a little foggy, she walked to her 23-year-old son’s room.
“Alex, what was that?” she remembered asking him.
“Oh, Mom, I just dropped something,” Alex said to her. “Go on back to bed.”
She returned to her room and fell into an even deeper sleep.
The next sound she heard was Honey, the Myers’ 11-year-old miniature poodle, barking. Sharon had left her window open that night — the air still relatively warm from a mild new-spring afternoon — and Honey’s reports were coming in clearly.
Again, with a sort of hazy awareness, Sharon got up to check on Alex. But Alex was gone; the door to the gun safe in his room open wide.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s odd,'” Sharon later told The Indianapolis Star. She knew her son was trying to sell some of his guns to raise a few bucks to support himself during a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., but it was nearly midnight. Who’d be buying them now?
After looking around downstairs, Sharon finally found Alex sitting on their front porch. He was holding his rifle and wearing a collection of medals he’d amassed while he was a student at Roncalli High School: a cross he’d been given on his senior retreat, his wrestling medallion and an emblem of St. Barbara, the patron saint against fever and sudden death.
“What are you doing?” she asked him.
“Mom, go back to bed,” he said to her.
She warned him that someone might call the police and asked him what he was doing.
“I’m done, Mom. I can’t do it anymore.”
Sharon knew her son suffered from depression. Still, she wasn’t fully grasping the situation. Everything seemed slow, as if her sleepy mind was being strung along by a tow rope far behind what her eyes were seeing.
“Somebody’s going to call the police.”
“It’s too late, Mom,” Alex said. “They’re already here.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group providing support and education for those with mental illnesses, estimates that one in five adults suffers from a diagnosable brain disorder.
Often, before these individuals come into contact with the mental health system, they’re confronted by police.
Sgt. Robert Hipple, coordinator of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Training, said such situations run the gamut. Some are confrontations with people who’ve had a rough go of it. Other times, such as the case with Alex, the incident involves people attempting to harm themselves.
For years, police departments around the country have tried to prepare their officers to deal with these crisis events. In 1988, the Memphis Police Department was the first to implement a specialized Crisis Intervention Team to create a “more intelligent, understandable, and safe approach” to dealing with those struggling with mental disorders.
Now, 30 years later, nearly every state in the country has departments with CIT trained officers. And Hipple says the training can greatly improve the chances of a peaceful outcome when officers encounter someone experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
Hipple said IMPD provides CIT training to all of its new recruits because it’s just “one more tool in the toolbox” for an officer to use on the street.
“We’re at about 600 officers that are CIT trained,” said Hipple. “The goal is eventually for everyone to be CIT trained. For the last four or five years, every officer that’s been put on that street is CIT trained.”
Providing some level of such training to a multitude of officers might be a sound approach. But some nationally recognized experts say it’s not the best approach.
The officers who trained their weapons on Alex had been dispatched to the Myers’ home on a report of a suicidal subject. Two of Alex’s friends, whom he’d been texting earlier that night, had called 911: Alex was threatening to hurt himself.
“From what we understand — and we have his cellphone, so we have gone through all his texts — (his friends) were begging him, ‘Don’t do something like this,’ ‘It’ll be OK,'” Sharon said.
Officers had trouble finding the correct address for the source of the call, IMPD Lt. Richard Riddle told The Star in April. After searching the 5700 block of Ashby Drive, Riddle said officers were approached by Alex, who was standing on the porch armed with two handguns and a rifle.
Next to him stood his mother, barefoot, in her pajamas.
Soon 24 officers, and as many police cars, were on the scene. Half of them had undergone CIT training.
“They shined a spotlight in my face,” said Sharon. “I saw everybody, everything. The whole thing opened up to me. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on.”
The coordinator of the nation’s first CIT program told The Star that 40 hours — the level of training IMPD officers receive — may not be sufficient to a handle volatile mental health crises such as the one encountered with Alex.
Memphis Police Department Major Sam Cochran, whose program has been adopted by hundreds of departments nationwide, said: “Because of the complexities, because of the dynamics, CIT is beyond training, it’s more than training.”
In a telephone interview with The Star, Cochran said CIT works best as a specialized unit like SWAT, Vice or Narcotics.
Officers in separate CIT units are better trained and, because crisis intervention is their responsibility, their hearts and minds become committed to what’s being taught. Officers who receive routine training once during police academy may lack that commitment.
IMPD does not have a designated CIT unit. The closest specialized mental health division the department has is a homeless unit that assists mental health professionals with home visits throughout Marion County. But Hipple said he sees an increase in a “proactive CIT effort.”
Still, Cochran is concerned that, by training everyone once, administrators might think they don’t have to send a highly trained CIT officer on a mental health call. They may say simply, “Hey, everybody’s trained.”
Mental illness is complicated and it takes a unique person to handle crisis situations, Cochran said. He’s not comfortable that every officer fits that bill. A CIT officer, he said, needs to be able to slow things down and develop strategies to de-escalate potentially deadly episodes.
“You’ve got many officers within an agency that could fill that role,” Coachran said, “but I would suggest that you have some who should not be in that role.”
Training everyone, Cochran said, may also raise questions about who’s in charge during crisis events, which could lead to bad outcomes.
What Sharon did understand, and had known for some time, was that Alex was suffering. On the outside, Sharon said you’d never notice. He did it quietly, in private.
Growing up, Alex was an ardent Boy Scout, rising to the rank of Eagle Scout prior to graduating from Roncalli in 2010. Scouting taught him how to be fiercely independent, said Ron Myers, his father. Alex’s passion for the outdoors was fueled by the peace and solitude he found in nature.
Alex was also a meticulous planner, poring over trail maps and guide books weeks before he and his friends would set out in the Smoky Mountains with nothing but their packs to hack it in the woods. Sharon said he’d even dial up the forest ranger before the trip and let authorities know where they’d be hiking in case something went wrong.
“If you believe in reincarnation, I bet he was a mountain man from years and years and years ago,” said Sharon. “Lived out in the woods, pioneer days. That could have possibly been him.”
At Purdue University, Alex met Darrian Petruzzi. Both avid hikers, they bonded over the niche, swapping survival tips and techniques. To get a feel for each other’s methods on the trail, they took a couple treks, just the two of them, before other friends eventually joined in.
“It was nice, because there were times where we’d be out hiking and we’d go hours without saying anything,” said Petruzzi. “We didn’t have to. It was that sort of silence is worth a thousand words kind of thing.”
Alex’s internal struggle started one afternoon in July 2013 when he was a sophomore at Purdue. He and Petruzzi had just finished packing up the house he’d been living in while classes were in session. The two were relaxing on the porch with a couple of beers before Petruzzi said he had to head home.
“I get home, hop in the shower, because I’ve been sweating all day,” Petruzzi told The Star. “When I get out, I have six missed calls. There was one message, and it was actually from a police officer.”
The officer needed Petruzzi to come back to Alex’s place. He later found out that minutes after he left the house, Alex had gone down into the basement and discovered that his roommate had hanged himself.
“That put him in a spiral-down motion,” said Sharon. “He could not get his life back. He kept promising us he was going to go back to school, he was going to do this, he was going to do that, but all he did was sleep. I knew he was depressed.”
In the months leading up to Easter Sunday, Sharon and Ron found it increasingly difficult to get through to their son. They repeatedly asked Alex to let them help get him “on the right path.” He was seeing a counselor for PTSD, prescribed an antidepressant, he had even made an appointment with his doctor for the Wednesday following the holiday, but something had changed. Something was off.
According to the police report, IMPD officers began arriving at the Myers’ home at 11:42 p.m.
It’s unclear if any of the 12 CIT officers there had sole control of the scene, as Cochran recommends. Police have not responded to The Star’s request for comment, but in general, Hipple said a CIT officer would be doing the initial talking.
“Anyone can be in charge of the initial scene,” said Hipple. “It is difficult to be doing the talking and managing the scene, so it is a team effort.”
Sharon Myers said IMPD Sergeant Charlie Wheeler, who used to live behind the Myers when Alex was growing up, had arrived on Ashby and beckoned her from across the lawn. At the time of the incident, Wheeler was not CIT trained.
She walked over to Wheeler, who was standing in the street, and addressed him by his first name. She wanted to know what was going on.
“Then they grabbed me,” Sharon Myers told The Star. “I said, ‘Stop it. Let me talk to my son.'”
She woke her neighbors up screaming. She tried returning to the porch where Alex was standing, but police told her they had to take her away, that she couldn’t talk to him because it wasn’t safe.
As Sharon looked around and saw officers with their guns drawn and pointed at Alex, she cried out: “Don’t shoot my son. Don’t shoot my son.”
The danger of police confronting subjects in crisis is that officers are going to run into some situations where they don’t make the right decisions, said Brad Ray, an IUPUI criminal justice professor who focuses on mental health and substance abuse issues.
Across the board, from basic social interactions to incarceration and prisoner re-entry, he said, the treatment of people with mental illnesses is handled poorly.
“There’s just fewer places for people to go to get mental health services,” he said. “So police then end up being, I think [officers] describe it as being a ‘street-corner psychiatrist,’ and they’re really at a point where they have to make a decision between an individual going to jail or going into treatment.”
Joshua Sprunger, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Indiana chapter, told The Star that each individual law enforcement officer has to believe that mental illnesses are biological, that they’re treatable and recovery is possible.
Dangers will always exist during encounters with people in crisis. That said, Sprunger indicated NAMI wants law enforcement officers to be part of the solution.
Only 14 of Indiana’s 92 counties have active, or soon-to-be active, CIT programs.
Sprunger wants to go statewide.
“We want to make sure those counties, other counties, have access to the training and technical assistance they need,” said Sprunger. “Making sure folks who want CIT, get it.”
Year to date, IMPD officials said their officers have completed 1,708 immediate detentions, which, according to Indiana law, allow police to detain and transport any person who is suffering from a mental illness, is dangerous and in need of hospitalization, to the nearest appropriate facility for treatment.
After speaking with officers, Sharon Myers said, she wanted to go back to the house, to sit down next to Alex and tell him she loved him. She would’ve asked him what was going on and to let his dad and her help him. Whether he would have listened, she doesn’t know.
“He had a blank look in his eyes,” she said. “And when he looked at me, I don’t know if he saw me.
But she never had that chance.
“They pulled me and dragged me across three lawns, put me in the policeman’s car,” Myers said. “I know they did it for my safety, because they thought maybe he was a loose cannon and he would kill me.”
When they finally got Sharon in the squad car, she called Alex’s father, Ron, who works out of state. Minutes later, she heard the shots.
“They had killed him.”
Video captured on the Myers’ surveillance system shows Alex in the moments leading up to his death.
Eight minutes before her son was shot, Sharon is seen walking out onto the front porch.
On the porch, Sharon and Alex talk calmly for about a minute, then it appears as though someone is attempting to get Sharon’s attention from the direction of the street. She then walks out onto the lawn and out of view of the camera.
In the narrative police provided following the shooting, it says officers confronted Alex standing on his porch. In the video, Alex is never seen standing, save for a moment he gets up to turn on the light just inside the door, then returns to sitting in the chair.
It is clear, however, that Alex, having taken a final drag from the cigarette he’s been smoking, flicks it, and then shoulders and raises his rifle toward the officers. In the video, it’s difficult to tell whether Alex pulls the trigger, because as soon as the rifle’s sight becomes eye level, bullets begin riddling his body and the house around him. His left hand flies off the forestock and onto his neck. The rifle then drops to his feet and he holds his chest with both hands, leaning back into his chair momentarily before falling face first onto the porch.
As Alex is lying on the ground, bullets continue to tear up the siding of the home and the glass storm door.
An autopsy report shown to The Star by the family indicates police had shot Alex a total of nine times. He had multiple wounds to the head, chest and limbs, and the Myers said more than 35 bullets hit their house.
At a media briefing an hour after the shooting, Riddle said officers had attempted to talk Alex down and persuade him to drop his weapons. He said the young man responded by saying he didn’t want to be taken alive, didn’t want to see tomorrow. Police said Alex then fired off one round.
Multiple officers returned fire. Sharon Myers said police later told her six officers shot Alex.
“It’s tough (situation),” said Sprunger. “You can’t help an individual, or help your family or change the system without being there, you know? So protecting yourself is number one.”
The night police confronted Alex Myers, IMPD officials said the department had previous knowledge of his mental illness prior to their arrival, but the extent of what they knew about Alex’s condition remains unclear. According to his mother, police had never been to the Myers’ home before Easter Sunday.
When asked about the police handling of the case, IMPD would say only that it has conducted an internal investigation, which it turned over to the prosecutor’s office.
“We received IMPD’s investigation and, after thorough review of all evidence, it was determined that the officers’ actions were clearly not criminal in any matter,” said Peg McLeish, communications director for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. “As a consequence, this was not presented to a grand jury for consideration.”
IMPD would not comment on specific measures police at the scene took to de-escalate the situation, but there also is no evidence that officers acted in any way against department policy.
The Star also reached out to Sgt. Wheeler, who lived behind the Myers’ when Alex was growing up, but Wheeler said in an email that he would not discuss publicly such a sensitive and personal matter.
Both Sharon and Ron remain haunted by unanswered questions. Why was her son shot so many times? Why didn’t police use a less lethal weapon to subdue Alex?
“We understand that they have a job to do. We do understand that,” said Sharon. “(But) why would (police) not let me talk to my son to try to defuse the situation?”
On Saturday, Sept. 12, the Myers participated in the American Foundation for Suicide [a pharma-sponsored organization that deliberately pretends that antidepressants are not a leading cause of suicide] Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness” walk to pay tribute to their son’s life and share a message of hope for those struggling with mental illness.
“They appear to be just fine on the outside, but on the inside, that little voice tells you you’re worthless, you’re this, you’re that, nobody loves me,” said Sharon. “I hope (Alex) knew I loved him. … He just was a good kid, a great kid. He didn’t deserve this.”
In the past decade, at least six people suffering from mental health issues have been shot and killed by Indianapolis police. Four of the six were men age 22 to 24.
Dwayne Vonessen, 22, was shot to death in August 2007 in the 2200 block of South Pennsylvania Street while holding a machete. Multiple 911 calls had been placed stating he was unstable and fighting with his girlfriend and father. The callers said that if police came to the house, Vonessen would kill the officers.
Six days earlier, officers had been called to the same address. Vonessen had been fighting his brother.
When police arrived, two officers entered the house and confronted Vonessen on the steps. He had a machete and was within 21 feet of police. Officers shot and killed Dwayne because they “are taught (21 feet) is the range in which a person with a cutting-edge weapon could be lethal,” police said.
In June 2008, Indianapolis police were dispatched to the 800 block of South Sheffield Avenue on a report of a suicidal person. Edward Rader, 23, had taken a gun from his grandfather and run into a nearby alley. Family members said Rader wanted police to shoot him because he couldn’t do it himself.
When officers arrived, Rader’s grandfather tried taking the gun away from his grandson, but Rader pulled the weapon away and police said he pointed his gun at them. Officers opened fire. Rader’s wife said her husband did not point the gun at officers, but rather pointed the gun in the air and fired a shot.
A week before his fatal shooting, Rader had attempted suicide by drug overdose.
The following May, IMPD officers were called to a residence in the 3300 block of West 10th Street after a woman said her boyfriend was acting erratic and threatening her with a knife. Three officers went into the house to meet with the woman, but encountered her boyfriend, Ray Ponder, who was armed with a machete. As Ponder, 48, approached, they told him to drop his weapon. Ponder didn’t comply and kept advancing. Police shot and killed him.
The night before, police had been called to the same address. An ambulance was going to take Ponder to a mental health facility, but it’s unclear if he ever made it. Earlier in 2009, Ponder was detained at Eskenazi Health after he jumped out of an ambulance and scurried underneath the emergency vehicle. When police detained him, he said he wanted their guns so he could shoot himself.
Less than a year later, in February 2010, the parents of 24-year-old Stephen Reynolds called police and said their son was suicidal. Two officers found Reynolds in upstairs bedroom holding two knives. Police said Reynolds charged officers. One officer fired a stun gun. It was ineffective. The other fired his handgun, striking Reynolds in the chest, killing him.
Last year, a friend of Keith Koster, 54, called 911 for a wellness check after Koster began vomiting during their phone conversation. The responding officer called for backup when Koster exhibited “strange” behavior, police said. Koster then picked up a handgun paramedics had seen in his apartment and waved it toward officers. The SWAT team responded and engaged in a standoff at his apartment in the 8200 block of Harcourt Road. Police said he ignored orders to drop the weapon.
The shooting occurred in a narrow hallway in the apartment building where SWAT officers had been negotiating with Koster for an hour. Koster was not holding a hostage, and there was no indication that Koster fired his gun, police said.
Star reporters Jill Disis and Cathy Knapp contributed to this story.
Call Star reporter Michael Anthony Adams at (317) 444-6123. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelAdams317.