Schizophrenia a possible factor in Stanbary’s spiral
If untreated, mental illness may have fueled his actions
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
WASHOUGAL — Steven Stanbary dealt with relationship problems, crippling physical pain and an impending sexual assault arrest in his final months, according to those who knew him. Such problems would weigh on anyone’s mind, but significantly moreso for someone with untreated mental illness, psychiatrists said.
Stanbary stopped receiving treatment for delusional schizophrenia in 1988 because he refused to take medication, a psychiatrist who treated him told Idaho police following his 1994 aggravated assault arrest there.
It remains unclear whether Stanbary sought treatment for his mental illness in recent years and how much, if at all, his mental condition fueled his actions the morning of Dec. 7.
Stanbary fatally shot his wife of 11 years, Leona Bolton-Stanbary, and her twin sister, Mona Daugherty, that morning, and fired handguns and rifles for 90 minutes while the house they shared burned to the ground around him, police said.
Washougal police expected Stanbary to surrender on sexual assault charges the next day. His impending arrest might have had nothing to do with the day he picked to end his own life, experts said. To draw such a correlation would be implying the man thought rationally when his thoughts might have been more irrational.
The mere fact Stanbary had a diagnosed mental illness would not have necessarily made him violent, psychologists and criminologists said, noting schizophrenics are often catatonic. An untreated mental illness would have been a different story.
“Clearly, if he had this diagnosis and decided not to take his medication, you can (envision) the symptoms getting worse and worse and worse, and a tragedy takes place,” said Will Meek, lead psychologist at Washington State University Vancouver Counseling Services.
About half of the people who commit murder-suicides, like Stanbary did, have chronic mental illness, said Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“Well-adjusted people don’t do this,” Schlesinger said. He continued, “There’s not a person alive who doesn’t go through periods of significant stress — death, loss, etc. But they don’t kill their whole family.”
Seventeen years ago, Stanbary’s then-wife, Debra Hughes, predicted such a tragedy would happen.
She told Idaho police in December 1994 she believed he would kill himself and/or others. She feared Stanbary would try to engage police in a gun battle, the report said.
Why it took 17 years for Stanbary to reach such a breaking point is a mystery. It is likely he had a series of “psychotic breaks” over the years, said Brian Stettin, policy director with the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.
“You’re not going to see a slow progression,” Stettin said. “Things will get steadily worse, then the person will snap.”
It appeared Stanbary could have snapped at any point over the past two decades.
Idaho police found him in possession of six AK-47s and a grenade launcher, among other weapons, according to their police report. Stanbary’s then-wife told police he had up to six months worth of food stored because he “felt the end of the world was coming and he wanted to stockpile weapons for that eventuality,” according to the Connor County police report.
It appears Stanbary’s preoccupation with Biblical end times did not fade through the years.
Stanbary did not have enough money to afford a washer — one of his landscaping clients gave him one, a neighbor said. Yet authorities say they confiscated handguns, rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition from his property.
Stanbary’s collection of weaponry suggests a man who had extreme paranoia, said Meek, of WSUV.
It appeared Stanbary had “prepared for the unlikely worst-case scenario where he would need all those weapons,” Meek said. His hatred for the government and white separatist views documented in the Idaho police report would not be uncommon for a person with delusional schizophrenia, Meek explained.
Stanbary’s previous fantasies about dying in a shootout with police did not materialize Dec. 7.
He shot at one police officer and one passer-by but injured neither. Neighbors who stepped out of their homes to get a better view of the chaos also were left unharmed.
Many murder-suicides stem from internal family matters, Schlesinger said. It is possible Stanbary meant to harm only the people inside his home.
That might explain why he did not seek to use his arsenal against the outside world, such as a nearby shopping center hundreds of feet from his front door. Such an attack would have suggested premeditation, experts said.
It is also possible Stanbary had any number of delusions that caused him to shoot at random targets in his backyard.
Constance Rodman, a psychiatrist who treated Stanbary in 1988, told Idaho police, “Once he gets a delusion, there is no talking him out of it.” Rodman wanted to have Stanbary committed, but the patient refused.
In a situation like Stanbary’s, it would have been beneficial if he had been placed into a court-ordered Assisted Outpatient Treatment program, Stettin, of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said. Washougal police officials said they never viewed Stanbary as a threat. Thus, the potential of him being ordered into a treatment program would seem remote.
“People who lack insight and don’t seek treatment suffer the most because they get ignored,” Stettin said.
Though situations involving mentally ill people can be “extremely difficult,” it is important for family members to “express concern in a loving way and be involved in helping them get access to services somehow,” Meek said.