Death and Insanity, a Final View

Much of the information for this blog was taken from an article in the Wall Street Journal which can be read by clicking on the highlighted newspaper link.
I have been writing this week about persons with mental illnesses who have committed murders and how our legal system, the victims, and society deal with these crimes.
This blog is the final one in this week’s series and I want to share it with you because it presents yet another perspective on death and insanity.
Like Wednesday’s blog, today’s is about someone whom I admire. Joe Bruce and I met when I was giving a speech in Maine. You might have seen him on television because his family’s case has received a lot of attention.
Joe and his wife, Amy, lived in Caratunk, a picturesque town of about 110 residents nestled in the state’s northern hills.  Joe is a rugged, friendly man, who worked as a senior technician for the Maine Department of Transportation before retiring several years ago. Amy, served as the town’s treasurer. Their son, William – known as Willy – is the oldest of three boys. The family lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse that sits near the banks of a winding, rock-strewn stream.
To outsiders, their lives may have seemed picturesque, but something was wrong with Willy.

Although cute and energetic as a child, Willy was hyperactive and deeply self-centered, and he could turn violent without warning. When he was only four, he pushed his younger brother down the stairs. At five, he broke that same brother’s leg.
As an adolescent, Willy was handsome, popular with girls — and also deeply troubled. He attempted suicide at age 14.
Of course, Joe and Amy got their son to see therapists, but he would always stop going and stop taking his medication.
Willy’s behavior particularly pained his mother. Tanned and athletic, Amy loved kids, often hugging her own and opening her home to neighborhood children. But despite her best efforts, she was seldom able to emotionally connect with her eldest son.
After dropping out of high school, getting his equivalency degree and serving a stint in the Army, Willy bounced among low-level jobs and had a few minor brushes with the law.
On Christmas Eve, 2003, he had his first major psychotic episode in a Target store when he became convinced that security cameras were monitoring him. The police were called, but Joe and Amy got him home before he was arrested.
Willy refused to go into treatment, and his family couldn’t insist because Maine laws require a person to be dangerous before they can be involuntarily committed to a hospital.
Sound familiar?
In March 2005, after Willy threatened two men with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle — a judge sent him to a psychiatric facility in Bangor. He was eventually released but stopped taking his medicine and quickly deteriorated again.
Sometimes he’d walk into neighbors’ homes unannounced. Once he put his mother in a headlock. In January 2006, Willy punched his father in the face, screaming, “You have disobeyed direct orders from a superior officer in the CIA.” That assault led to Willy being sent to Riverview, an extended-care psychiatric facility.
By this point, Joe and Amy had started to lose hope. Their son was a very sick young man. The hospital psychiatrist, Jeffrey Fliesser, wrote that Willy was hostile, paranoid and should not be released to the public until his symptoms changed.
But after five weeks, Willy wasn’t any better – mainly because he was refusing to take medication or participate in treatment. Civil  rights laws prevented the hospital from forcing Willy to participate even though his doctors believed medication and therapy would help him. It was his right to refuse treatment
“We knew he was going to be released and we were scared,” Joe recalled.
At this point, advocates employed by the Maine Disability Rights Center, which receives funding from the federal government, got involved.
According to medical records, the advocates — none of them physicians — fought for Willy’s right to be discharged,  coached him on how to answer doctors’ questions and encouraged him to cut off all contact with his parents.
As one doctor later wrote, the advocates told Willy that he was not dangerous and was being held as a prisoner simply because his parents didn’t want him released.
His psychiatrists noted that Willy was “very dangerous indeed for release to the community” and strongly objected to having him discharged.
But the patient advocates succeeded in getting Willy freed.
Two months later, on June 20, 2006, Willy approached his mother from behind as she worked at her desk in their home and struck killing blows to her head with a hatchet.
He then telephoned his father.
Joe found his wife dead and Willy crying.
Willy was  found by a Maine judge to be “not criminally responsible” for murdering his mother because of his mental illness, and was ordered held indefinitely at the very psychiatric hospital that had released him.
Through a lawyer, Joe was able to obtain his son’s medical records. “I read through the records and I just remember crying all the way through,” he later told The Wall Street Journal. “My God, these people knew exactly what they were sending home to us.”
Like Nick and Amanda Wilcox (see Wednesday’s blog) Joe became an advocate and succeeded in getting three laws in Maine changed, including one that requires hospitals to warn family members if a patient poses a danger and is being released.
Just yesterday, Maine became the 44th state to pass an AOT law, which I have written about before on these pages,  thanks, in part, to Joe’s lobbying.
“My son has been taking his medication and is better,” Joe said recently. “And now, each morning, he has to live with the fact that he murdered his own mother. That is worse than any punishment society could have given him.”
To me, all of the tragedies that I have written about this week could and should have been prevented.
* Kelsey Patterson should have gotten the help that he needed before he turned homicidal, and it was wrong for Texas to execute him after it failed to help him when he was sick.
*Officials knew that the psychotic man who murdered Laura Wilcox was dangerous but didn’t want to spend the money to put him in a treatment facility.
*And Willy was discharged even though he was psychotic because of activists who let their personal prejudices about treatment, medications, and doctors blind them. Even worse, his own parents were shut out of the process, as parents and family members often are, despite the fact that they are the ones who loved him the most.
I got an email this week from a reader who asked me why I was focusing my advocacy on the criminal justice system instead of writing and talking more about stigma and successful programs?
It’s a fair question that deserves an answer.
I focus on criminal justice because that is how I got dragged into the mental health system. I couldn’t get my son help and he ended up being arrested — he ended up being shot with a taser.
And I have written about these three cases this week because I believe we need to ask ourselves why they happened and what can we learn from them.
It’s cliche, but also true:  “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. davealmeida says

    I wish this was ther first time I read this horrendous sequence of events. Yes, people have rights, and I'm glad there are organization's Maine Disability Rights Center- most of the time that is, but not this time. As far as I have been able to determine, those involved in Willy's release developed the same tunnell vision some law inforcement officers get when investigating suspects drimes, becoming fixated on a particular target despite the blinding insight into the obvious that the direction they are heading is a wrong one. What a tragedy.

    As for focusing on criminalization versus stigma, I believe we have an obligation to focus on criminalization. To really focus on it. Why? Because it represents the worst of what happens to people when they don't have access to treatment. It really is the worst.

  2. i think, over its final destination, nor the technical ability to match their vision,

  3. i think, over its final destination, nor the technical ability to match their vision,

  4. Dmagic911 says

    Pete – you plagiarized a good portion of this article. Most of what you “wrote” here was pubished orginally by Elizabeth Bernstein and Nathan Koppel on 8/16/2008 in the Wall Street Journal.

    • You are correct that the information in the blog is from the Wall Street Journal. If you click on the link that is highlighted in the blog, it will take you to the original story. I don’t think Pete was trying to hide that fact.