Part Two: CNN’s Incredible Story About Joe and Will Bruce, Forgiveness and Recovery From Tragedy


This is the second half of CNN’s story about Joe Bruce and his son, Will, and their lives after Will murdered his mother in 2006 during a psychotic break.




The only way to honor Amy, Joe decided, was to follow the guidance from her undelivered letter — to not give up on Will. Joe wanted to make sure his son was forced into treatment this time. But to do so, he would have to become Will’s guardian.



He would need a state-certified assessment of his son, a diagnosis and a prognosis showing that Will was incapacitated and could not act in his own interests.

That wouldn’t be hard to get, he thought. After all, Will had killed his mom and the court found him insane. Wouldn’t those facts support Joe’s request?

Joe contacted the psychiatrist whom prosecutors used to deem Will insane. He refused to help; he said it would be a conflict of interest.

Next, he asked members of his son’s legal team about using their expert. They told him they represented his son, not him.

On January 4, 2007, Joe called Dr. Robert Sena, Will’s treating psychiatrist at Riverview; the psychiatrist told Joe he would not help declare his son incapacitated.

My son IS incapacitated! Joe said.

At the height of his own PTSD struggles, alone and in despair, Joe downed two bottles of Bordeaux a night. It felt like nobody gave a damn about his son.

Even with what happened to Amy, Joe couldn’t learn what was going on inside Riverview.

“It was like the front door was bolted shut.”

His quest for the needed information dragged into weeks, then months. Finally, a hearing was set for February 6, 2007. Joe told Piscataquis County Probate Judge James R. Austin about the roadblocks he’d encountered. The system seemed rigged to prevent him from being involved in his son’s care.

Two days later, Austin sided in Joe’s favor, noting the legal Catch 22 that hindered the father’s efforts.

“The proposed guardian finds himself in an unenviable position,” the judge wrote. “He is unable to produce a report because he has no legal authority to obtain one, and he cannot secure a guardianship appointment because he has no medical report to support it. Given the extraordinary circumstances of this matter, this court believes a guardianship for a period of 90 days is appropriate.”

Within a week, Joe had his son’s medical records — 1,400 pages. He returned home and sat in Amy’s favorite wicker chair, turning page after page. Anger and outrage overcame him.

“This patient … would be dangerous to others if released from the hospital,” Dr. Jeffrey Fliesser wrote on March 27, 2006, less than a month before Will was released.

He refused medication and his paranoid delusions were intensifying, the records showed. He made obscene gestures at staff and told one, “I got your number.” He had threatened to suffocate another patient.

Amy Bruce ran a slipcover and drapery business out of this workshop near her home in Caratunk. Worried what her son might do, she kept the numbers of emergency personnel posted inside.

It was strongly advised Will not be released.

The more Joe read, the more baffled he became. He’d expected the records to contain the proof he needed to show Will was not competent to act on his own behalf. He didn’t expect them to reveal that the hospital had released Will knowing he might cause harm. Why?

On another page, Joe paused. Patients’ rights advocates — those who fight for the rights of the mentally ill — had taken up his son’s cause. Stationed inside state psychiatric hospitals, the advocates act independently of the state and federal government and are there to protect and advocate for patients. They can sit in on treatment meetings if a patient asks, and they can provide legal services. That’s what they did in Will’s case. They questioned the veracity of the psychiatric assessments and suggested the hospital would keep him until he completely melted down.

At a treatment meeting on April 6, 2006, the records showed, patient advocates were coaching Will on how to answer questions aimed at determining whether he should be allowed to go into the community on short-term passes. “They want to see that you can play nicely in the community. Just say yes,” one advocate told Will, according to notes of the meeting.

By then, Fliesser was no longer Will’s psychiatrist. Will had moved to the care of Dr. Daniel Filene.

When Filene asked Will if there were any risk that he would not return to the hospital while on leave, the advocate said to Will: “Just say no,” according to the records. Will responded with: “No.”

Fliesser, who told CNN he was removed as Will’s doctor because his contract with Riverview was up, is now in private practice in St. Augustine, Florida. It’s “very upsetting” for any psychiatrist to learn that a former patient has killed, he said. “We’re healers fundamentally. We don’t want anyone in the community to get hurt. We don’t want the patients to get hurt. So, it is devastating.”

Filene declined to talk about specifics, but he told CNN the Bruce case “is one of the saddest things that I’ve encountered in my career.”

Joe had never seen medical records before, not even his own. Nor had he ever heard of patient advocates. It was as if he were watching in slow motion the buildup to Amy’s death.

Will was released on April 20. His discharge summary noted the hospital had missed the deadline to file paperwork to extend his court-ordered stay. Doctors explored holding him involuntarily under emergency procedures but felt Will would not “meet criteria” of dangerousness, the records showed.

“Thoughts were largely logical and coherent with occasional subtle psychotic content of a paranoid and grandiose nature,” the discharge papers said. “He denied auditory or visual hallucinations. He denied suicidal or homicidal ideation.”

But the records note this key fact about the untreated paranoid schizophrenic the hospital was about to set free: “He had no insight into even a remote possibility that he may have a mental illness.”

Stunned, Joe placed his face in his hands and cried.

YOU SONS OF BITCHES! he screamed.

The fight to become Will’s full guardian became a protracted legal battle that went on for more than a year, even after Joe had gained temporary guardianship.

In January 2008, Dr. Robert Fisher, a Riverview psychiatrist, provided an evaluation for the court that said Will remained psychotic, “profoundly delusional” and dangerous. On April 15, 2008, the judge awarded Joe full guardianship.

For Will, those days before treatment are mostly a blur. He worked out relentlessly his first year in the hospital, believing he might be contacted by the CIA to carry out another covert operation. He was dubbed a “2-to-1,” meaning he had to be escorted by two staffers at all times because he was considered such a threat.

Will credits Fisher and his father with turning his life around. Fisher strongly believed the antipsychotic medication Abilify would greatly improve Will’s condition and asked Joe for permission to prescribe it. He said they could see if Will would take it willingly, or he could administer it with a needle against his will.

Dad told the doctor to go for it. Will agreed to take the medicine without resistance.

“I started to come out of the fog of being in psychosis for so long,” Will says. “Within a week, I was starting to recover. Like truly recover.”

It was like getting socked with a cold bucket of water. His whole belief system disintegrated: Mom was no longer a terrorist, and suddenly, he had to grasp the gravity of his actions.

Will sank into a deep depression. He contemplated suicide. He dreamed of burning in hell, “like my body was melting.” He was despondent. Just seeing his father became excruciating because he had to confront what he’d done.

Joe Bruce found his wife of 26 years bludgeoned to death in the bathtub on June 20, 2006. Amy was 47. He remembers her as “the most beautiful person in the world.”

He took to pen and paper. “I’m so sorry for what I did. I have just started to realize how mentally ill I really am,” he wrote his father in late 2008. “I’m having a very hard time coming to terms with it. Part of it is because of the burden of what I did.”

“I love you very much and I’m very sorry for what I did. I know it’s too much to ask for forgiveness. I really miss Mom. She would be here helping me get through this.”

His father remembers the first phone call he got from Will after he went on the medication. It was as if someone had finally given him back his boy.

“I knew I was talking to Will, my son,” he says. “It’s hard to describe, but when he was in psychosis you couldn’t have a conversation with Will. He would talk, but he wasn’t there.”

Fisher died of pancreatic cancer in May 2011. Will spoke at a memorial service at Riverview, sobbing throughout and thanking the doctor for never giving up on him.

Finally accepting he had mental illness made Will receptive to other therapies that helped with thoughts, moods and behaviors. He learned how to decrease self-destructive impulses and use more positive coping skills.

One 14-week group session called “Are you ready to change?” helped him realize the severity of his illness. “You start to contemplate it. Then, you move on to the action where you do something about it.”

As Will’s health improved, he was able to petition the court for leaves from the hospital, initially with a staff member, then on his own for four hours. With a judge’s approval, he took classes at the University of Maine at Augusta. He also worked jobs around the hospital: buffed the floors, mowed the grass, cooked hamburgers at the staff cafe.

There were slip-ups. He got busted smuggling Skoal Wintergreen tobacco into the hospital and distributing it to others. That resulted in being stripped of various privileges. Just last year, he twice told the hospital he was one place with a friend, when he actually went somewhere else.

He was ordered to receive individual psychotherapy with the unit psychologist, who helped him understand the “thought process that leads to rule breaking; his feelings and how they inform his behavior; and the impact of his behavior on others,” his medical records state. “He has also gained greater insight into his criminal thinking.”

His most important therapy came from a closed group session that included only those who had killed family members.

“Our struggles are very similar, as far as having to confront family members and to confront yourself,” he says. “I’m now an advocate for facing emotions. I never used to do that.”

Will stands in stark contrast from his release in 2006. He is outgoing and cordial, introspective and thoughtful. If he stood next to you at a coffee shop, you’d never suspect his past.

His current court order allows for an eight-hour pass with family members and four hours for personal excursions outside the group home, up to 20 hours per week. He must take his medication, 25 milligrams of Abilify, in front of staff at the group home every day.

He is not allowed to drive a vehicle. He cannot own or possess a firearm or other weapons. Drinking alcoholic beverages or consuming illegal drugs is not allowed. Curfew is 11 p.m.

He returns to Riverview to see a psychologist almost every week and a psychiatrist once every two weeks. He meets once every three months with a community treatment team, which includes a psychiatrist, psychologist and other mental health professionals who help him set goals and work with him on controlling anxiety.

Will Bruce became friends with Chuck Petrucelly, right, inside the hospital. They share a tragic bond, having both killed a family member. Now living on the outside, they like to go biking together.

Members of his treatment team denied repeated requests for interviews. But progress notes by his psychiatrists, provided to CNN by the Bruces, show that Will’s transition into the community has gone smoothly. “The patient is cooperative. There is good eye contact. Speech is coherent and non-slurred. Thought content reveals no delusions, no suicidal and no homicidal ideation,” one psychiatrist wrote on August 4, five months after Will’s release. “Plans will be to closely monitor the patient’s mood and behavior in the community.”

If he violates the treatment plan or “if there is probable cause to believe that he has committed new criminal conduct,” according to terms of his release, all of his freedoms can be revoked and he can be sent back to Riverview.

Will says he’s worked too hard to let that happen. He goes for jogs, rides his mountain bike and reads to relax. “It’s real important that I succeed.”

When Will moved to the group home, a caseworker said Will was the 11th person he had helped return to the community. None has been ordered back to the hospital. Keep the number strong, he told Will.

“That kind of stuck with me,” he says. “I don’t ever want to go back there. Dear God, you have no idea.”

Joe Bruce stands near the phone on the kitchen table. Voices boom out of the old silver-and-white Radio Shack model. One woman says she has a son who also killed. Another mom has twice been assaulted by her son. Still another keeps a journal for the day she believes her son will kill her. “He is a walking time bomb,” she says.

In almost every case, their boys are over the age of 18.

These are Joe’s comrades — families who have suffered trying to raise a seriously mentally ill child. They’ve joined the conference call from California, Washington state, Virginia.

From all over the country.

Almost every one of them is a pillar in their community. They are active with groups like theNational Alliance on Mental Illness; most were pushed into action because they couldn’t get help for their sons.

Their aim is to get mentally ill patients treatment before tragedy strikes. And that is exactly what they call themselves, Treatment Before Tragedy. During the call, they sign off on articles of incorporation in Virginia to make the organization official.

Most mentally ill people are more prone to be attacked than commit a violent act. That’s a fact driven home by mental health experts. But it can serve to make families like the Bruces feel marginalized because their loved ones are the outliers.

Joe believed he would rob Amy’s legacy if he kept quiet. He sobered up and poured his efforts into mental health reform. “When somebody turns a machine gun on a couple of people and he can’t even meet the standard for treatment,” he says, “then it’s like: Why are we pouring billions of dollars into this system?”

He testified at the Capitol in Augusta for changes to Maine’s restrictive privacy laws; he fought for lessening restrictions on laws pertaining to medication over objection; and he pushed for an assisted outpatient law that requires seriously mentally ill patients to adhere to a treatment plan as a condition for living in the community. More recently, he went to Washington to speak on behalf of the mental health reform bill sponsored by Murphy, the congressman from Pennsylvania.

His relentless activism remains on display. “If I could’ve listed a thousand things that I thought I might be doing later in life, this would never have made the list,” Joe tells the group. “The fact that we as family members are doing this, in a way I resent it. That we have to form this organization to get something done.”

He struggles to breathe.

“I know that Amy, if she could’ve been here with us, she would’ve loved every one of you.”

Will slides on his blue polo in preparation for work. Getting a job on the outside was one of his top priorities, and he’s proud that it didn’t take long.

That’s not to say it came without a challenge. He wondered how much to reveal about the past or whether he should check the box on the application that asks if you’ve committed a felony. (Technically, by law, he didn’t. But it still will show up on any background check or Internet search.)

A well-known tale among NCR patients is the time the local news outlets did a story on a killer who had moved out of the hospital and was hired by a big-box store. People picketed, and he got fired.

Will decided to be transparent. He landed one sales job, only for it to be rescinded shortly after the offer. The hiring manager called him and told him not to be so honest. “I was bummed,” he says. “But I didn’t want to lie to them and hide it.”

The psychiatric hospital doesn’t assist in the job hunt, but guys like Will learn by word of mouth about businesses friendly to forensic patients. He heard managers at a local Kmart had a sympathetic ear, and he filled out an application for a stock boy position.

Store manager Ryan Colgan invited him for an interview. “I told him everything,” Will says, “my story, my situation.” Colgan was shocked, but he was captivated by Will’s “willingness to change and to grow and to become a better person.”

“I didn’t think twice. I don’t judge the history. I judge the man,” Colgan says. “Just the fact he’s trying to get a job, trying to rebuild his life. Sometimes, you just need a break. Somebody needs to give you a chance.”

Will stocks shelves and helps customers haul big items to their cars. He enjoys the interaction. He makes $7.50 an hour and logs about 20 hours a week. He receives disability benefits to supplement his income but doesn’t like being dependent on the government. He hopes he can one day work a full-time job to support himself. His court order restricts him to working no more than 24 hours a week.

Will has been an exemplary employee, Colgan says.

Working in the real world, says Ann LeBlanc, director of the State Forensic Service, is a big step toward rehabilitation. “You have to learn to deal with other people. You have to manage that successfully,” she says. “And that’s one of the strongest ways that these NCR patients are able to demonstrate that they’re ready to move on.”

Building relationships is another sign of normalcy. Will has been dating a woman for two years, and she has been a particularly strong guide in helping him navigate his new life.

They connected through Facebook, and she visited him in the hospital. She knew Will’s mother and admired her free spirit. She sees that in Will, too. She accepts the whole of him. People need to understand, she says, the untreated Will was a different person, someone lost in a different realm.

Joe Bruce decided to live in the family home, even after his wife’s death, because of the good memories they made there.

“Everybody has a past to a certain extent,” she says. “It’s not who he is. So I don’t even think of it when I look at him.”

What does she see?

“I like that he’s motivated. He’s intelligent. He’s refined. He’s fun to be with.”

She asked that her name be withheld because her family isn’t aware of the relationship. The two talk about the possibility of getting married, but that’s a ways off. “I’d have to talk with dad — you know, can’t have a guardian and get married at the same time,” Will jokes.

He turns more serious and says he’s determined to honor his mother by fulfilling his goals. “I know my mom, and she’d just want me to be happy.”

His girlfriend adds, “She’d be proud that you’re working and going to school.”

He hopes to finish his degree in justice studies at the University of Maine at Augusta and move on to law school. He wants to be a lawyer because he can relate to people going through rough times.

Will and his father sit on a bench together in a hotel banquet room, surrounded by bright lights and four rolling cameras. Just a few years ago, it would have been impossible for Will to sit still for an interview. He’d have smashed the cameras. Or worse, heard orders from top-secret government agents to attack the interviewer.

Asked about that scenario, father and son nod: It would not have been pretty. “You wouldn’t have gotten me in this room,” Will says.

He prefers to remember the good times, piling into the family station wagon on vacations to Nova Scotia and stopping for Tiger Stripe Ice Cream. That was before everything went so awry. Before paranoid delusions consumed him and wrecked his family.

When we come to that part of the interview, Will bawls his eyes out, burying his head between his knees, unable to speak further. Tears swim in the eyes of his father. Silence consumes the room.

After a long pause, Dad breaks the stillness. He reassures his son that it was his illness, not Will the person, that acted that day.

Forgiveness, Joe tells me, didn’t happen overnight. There was no magic, eureka moment. It took time, a gradual process of working through grief and post-traumatic stress while grappling with conflicted emotions of paternal love for an ill son.

“It was a struggle,” he says. “I understood that it was the disease. I knew that what he’d done was not his fault.”

But it didn’t make it easy to accept.

Will remains steeped in a personal struggle, managing feelings of guilt about the past while trying to look forward. He says in retrospect he wishes he had taken his medication when he was hospitalized before the killing, or that it had been given to him forcibly. Abilify was one of the medications suggested all those years ago.

But he was so sick he could not string together a coherent thought. How was he in any state, he wonders, to make logical decisions about his health?

“Killing my mother is something I’m going to regret for the rest of my life and trying to forgive yourself for something like that is not easy to do,” he says. “I look back on it and think, Jesus, had I just taken some medication.”

Hearing Will articulate his thoughts and show such remorse is proof of how far he has come, Joe says.

“I’ve watched his struggle with his treatment. I’ve watched him work so hard. He’s gone through ups and downs. We both have. He’s continued to progress. He’s made me very proud.”

Father and son know one thing out of their control is the forgiveness of others. Will understands many people, including family members, will never accept him. He respects that sentiment, as hard as it may be.

His mom’s sisters stopped all communication. Yet one of Amy’s brothers has stood by Will, visiting him regularly and seeing him through his treatment. “I worry about meeting my maker one day and facing him and my sister and having to account for why I turned my back on Willy,” says Wally Bruce. (Amy’s maiden name was the same as her married name.)

“My sister didn’t give up on him. And after having some time to reflect on it, I said, ‘If she didn’t give up on him, then I’m certainly not going to turn my back.’ “

Will’s two brothers wrestle with a range of emotions — the memories of an untreated Will still raw, their feelings constantly in flux.

His middle brother, Bob, 31, the one whose arm and leg Will broke, is glad his brother has received the treatment he so desperately needed. Returning to the community, Bob says, is vitally important for the rehabilitation of forensic patients. He knows that. He sees it every day as a pulmonary and critical care doctor in his second year of residency in Washington state. “But from a more personal standpoint, it’s hard to think of that.”

“I guess I spent too many years either actively fighting with him or afraid of what he might do,” he says. “There’s a lot of pretty unpleasant memories growing up with him.”

At his mother’s funeral, Bob stood in the pulpit and told those in attendance of the need to forgive Will. “The irony is, as time passed, I often feel like I’m the last one in the family to be able to forgive him. That’s something I still can’t bring myself to do,” he says. “That’s honestly something I struggle with daily.”

He visited Will just twice over the last eight years, once in November 2006 and the last time in the spring of 2013. The latest visit was mostly out of a sense of obligation, Bob says, because he was moving away to the Pacific Northwest. Whatever was discussed, he says, has mostly been purged from his memory.

“It was a tough visit, of course.”

Will Bruce rides his mountain bike on trails to help relieve stress. He manages feelings of guilt about the past while trying to look forward.

Will’s youngest brother, Wallace, 27, has forgiven him, but is not comfortable with the idea of him living in the community. He saw Will multiple times over the years in the hospital, but stopped last year because his emotions became so intense, partly because of his brother’s impending release. Wallace lives in Los Angeles. He spends summertime in Maine and plans to see Will later this month.

“I would love to say with 100% certainty that I’m OK with Will living in a group home. But the fact is I’m not. There’s still a part of me that thinks it’s a horrible idea.

“Having seen what happens when he’s not on medication,” Wallace says, “that’s a hard thing to shake.”

Both brothers admire their father. They know their mother would’ve wanted him to advocate for Will, and it’s helped give their father a mission. Both believe it is good for their brother to tell his story, that it could help others with mental illness.

Will respects his brothers’ opinions and their distance. He knows reconciliation may never come. “That’s the toughest thing,” he says. “I can’t expect them to forgive me. I haven’t forgiven myself yet. I just try to live every day the best I can.

“It would be so much easier for them to say they hate me, but they don’t. And that gives me hope.”

Will knows he will deal with these issues forever. There are times when he feels overwrought with guilt. “At the end of the day, I killed my mother. There’s a part of me that feels I should be punished for that.”

He asks himself, Why should someone who did what I did be able to walk free?

Sometimes, his mother appears in his dreams.

“Will, I forgive you,” she whispers.

He awakes crying.

About this story

Will Bruce and his father, Joe, allowed CNN to document Will’s transition from a Maine state psychiatric hospital to a group home in the community. In March 2014, reporter Wayne Drash made the first of several visits to Augusta, Maine, and to the family home in Caratunk, Maine. Video producer Brandon Ancil and photographer John Nowak also spent time with the Bruces.

Drash examined hundreds of pages of medical documents relating to Will’s treatment and discharge as well as the progress notes made by psychiatrists since his release. The reporter also reviewed the autopsy report on Amy Bruce and a transcript of Joe Bruce’s 911 call. He interviewed the commissioner of Maine’s Health and Human Services Department, the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and the director of the State Forensic Service.

Italics are used for dialogue of past events as recalled by a participant.

Follow CNN’s Wayne Drash on Twitter or contact him by e-mail.

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.