“Don’t Shoot My Son!” NAMI Advocate Writes About Son’s Incarceration

(5-9-24) “I hope my book can bring awareness to those struggling with a mental illness or those who know someone who is, to not feel alone in this lifelong battle. I do not want this to happen to anyone else,” explained Colleen Phipps when she sent me a copy of her book, Walk Barefoot In The Mud For Me.

I always am grateful when someone with a mental illness or a parent or a loved one shares their personal story about their struggles obtaining help from our inadequate, often confusing and frustrating mental health care system.

A tireless advocate, who is NAMI’s Butte County President in Chico, California, Phipps describes in her book what happened to her adult son, Donovan, who has a serious mental illness. His is a tragic story. While psychotic, he drove through a red light, killing a person. Donovan was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Of course, his parents had tried to get him help but couldn’t.

I’ve not yet had a chance to read her book, which began as notes that she took tracking Donovan’s illness.  These notes inadvertently created a diary which Phipps’ daughter, Lori, persuaded her to get self-published through Amazon.

Bravo Colleen – for continuing to love, support, and fight for your son and through him, all of us.

Excerpts from Walk Barefoot In The Mud For Me. Used with Author’s permission.

“Don’t shoot my son!”
February 1996   

While living at the shop, (Donovan) Don is having a mental breakdown. We call the police for their help. Within minutes the street is crawling with police cars. Yellow tape goes up, they bring in a SWAT team, and they break down the door of the shop.

They do this even though Larry (Phipps’ husband) is yelling at them that he has a key. They don’t listen. They break down the door and knock out the windows. After a while, one of the officers comes and asks me to come and talk to Donovan. I walk in with one officer in front of me and one behind me.

When we get in the shop there are three officers crouched with guns pointing right at Don. Don is standing back in an alcove holding up a shield of sorts. When I say, “Don” his entire posture changes and a calmness comes over his face.

When I ask him to come out with me, he says, “I can’t yet, Mom, I need to take care of these guys first.”
The officers then immediately pull me out. I am outraged that they can’t see that if you calmly talk to him and understand what he’s feeling you can get his cooperation.

One of the officers yells at us, “Get to the other side of the house, shots may be fired!”

Larry is out in the street yelling, “Don’t shoot my son! Don’t shoot my son!”

(Pages 14, 15)

Criminal Charges Filed Against Donovan
February 24, 2003

And now today the worse! An auto accident. Someone died! The pain we are feeling for the family of a young man who was killed, for Don, and our family, is almost unbearable-especially after trying so hard last week to get help for Don through mental health and then the police this weekend. Don took Larry’s truck early Monday morning, ran a red light, and broadsided a car. He is in the hospital with head trauma and is being charged with manslaughter and fleeing the scene.  (page 53)

Incarceration: I Am Numb

July 30, 2004

Chico Enterprise-Record Newspaper Front Page: Phipps found guilty of murder  – 34-year-old faces 32 years to life in hit-and-run. Courtesy of Chico Enterprise-Record The verdict is in. Don is convicted of second-degree murder. My thoughts: I am numb. Two families have been devastated by the tragic accident on February 24, 2003. That day, Juan Lugo lost his life. Today Donovan lost his life when a jury convicted him of second degree murder. There are no words. (Page 111)

The ultimate in the criminalization of the mentally ill.

October 14, 2004

Our kind and loving Donovan, having the misfortune of having a mental illness, received a life sentence yesterday. The ultimate in the criminalization of the mentally ill. I am sitting, tears rolling down my face, as I read e-mail after e-mail of support from so many. My heart is breaking into a million tiny pieces. I can’t breathe. (PAGE 137)


Avoidable tragedy?

Parents of man convicted of murder say jury overlooked mental illness

LOSING BATTLE? Colleen and Larry Phipps, former leaders of the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, have been trying for years to convince Butte County to implement a mobile crisis unit like one operating in Redding. Proper intervention, they feel, could have kept their son from driving recklessly and causing the death of a young Chico man.

LOSING BATTLE? Colleen and Larry Phipps, former leaders of the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, have been trying for years to convince Butte County to implement a mobile crisis unit like one operating in Redding. Proper intervention, they feel, could have kept their son from driving recklessly and causing the death of a young Chico man.


In court: Last November, Juan Carlos Lugo’s parents filed a civil suit against Donovan Phipps and his parents alleging wrongful death. Larry and Colleen Phipps said the case was recently settled for an amount covered by their homeowners’ insurance.

In the end, Larry and Colleen Phipps couldn’t prevent the type of tragedy they most feared and fought to prevent.

On July 29, a jury found their son, Donovan Phipps, guilty of running a red light and crashing into the car of a young man, killing him.

Phipps stands to serve 32 years to life in prison for second-degree murder, felony hit-and-run and a misdemeanor conviction of resisting arrest.

Phipps’ parents are reluctant to talk about their concerns about how their son’s case was handled, in part because “it sounds like we’re being callous to the Lugo family,” Larry Phipps said.

Juan Carlos Lugo, 21, had just returned from a Mormon mission and was mourned by his close-knit family after his death following the Feb. 24, 2003, collision at The Esplanade and First Avenue. Lugo had just dropped off his brother at Pleasant Valley High School.

“My heart breaks for the family of young Juan Lugo and for the pain our son and family endure each day,” Colleen Phipps said.

Phipps’ parents believe his conviction was unjust in part because the jury failed to adequately consider their son’s history of mental illness.

They had hoped the court would accept a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, because Phipps, 33 at the time, was in the throes of schizoaffective disorder, which led him to delusions when he wasn’t taking his medication.

“Our main problem is the logic and philosophy of the law that convicted him of murder,” Larry Phipps said. Since his son lacked intent to harm anyone, Phipps said, it would have been more appropriate for Donovan to face charges of manslaughter.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Sanderson, who prosecuted the case, acknowledged that Phipps “has some mental problems” but argued that, “He knew what he was doing on the morning of the collision, and he knew that it was wrong and he just didn’t care.

“I think justice would be served if he went away for 32 to life,” Sanderson said, adding that Lugo’s family is pleased with the verdict.

The Phippses have been known to the News & Review for more than seven years, as Colleen and Larry have been leaders of the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The couple has repeatedly said they were worried something bad would happen if their son didn’t get help, but they never expected it would be an innocent person’s death.

The night before the collision, the Phippses had called police to report that Donovan was acting erratically, but no action was taken. “We knew he was in a crisis,” Colleen Phipps said. “We did everything we could within the law.”

Several years ago, Donovan Phipps was convicted of assault when, during a confrontation with police at his parents’ house, he threw an object out a window and struck a deputy. That “prior” weighed in on the lengthy sentence he faces.

In between that incident and the wreck that killed Juan Carlos Lugo, the Phippses said their son had been “a productive member of society, a law-abiding citizen, a mentor to others, an excellent employee and a caring and compassionate family member.”

They, along with other advocates for the mentally ill, have repeatedly pressed the county to create a mobile crisis unit and to implement a state law allowing involuntary treatment.

Phipps is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 14.

The Phippses hope for an appeal but are now in debt after mortgaging their house to pay lawyer Kevin Hyatt of Sacramento, who didn’t return the News & Review’s call for comment.

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.