Nevada County case points out importance of mental health funding Part 1 of 5: — (Mountain Democrat)

Original article no longer available

Mountain Democrat

By COLLEEN FLANNERY Staff writer

May 30, 2003 

Part 1 of 5: 

In his mind, the FBI pursued Scott Harlan Thorpe. They put bugs in his walls and poisoned his water, they drugged him and conspired with the Lyon’s Restaurant in Grass Valley to poison his food, his delusions told him.
Or so psychiatrists told a court charged with determining his sanity.
On Jan. 10, 2001, Thorpe opened fire on a mental health clinic and on the restaurant, killing three and injuring two. Killed were 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, the receptionist, and Pearlie Mae Feldman, a mental health worker. He also killed Michael Markle at the Lyon’s Restaurant as the man attempted to run out the back door. He injured Judith Edzards and Richard Senuty.
Thorpe pleaded guilty to murder, then was adjudicated insane by Nevada County. He will appear in court one more time, to hear the victim statements Wilcox’s parents will make about the pretty, popular teenage girl whose graduation would have taken place two weeks ago.
“People think, ‘Well, it’s not my problem,'” Nick Wilcox told the Mountain Democrat recently. “It is your problem. Scott Thorpe’s mental health became our problem, became our community’s problem.”
Those diagnosed with mental illness in El Dorado County worry that the image of clients of mental health support services as being dangerous will prevail, while the “larger lessons” of the case won’t. Friends and others often ask Department of Mental Health Director Kathleen Burne whether she feels safe working among the clients of support services.
“I’m not ever afraid to go to work,” she said. “We are much safer in the Department of Mental Health than in a lot of other places. Our clients come here because they want help. I just focus on how to help that person.”
Burne said Mental Health has taken on added safety measures, including bullet-proof glass in the reception area and emergency call buttons in each room. Since the incident in Nevada County, patients can no longer get behind that glass into the reception area as they once did.
Placerville Police Chief Steve Brown’s officers respond to mental health calls. Often, his officers are the first on scene at a crisis — and they haven’t had to respond to calls at Outpatient Services very often at all, he said.
“(The mentally ill) are more likely to try to hurt themselves than anyone else,” he said, speaking “from my experience.”
Unlike El Dorado County, Nevada County lacks a psychiatric health facility like the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) unit in Placerville. When Thorpe began to develop signs of extreme mental illness, the cost of taking him to an out-of-county facility prevented his actually being committed, Nick Wilcox has said. In a civil suit against Nevada County, the Wilcoxes said they hope to present the case that mental health officials there knew Thorpe had been amassing unregistered guns.
“Why in the world didn’t they take his weapons away?” Nick Wilcox agonized. What does it take?”
The worst thing, Wilcox said, was that county mental health officials apparently knew of Thorpe’s mental health problems and did nothing.
“I can’t imagine something like that going on in our county and us not doing anything about it, if we knew about it,” Placerville’s Chief Brown said.
At the trial, Thorpe’s brother and sister-in-law testified that they had tried several times to let doctors at Nevada County Mental Health know about Thorpe’s collection of unregistered guns. One doctor in particular, Dr. George Heitzman, finally told them, “If you’re not happy about it, change the law,” something that has been done since the trial with the passage of Laura’s Law (AB 1421).
The new law allows court-ordered outpatient treatment for people who refuse medical treatment. Severely mentally ill clients of support services would be given the alternative of accepting outpatient treatment and medication instead of being sent to a mental hospital.
Currently, according to Burne, the state has not funded the law, except in Los Angeles County. To free up money to enforce the new law, Burne said, the county would have to consider closing the 15-bed PHF in Placerville.
“I’d rather they gave us the money to provide what people need,” said Burne. “They will participate if we offer them something they need. We ought to try that first. I don’t like taking away people’s rights if I don’t have to.”
It’s also a law that client of support services and activist Julie Valek does not want to see funded.
“They would be able to drug us against our will,” she said, voicing the same opposition other client groups have.
But committal by county officials or a Laura’s Law would likely have meant Thorpe would have taken all of his medications, not just the anti-depressant he had taken at the time of the shooting. At the hearing defense psychiatrist Donald Stembridge said the anti-depressant “would have worsened” Thorpe’s condition. Four psychiatrists and psychologists testified that his mental health at the time of the killings made him “unable to distinguish right from wrong,” the legal definition of insanity under the 1843 McNaughton rule.
Although the psychiatrists did not agree on an exact diagnosis of Thorpe, with some considering his ailment schizophrenia and others calling it “nonspecific psychotic disorder,” four of the five mental health specialists agreed that the convicted murderer could not tell right from wrong at the time of the crime. Nevada County Superior Court Judge Carl F. Bryan Jr. sided with the defense.
“I am persuaded by the experts that the defendant could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the offense,” he said. Thorpe’s attorney, public defender Tom Anderson, had waived the right to a jury trial, and the proceedings took place in front of a judge.
With the trial over, the Wilcoxes remain in therapy and do their best to make sure people remember their daughter. They remain angry at the Nevada County Mental Health Department, where Laura put in a few hours on a break from college.
“She got paid for four hours while she was dead,” said Nick Wilcox. “We got a paycheck for three full days of work. She wasn’t moved, she was considered evidence until midnight. She was (still on the clock).”
Adding insult to injury, the Wilcoxes later received a form letter informing “the estate of Laura Wilcox” that Laura would be paid an additional retroactive pay raise. The check for $66 did little to improve the parents’ feelings of loss.
“It was a re-victimization,” Amanda Wilcox said.
This May, the Wilcoxes attended what would have been their daughter’s graduation from college at the prestigious Haverford College, a Quaker college in Connecticut. They talked with her old friends and spent hours sitting on a bench dedicated to her memory at the college.
“I saw the graduates sitting in alphabetical order,” Amanda Wilcox said. “I saw where Laura would have been sitting, where she should have been sitting.”
Pretty and popular, Laura always acted as the organizer at school and at home with her two brothers, Amanda Wilcox said. A Quaker like her parents, the girl took up causes with the school’s “Interact” club. She volunteered at nursing homes, befriending one elderly lady in particular. The two exchanged letters while Laura was at college. She also put in time at Nevada County Mental Health.
“She perceived that a few of the mental health workers (in Nevada County) didn’t treat the patients with respect, and that bothered her,” Amanda said. “It always interested me that a 17-, 18-year-old girl would think about things like that. She was really beyond her years.”
Disciplined Laura would have made a good lawyer or lobbyist, her parents said. She ran five miles every day “as a release,” he mother said. On the morning she died, she had gotten up at 5 a.m. to run before work. She played volleyball and danced and actually ate meals like cucumbers and sprouts on whole-grain bread — no mayo. Like most teenage girls, she dreamed big.
“She always wanted to change the world,” her mother said.
In her absence, Laura’s parents have taken up causes, become organizers themselves. They campaigned against a gun show in Nevada County, after undercover officers caught gun show exhibitors selling off-limits arms without a background check. They joined “Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation,” a group that protests the death penalty. Most victims’ organizations are, in the words of Nick Wilcox, “fry the bastard organizations.” They also campaigned for “Laura’s Law,” which was carried by their state representative, Helen Thomson.
The occasional barbs about the Wilcoxes “just liking to see their name in print” stings but doesn’t stick, Amanda said.
“We’re going to keep working on mental health and on reducing gun violence,” the mother said. “There’s plenty to do. These issues aren’t going to go away.”
Since the murders, people pay more attention when the parents speak.
“This kind of tragedy gives you a platform you wouldn’t have had, normally,” she said. “I think it’s wrong not to use it.”
If you need help with a mentally ill relative or friend, call the Mental Health Crisis Line at 622-3345. It’s answered 24 hours a day. For non-crisis support, call the Warmline, 621-6567. For Outpatient Clinic appointments, call 621-6290.
E-mail Colleen Flannery at cflannery@mtdemocrat.net