A Woman Said Mentally Ill Matthew Threw A Pinecone At A Toddler. Enough For The Police To Taser Him & Put Him To Jail.

Matthew Needed Compassion and Help. Instead He Was Tasered and Jailed. Why? 

(8-26-20) Guest blog by Lori J. Butler

I was leaving my office at Mountain Help, an outreach ministry operated by the First Baptist Church, when I saw a young man with mental illness running through our village of Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains of San Bernardino County, California.

He wasn’t a jogger. It was as if he was running for his life. I had no idea, in that moment, that he actually was.

I joined a crowd that had gathered around him and began calling out to two San Bernardino Sheriff’s officers who were chasing him.

“He’s mentally ill!” I’d recognized Matthew because I had been trying to help him find housing and get into treatment.

The deputies didn’t respond.

When Matthew stopped running, he picked up a piece of wood. He didn’t swing at the officers. He simply paced back and forth – common behavior for someone experiencing paranoia and symptoms of  PTSD.

Several in the crowd began videotaping what was unfolding. Others joined me in telling the deputies that Matthew was mentally ill and known to hear voices. We are a small community. People care about each other.  I felt I had to do something so I gathered the courage and walked over to speak directly to the deputies. My adult son has had similar episodes so I thought I could help.

I told them about the three most important steps in PERT deescalation training.

Number 1 – Remember the person hearing voices is more afraid of you than you are of them.

Number 2 – Obtain and use their first and last name often to create trust and compliance.

Number 3 – Repeat you are there to help. Offer help and then offer it again!

Instead of listening, the deputies ignored me. They drew their tasers and shot Matthew twice. Three other deputies, who had joined them, helped knock Matthew to the ground and were placing their knees on him to hold Matthew down while he screamed for help.

What Had Matthew Done To Be Tasered and Restrained? 

A woman, who appeared to be one of the wealthy outsiders who weekend in our mountain resort community, appeared and told me that she had called the deputies. She’d been driving through town when she noticed a “crazy looking homeless man” throw a pinecone at a toddler, she said.

I would learn later that the deputies hadn’t bother to investigate her complaint. They’d never spoken to her after she’d made that 911 call.  They’d gone after Matthew simply because he’d fit her description.

I pushed my luck. I begged the deputies to take Matthew to a mental health facility instead of the San Bernardino Central jail. The jail was no place for him. The San Bernardino Central jail was cited in a Los Angeles Times expose as one of the worst in the state, plagued by inmate suicides.

They ignored me.

I’d met Matthew two weeks earlier outside our church where I volunteer. It was a Friday night and I had stopped to pick up items for a local battered woman who we were helping. Mountain Help assists people with non-food household items such as personal hygiene, cleaning supplies, paper goods, computer use, job and housing searches/boards, and mentoring. The idea is to not just to give a “hand out” or even just a “hand up” — rather our ministry seeks to know the persons who seek us out and support them so they don’t feel faceless and forgotten in our small community.

When I first provided service to him, it was obvious that Matthew needed our help. He looked like the shell of a human being. He had what appeared to be second degree sunburn along with swollen limbs, blistered feet and was suffering from what I believe was heat exhaustion.

I offered him water and during a few breaks in his chatter with the “voices” in his head, I was able to piece together that Matthew had been released from the San Bernardino Central jail earlier in the morning hours with no medication, no water, no bus pass and no phone. This skeleton of a man had walked 21 miles up the 4,613 feet mountain in the scorching summer sun. I learned that he was 29 and his birthday was in a few days. I told him to rest and I was in no hurry, seating him in the “comfy” chair in the ministry office.

No Services Available – It was a weekend.

I put on gloves and a mask to be COVID appropriate once I got closer than 6 feet and slowly gained his confidence. I told him that I had a son who also was turning thirty. Matthew saw a scripture verse hanging on the wall and that prompted a discussion about Jesus. I washed his feet, sprayed his sunburn, bandaged the blisters, and gave him socks and a fresh set of clothes. I reached out to the local homeless coalition for help in securing housing only to be told there would be no help available until Monday.

I asked Matthew if he knew anyone in town who could take him in until Monday. He couldn’t or didn’t remember anyone’s name. He continued to talk to himself but during a few lucid moments, I learned that it was almost his birthday. I suggested that he go to our local hospital if he was willing and stapled a bus pass and directions to the local hospital on a backpack that I had filled with food. I also gave him a bed roll.

“Come back here on Monday at 10 a.m. when we open and I will help you,” I promised.

I said a silent prayer and wondered if I would ever see him again. I felt powerless and frustrated. There was just no way for me to easily get a behavioral health bed for Matthew.  No emergency services were available.

When I returned on Monday to our ministry office, I was pleasantly surprised to see Matthew waiting. At some point, he’d taken a shower and was now wearing the clothes that I’d given him. I was relieved that he was okay. Some kind soul had helped direct him to the Mountain Hospital and Clinic over the weekend. He had been seen by medical personnel there. I wasn’t certain where he had spent Saturday and Sunday night, but he had remembered to come back to our office.

I spent the rest of the day with him – helping him apply for an I. D. card which was the first step in obtaining housing. He needed an address to get the card and remembered the name of a relative who we called. The relative agreed to let Matthew use his address so an I.D. card could be obtained. I told Matthew it would take at least two weeks for us to get that card and complete the paperwork that we needed. Without the I.D., I couldn’t find housing but Matthew promised to come back two weeks later.

While Waiting For Help: Being Chased and Tasered

During the next two weeks, I looked for Matthew every day in town but didn’t see him. I had no idea where he was or what was happening to him until I saw the deputies chasing him.

On that day, as the deputies were putting Matthew into an ambulance (which I had called for him) in handcuffs, he  spotted me.

“Help me!”

It was sad that my eventually finding him came due to a thrown pinecone, a police chase and double dose of tasing with Matthew being hauled away in handcuffs as he pleaded, with fluid running down his face from the altercation, “Help me!”

I contacted a local newspaper reporter about Matthew and explained how there had been no beds available and how the deputies had shot Matthew with a taser without first trying to calm the situation. The reporter told me that I should do some research about how often San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies used a taser to subdue someone. The reporter said I should talk with Crestline Mental Health Services which provides help in San Bernardino county.

With images of Matthew being shot with a taser in my head, I began doing what the reporter suggested – reading stories. Reuters reported that more than 1,000 people stunned by tasers by police had died through the end of 2018 with 153 of those deaths being attributed to or related to the use of tasers. At least 49 people died in 2018 in the US after being shocked by police with a taser.

An incident on May 14, 2011 brought tears to my eyes. It was about Alan Kephart. San Bernadino Sheriff’s deputies stopped Kephart, age 43, a local DJ and teacher’s assistant, after he allegedly ran a stop sign. He pulled into a gas station parking lot where the arresting deputy claimed Kephart “became combative and uncooperative.” Out came the tasers. Kephart died after being repeatedly shot eight times. His father, a member of the Sheriff’s Department’s volunteer mounted Rangers unit for decades, called his son’s death a senseless use of excessive force. “To me, it’s not just a traffic stop. It’s murder. You don’t kill a person for running a stop sign,” said Jack Kephart, who insisted his son was non-violent. “He’s never raised a hand in 43 years. He goes to church three times a week. He does the audio for the church in Crestline. He works three jobs. He’s never had a drink. Never done drugs. Never smoked. Never done nothing.”

The county paid $4.25 million to settle a civil lawsuit, but no deputies were charged or reprimanded.

Reading about Kephart’s death by taser confirmed what I had feared after witnessing how Matthew had been treated – San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies were  still using tasers as a first “go to” instead of Crisis Intervention Team Training.

Videotapes of Matthew’s arrest taken by spectators will show that Matthew complied with the officers after I called out his name and let him know that I was there to help. I’m outraged, as a witness, that the Sheriff’s called the next day after Matthew was tased to demand any copy of the video of the “incident” that I might have.  For goodness sakes. I’ve always prided myself on being a pro-law enforcement and I’m a conservative Republican. Yet, I found myself saying “When and if I got a copy, I’d be sending it to the ACLU.”

Matthew Didn’t Need To Be Shot

He didn’t need to be shot with a taser. Matthew has been charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor. He will face Superior Court Judge Judge Ron Christianson. 

Will Matthew finally get help or will he be stuck on the revolving door of jail, homelessness, and jail?

Ironically, the next free CIT training for law enforcement in San Bernardino was eight days after Matthew was shot with a taser.

I decided to dig into Matthew’s past, as best I could, and I learned that he had contact with a criminal court during the last ten years some 117 times. I can’t help but wonder how many times Matthew has been tased in these last 10 years. I also wonder how is it possible that during that decade, as he repeatedly came into contact with law enforcement, his mental illness had gone untreated?

How is that possible?

I live less than a mile from our local Sheriff’s station and would be happy to share how my adult son diagnosed with Bipolar I was treated when he encountered San Diego police officers during a crisis.

These officers were trained, compassionate and knowledgeable. They went beyond the call of duty by helping our family get involved with the local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). What was the result? Because of the officers, who encountered my son in San Diego being trained, my son never never entered the legal system.  He is currently a security officer supervisor for a major corporation. A private cop of sorts, who’s known for his firm kindness and ability to gain cooperation and compliance from the homeless and mentally ill so prolific on the streets of San Diego.

In 2015, while serving as the Executive Director of the International Bipolar Foundation, I learned from the Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel that people with severe psychiatric illness have shorter lifespans. In fact, it is thought to be from 13.5 to 32 years shorter. More than 90 percent of suicides are as a result of a mental illness. In 2019, the families of Joshua Pitts, Joseph Mendoza and Henry Simmons sued San Bernardino county after all three men committed suicide while in custody. Family members warnings that their loved ones were mentally ill apparently were unheeded.

A few hours ago, I called the jail. Because of Covid, I can’t visit Matthew. I was told that he was still alive – at least for now.

About the Author: Lori J. Butler, CFRE has served as non profit professional for more than 30 years and is the widowed mother of 3 adult children including a 25 year old son living successfully with a Bipolar I diagnosis. For 20 years she was a staff leader at organizations in San Diego County including The International Bipolar Foundation and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) North Coastal San Diego. She currently lives in Lake Arrowhead, CA where she serves as Vice Chairman of the Board at nearby Mountain Counseling and Training in Crestline. She volunteers regularly at local, regional and national organizations where she can be a mental health advocate for vulnerable populations.

Lori Bulter Black

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.