Violence and Blame
Part Two: Surviving
In part one of this series Violence & Blame I discussed the knee jerk reactions, rushes to judgement, and how the pundits and politicians turn to blaming tragedies like the Tuscon Shooting on everything else but the shooter themselves. I explained how the media blamed the First Amendment; making that sacred right an easy scapegoat and excuse for the actions of another. The fact that there is no such thing as a deranged weapon gets ignored through the flurry of accusations and excuses. It really is quite clear that there is derangement involved, but it is a deranged individual that is behind shootings like this. In most cases, it is the ignoring of prior actions that allowed for the final heinous acts to take place.
Three shooters that are the subject of this second installment of a three part series are Jared Lee Loughner, John Hyde, and Duc Mihn Pham. All three used a fire arm to shoot to kill or wound, all three suffered from mental illness, and all three showed warning signs prior to their acts. If we are to address violence, specifically mass shootings, we must first acknowledge that the responsibility lies with the individual and not the weapon used to kill.
Jared Lee Loughner was 22 years old when on January 8th, 2011 in Tuscon he opened fire on a crowd in front of a Safeway. He shot 19 people including Representative Gabriel Giffords, six of whom died from their wounds. Rep. Giffords, who was Loughner’s intended victim, sustained a bullet wound to the head. Miraculously she survived the attack, but today continues to struggle with language and has lost 50 percent of her vision in both eyes.
Mr. Loughner was “screaming” warning signs before the shooting even occurred however, really not much was done to preempt his attack. Neither his parents or peers, nor the police, nor the college where he was a student made any serious attempts to address the mental illness that was growing inside this young man. For years he was the cliche′ “strange quiet kid that kept to himself”, but as early as six months prior to the shooting he wasn’t quiet and certainly wasn’t keeping anything to himself anymore.
There were many incidents, including drugs and alcohol, but the ones that stood out to me were the five “contacts” with the campus police “for classroom and library disruptions” while he was a student at Aztec Middle College during the summer of 2010. He was finally suspended after the school found a YouTube video of Loughner’s in which he called the school “illegal according to the U.S. Constitution,”. A follow-up letter was sent to Loughner stating that in order to return, Loughner had to present a doctor’s note stating that “his presence at the college does not present a danger to himself or others.”
His parents were also made aware of this condition of return to school, but a doctor’s note was never presented. No evaluation was done. What Loughner’s parents did do was to disable his car nightly, and take away his shotgun. There were many other postings by Loughner online, similar to the one that resulted in his suspension from school. Two of which were extremely delusional. He posted in a December 15 video message on YouTube:
“In conclusion, reading the second United States constitution I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar,”
“No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver! No! I won’t trust in God!“
Then on December 30th just ten days before the shooting he posted…
“Dear Reader … I’m searching. Today! With every concern, my shot is now ready for aim. The hunt, a mighty thought of mine.”
Mental Health officials were never made aware of Loughner’s bizarre behavior. When asked by Pima County sheriff’s deputies hours after the shooting if Jared ever received a psychological evaluation, his parents excuse came from Jared Loughner’s father. Randy Loughner told them: “No. Couldn’t talk to him.” His mother said, “We told him that he needed to see someone.”
That pretty much summed it up. His own parents couldn’t talk to him. Almost two years after the shooting, after a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia and finally being found competent to stand trial, Loughner plead guilty to all counts, sparing himself the death penalty. He is currently serving seven consecutive life terms plus 140 years in prison without parole.
John Hyde in one day changed everything for five families, an entire police department, and the city of Albuquerque New Mexico. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic, but unlike Loughner, John Hyde did seek out help from medical professionals. He was on different medications that provided stability and maintenance for his mental illness, went to therapy and even volunteered for a time at the University of New Mexico Hospital program as a mentor for other people with schizophrenia. Hyde frequently kept in touch with family members and they with him.
John Hyde had lived with the mental illness for 15 years, and functioning relatively well. Then in the spring of 2005 a rapid deterioration of his mental state began. Hyde reached out to his family for help regarding his medications and a change in therapy. According to Hyde’s brother, Robert Hyde, they repeatedly tried to get him that help. However, medical professionals that Hyde was seeing told the family nothing could be done until his behavior “escalated.” Which it did on August 18, 2005. John Hyde shot and killed 5 people including two Albuquerque Police Officers over a 15 hour period.
NM state employee Ben Lopez, motorcycle shop workers David Fisher and Garrett Iversen, and officers Michael King and Richard Smith all fell victim to Hyde’s derangement that day. Many editorials, crime shows and TV Movies portrayed that day as chaotic and “Not a Routine Call” however, the from the timeline of the murderous rampage, light is cast on the chaotic events and shines the brightest on the hospital that Hyde contacted 5 times through out that day. A synopsis of the time line is as follows:
6:30 a.m. The body of a man is found at a state Transportation Department maintenance building. It is NM State employee Ben Lopez.
9:00 a.m. Hyde is at Presbyterian Hospital where he had been treated for years, but on this day does not have an appointment. In fact, no one is sure why he’s here. Whatever the reason, he is clearly upset. According to Albuquerque Journal Crime reporter T. J. Wilham, ‘Hyde comes in contact with Caseman employees. Some sort of argument erupts. He cursed out some profanities.’ John Hyde leaves the hospital.
12:30 p.m. John Hyde calls an agency which manages certain health care programs for the state of New Mexico. He makes an appointment to talk with his case managers later that afternoon.
1:10 pm. Hyde makes a second call to the private agency that manages some health care programs for the state. He is frustrated that he is not getting the care he says he needs His anger is escalating. According to Wilham, ‘Hyde leaves a voice mail message saying that he needs help. And that if he doesn’t get help that people at Presbyterian Kaseman could be in jeopardy.’
3:30 p.m John Hyde’s latest voice mail message threatening the hospital is retrieved. On it, Hyde says he has a list of people he wants to kill. The message is finally passed on to hospital administrators.
4:53 pm A 911 call is made by 17 year old David Fisher regarding an armed robbery and shooting in progress at Rider Valley Motorcycle shop. David has been shot in the hand and the bullet passing into his chest. His co-worker, Garrett Iverson, lies dead on the ground. After a few minutes on the line with the dispatchers answering questions regarding the shooting the phone call ends. The gunman shoots Fisher in the head, killing him.
5:10 p.m Someone from Presbyterian Hospital calls police to report a threatening phone call to one of the doctors. Although John Hyde has been making threats against the hospital since 9 that morning, this is the first law enforcement has heard of it.
5:49 p.m The hospital issues a written request for a pick up that says: “John Hyde presents a likelihood of serious harm to others or to self. Immediate detention is necessary.” According to Hyde’s medical records there is no history of violence.
Why is this important and my focus? There are two reasons. One: Hyde was making irrational phone calls throughout the day and most of those calls had a threatening nature. Hyde himself visited the hospital after the first murder and got into an altercation with staff. The last call was finally taken seriously by hospital officials, only after he threatened employees. Two: It was known to Hyde’s Doctors and family members that he owned a hand gun; a World War one era British revolver. However, when Albuquerque Police go to the hospital around 7 p.m. for the pick-up order they are not told about any weapons.
7:04 p.m. A nurse tells police that John Hyde does not have weapons, only that he may be “off-balance”.
9:43 p.m. Officer Smith and King have been dispatched to pick up Hyde for a mental health evaluation. They arrive at his residence and within 20 minutes a gun battle ensues. Both officers were dead by 10:18 pm.
Within minutes of receiving a description of the shooter from witness’s given after the killings of the two officers, the link was made by police to the individual who killed Fisher and Iverson. It was John Hyde. Albuquerque Police launched a massive manhunt that night that ended a few hours later with Hyde’s apprehension without incident. The connection between the four killings and the early morning homicide of Ben Lopez was not made until sometime later.
That shooting affected my family in particular. My husband is a retired Albuquerque police officer and worked with Mike and Richard for many years. The three of them spent several years in the same special services motorcycle unit together. They were family, as all police officers are to each other. My husband, who also was a firearms expert with APD, after learning of Hyde’s mental illness said to me “they’ll never blame Hyde, they’ll probably blame the gun”. In part, that is what happened. Though there was not an uproar for tighter gun controls in Albuquerque at that time, it became clear early on that John Hyde would not be to blame either.
Like Loughner, John Hyde manged to escape a death Penalty. Actually, he managed to escape justice completely. In 2007 has was committed to a state mental institution for 179 years. He has yet to be found competent to stand trial. For the survivors of his rampage — family and friends of the victims, the only solace is that he will never see a day out side the mental institution Hyde was remanded to after the shootings. If ever there was a case highlighting the need for understanding gun violence involving the mentally ill, it is John Hyde. I will not cast blame on anyone other than Hyde in this because even with his schizophrenia, he is to blame for his actions. However, that being said when we as a community of survivors in Albuquerque look at this case, I feel we all see the mental illness as a driving factor and how Hyde essentially got lost in the psychiatric shuffle that day. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first.
Duc Mihn Pham came to Albuquerque in 1989. He was a homeless Vietnamese immigrant with an extensive criminal history and was known to be suffering from a non specific mental disorder.. He had been arrested multiple times for property crimes and other non-violent offenses. Each time after his arrests, he was released by a judge back out onto the streets where he lived until July 3, 2003. On that day Albuquerque Police Sgt. Carol Oleksak, answered a call regarding a man acting suspiciously near the University of New Mexico Campus, when she arrived at the scene she was met by Pham. He was acting erratically and needed to be restrained. A scuffle ensued, and during the melee Pham got a hold of Oleksak’s service pistol. He shot her in the torso and the head. She lay bleeding on the ground as Pham walked down the busy street. He continued to randomly fire shots in the air, and at others who were shopping in the area until other officers caught up to him. He was fatally shot by one of those officers.
Sgt. Oleksak, was not expected to survive. She was taken to the hospital and even the surgeons didn’t believe she would live. There was even discussion about not stitching up a shattered left ear, because what was the point. The brain surgeon insisted that the ear be fixed “He said, ‘Put it back on, at least for the funeral,’ However….there was no funeral because against all odds, Sgt Carol Oleksak pulled through and survived
In a 2009 interview, Oleksak said she can laugh about that statement now. She ultimately returned to her job and retired after a 20 year career with the Albuquerque police Department. She still has bullet fragments in her brain. She struggled with relearning English after her injury, and she still sometimes forgets names and phrases or loses her train of thought. But she has her independence and hops nimbly over fences at her ranch, talking easily about the years since the shooting, the things that have changed and the things that haven’t.
“Parts of my brain were left on the street,”she said.
It was gleamed almost immediately after the shooting that Pham had been arrested over 50 times in ten years, but no mental health services were given to him. Many in the community were quite surprised to hear that Pham never went through a mental evaluation, wondering how can this be? It was quite simple….You can’t force someone to under go treatment if they have not been adjudicated to do so. In a Albuquerque Journal Op-ed penned by 2nd Judicial District Court Judge John Brennan, his Honor stated:
“That’s what happened in the case of Duc Minh Pham. Those who are familiar with him noticed that in the months before the shooting he had begun to “decompensate”— the clinical term for “become more dangerous.” But there was no legal process by which Pham could be picked up, held against his will and forced to undergo treatment.
Furthermore, it’s unfair and highly unrealistic to expect people within the criminal justice system to look into a crystal ball and predict that Pham would suddenly snap as he did.”
That really is the statement that can encompass all three of these men; Loughner, Hyde, and Pham all snapped in one day. However, there were precursors and warnings either overlooked, ignored, and excuses were made. Educators and parents not following up on recommendations for treatment – “Couldn’t talk to him”. Healthcare officials ignoring call after call from a patient until they are told –“he has a list of people he wants to kill.” The criminal justice system failing a society – “at least 50 times”.
It is not just those who are shot and live who should be considered survivors. It is the families of the victims and perpetrators who also survive. It is the community where the shooting happens. It is the medical professionals who may have tried to help, the police officers who ultimately made a choice to stop a mad man and it is those who did nothing or made excuses that also must survive. Where their conscience dwells I can not say….what I can say is it is derangement that changes everything in a moment. It is what we do in the future to address the individual before ‘the snap’ occurs, and how we also must take responsibility if we see those around us spiraling and “decompensating“. If we don’t, how can we survive ourselves.
In the final installment of this series the topic will be the bottom line of the gun violence conversation and the hypocrisy that abounds within it. I will be discussing what law enforcement thinks about gun control, how Sgt. Oleksak chose to turn her tragedy into being a advocate to the mentally ill. Please tune in and know that we can survive. Just Breath -Liberty Speaks