Story by Jeffrey Jackson
Owatonna People’s Press — Special to CHS
Doug and Nancy Reuter want to make certain their son didn’t die in vain.
And so, the former Owatonna legislator and his wife are embarking on a crusade to change the way in which mentally ill individuals, like their son, receive treatment.
“If we can change the law and save one life, it would be worth it,” said Doug Reuter, who represented Steele and Waseca counties in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1997 to 2001.
Joel, the Reuters’ son, died on July 5, following an eight-hour standoff with Seattle police. After the 28-year-old man, who had been struggling with mental illness since he was a sophomore in college, reportedly shot through his apartment window at police, two SWAT members opened fire on him, shooting him and killing him.
A memorial service was held in Minnesota on Saturday for Joel Reuter.
But his parents do not point an accusing finger at Seattle police. Just the opposite.
“We have a good relationship with the Seattle police,” Doug Reuter said Wednesday. “We don’t blame the Seattle Police Department at all. They did what they had to do.”
They do, however, blame the mental health community in Washington state and the way it treated — or failed to treat — their son, even though, the Reuters say, those in the mental health community knew their son’s history of struggles.
“The standard line was, ‘He does not meet the criteria to hospitalize him,’” Doug Reuter said.
And when Doug Reuter asked what it would take to get his son the help that he needed, what would meet the criteria, he said one mental health worker told him, “When he has a loaded gun in his hand with his finger on the trigger,” then he would meet the criteria.
Which is exactly what happened, though instead of it leading to Joel Reuter’s being hospitalized, it lead to his being shot and killed.
The Reuters found out about the fate of their son on Twitter.
“The police themselves were tweeting,” said Doug Reuter about that morning.
Nancy Reuter still remembers the tweets:
“Shots fired at Belleve Avenue E incident,” read one, “suspect down inside apartment. Medics in route.”
It would be more than an hour later before the next tweet.
“Officer involved shooting is confirmed fatality. No officers injured. Media briefing shortly,” it said.
With that, they knew their son was dead.
But the incident began hours earlier — shortly before 3 a.m. on July 5 — when, according to the initial report by the Seattle police, neighbors reported hearing five gunshots from Joel Reuter’s apartment. One caller to police said he had seen an armed man inside the building’s elevator.
Police knew Joel Reuter from previous contact they had had with him and with contact that Reuter had had with the department’s Crisis Intervention Team, a group that works with people suffering “mental health crises.”
When they arrived at the apartment, police could hear what they say sounded like a gun maintenance training video and the sounds of someone “racking and dry-firing a gun,” the report says. But when they tried to contact Joel Reuter through the door, “he turned the volume on his television up, drowning out officers’ voices and making it difficult to communicate,” the report says.
The next sound they reported hearing from the apartment was that of Joel Reuter barricading the door with furniture. At that point, both SWAT and the Crisis Intervention Team were called in.
“Over the next seven and a half hours, police intermittently made contact with the armed man, who, at one point, came out on his apartment balcony with a handgun and an extended magazine,” the report reads. “During the incident, the man repeatedly told officers he was prepared to defend himself against ‘zombies’ and refused numerous requests by police and negotiators to surrender his gun to officers.”
Shortly before 10:30 a.m. Seattle time — 12:30 p.m. in Minnesota — Joel Reuter opened fire through the window. It was then that he was shot, though police believe that he didn’t die immediately. Negotiators in the building could still hear Reuter in the apartment. And because he had made threats to booby-trap his apartment, they did not enter immediately.
About a half-hour later, police entered the apartment and found Reuter. Though medics were called, Reuter died.
Though he admits he will never know what was going on in his son’s head on that day, Doug Reuter believes that his son was experiencing extreme paranoia that day — so much so that Joel Reuter may not have known what was going on.
The trip from hell
The first time that the Reuters saw any sign that their son was mentally ill came in his sophomore year of college at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“He was holed up in his room, not going to classes,” said Nancy Reuter. “He was email and messaging us things, crazy things that went from bad to worse. Delusional things.”
In one case, he accused his parents of trying to kill him through electroshock therapy. But he had never had electroshock therapy.
“It was paranoid, delusional stuff,” Nancy Reuter said.
But when they tried to intervene, they ran into roadblocks, including with the university itself, which would not allow them into Joel Reuter’s dorm to get him or even to see him.
It took six months before they learned about Arizona’s civil commitment process and were able to get him into treatment. The commitment papers were served to Joel Reuter and he was taken in for a 72-hour hold on May 9, 2004 — his 19th birthday.
After the 72-hour hold, a hearing took place to determine what, if any, further treatment he needed. The Reuters, who had retired from Owatonna to Texas, flew to Arizona for the hearing. Both of them testified.
The judge found Joel Reuter in need of treatment and ordered his commitment.
Under Arizona law, the treatment would last for a year and was a combination of in-patient and out-patient care. He remained hospitalized until he was stable, then he was released.
However, the release was conditional, meaning that he had to report to a mental health clinic every week, where he would be given a time-released injection of his medicine. If he missed an appointment, the Tucson police would be called and he would face more hospitalization.
“He was compliant,” Doug Reuter said. “For a whole year, he took his medicine and he was absolutely normal.”
And in fact, his parents said, Joel Reuter stayed on his meds for two years before he, for whatever reason, went off his pills and ended up back in the hospital for seven weeks.
“Most people with mental illness, it takes two or three hospitalizations before it clicks, ‘No matter how I feel, I do have to take this medication,’” Doug Reuter said.
After the second time, it seemed to click for Joel Reuter. And the former Owatonna student — he attended school here through his freshman year in high school — graduated from college in December 2007 with a computer science degree and got a job a month later in the computer industry in Seattle, eventually becoming a software engineer for Omni Group, a software development company.
It was, his parents say, his dream job.
In an Internet blog entry, Joel Reuter, who went by the nickname Joeliolio, wrote about his job:
“I work in one of the coolest places ever. We have pinball games, a gigantic theater and a kitchen which serves meals three times a day. We work hard and we laugh hard and we get a lot done. … I love my job.”
But in the same blog, posted earlier this year, Joel Reuter wrote about a new battle he faced — cancer. That month, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. His parents were on vacation in Hawaii when he called them to break the news.
Still, even then, he was optimistic. In the same blog entry, he wrote:
“I’m on chemotherapy and I’m doing well so far. I’m told that I have a great shot at getting it cured over the course of several months of chemo treatments and maybe a little radiation at the end … What I want to find, and I think I will, is a stronger self as someone who has defeated cancer. I want to talk proudly down the street knowing that I have beaten this thing that could have killed me had I not been so strong. I am so lucky.”
By the tone of the blog, Nancy Reuter said, it is clear to her that her son was still on his meds. But by mid-February, shortly after a chemotherapy treatment, the Reuters began to receive messages from Joel’s friends that he was changing.
“For sure we knew in March that he was off his meds,” Doug Reuter said.
The Reuters were going to meet their son for dinner in Seattle on March 13. But when they met up with him, they knew that he was in a full-blown bipolar episode.
“He was manic,” Nancy Reuter said.
“It started the downhill slide,” Doug Reuter added.
“It was the trip from hell,” Nancy Reuter concluded.
Over the next two days, Joel Reuter withdrew $28,000 out of his bank account and, without warning, flew to London, even after his friends tried to intervene and get him to a hospital. All the time, he was posting his whereabouts on Facebook.
The Facebook postings allowed his parents to follow him and get word out about him. Agents at Heathrow intercepted him, held him and deported him back to Seattle. He was met at the Seattle airport by airport police, customs agents and mental health crisis workers, all of whom interviewed him for what his parents say was three hours.
Their conclusion? He did not meet the criteria for hospitalization, and he was released.
“You don’t know who’s crazier,” Nancy Reuter said.
What followed was a trip to Canada, where he was hospitalized for two weeks following a suicide attempt. In mid-April, he was hospitalized again, this time in Everett, Wash., and again for two weeks. Finally, in June, he was hospitalized one last time — three and a half weeks in Seattle.
If only he would have remained hospitalized, his parents say, Joel Reuter might still be alive. If only he would have been forced to take his medication like he had been forced to take it in Arizona. If only the mental health care workers had seen he truly did need help.
Pushing for a change
Arizona laws about the treatment of the mentally ill are different than most other states.
“All of mental health law is a delicate balance between individual rights and community rights,” said Chick Arnold, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in mental health law. “When the scales tip, community rights prevail.”
And that is one way, Arnold says, in which Arizona differs from other states — tipping them toward community rights and making sure there’s a way to protect the community.
Most states, he said, have three standards by which a person can be civilly committed to a mental health institution: If the person is deemed to be a danger to himself, if a person is deemed to be a danger to others, or if a person is “gravely disabled” by his mental illness. Arizona, adds a fourth standard: If the person is “persistently or acutely disabled.”
What that means, Arnold said, is that without treatment, the person is “likely to become dangerous.”
And he should know. He wrote the law.
That’s not to say the law always works. Jared Loughner — the man who shot and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded 12 others and killed six others, including a 9-year-old girl — did so in Tucson, the same city in which Joel Reuter went to school.
The problem, Arnold said, is not the law but the fact that even in Arizona, where it’s been the law of the land for a decade, some people do not know about it. If they did, then people at Pima Community College, from which Loughner had been suspended until he sought mental health treatment, could have worked to have Loughner committed and treated before the shooting occurred.
“We don’t have to wait until tragedy happens,” Arnold said.
And it is that sort of law that Doug Reuter wants to see enacted across the country, beginning in Washington state where his son died.
“It’s almost criminal the way the laws deal with mental illness and the treatment of the mentally ill,” said Doug Reuter, who plans on becoming a registered lobbyist to push for a change in the laws. “You can’t look to someone who is mentally ill to make reasonable decisions. Once they’re off their meds for a couple of weeks, they’re no longer capable of making reasonable decisions. … The government has to say, ‘You’re not capable of making that decision. We’re going to make it for you.’”
Former state Rep. Mindy Greiling, who represented Roseville in the Minnesota House for 20 years before retiring earlier this year, would like to see a law similar to the Arizona law enacted in Minnesota.
“It would be a healthy thing for Minnesota and all states to look at that kind of law,” Greiling said.
A long-time advocate for reform of mental health laws in the state, Grieling — who served with Doug Reuter in the House and whose son, like Reuter’s son, suffers from mental illness — understands that the issue is controversial because it brings up the question of the civil rights of individuals with mental illness. Specifically, she said, there are those who advocate for the right of mentally ill people not to do what they don’t want to do. And that would mean not taking their meds if they choose not to take their meds.
But there is the problem, she said.
“Often times, people with mental illness don’t recognize they’re ill,” she said.
And there are those who disagree.
Sue Abderholden, the executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Minnesota, is hesitant about the idea of forcing people to take their meds.
“I don’t think that’s the best thing,” she said.
In part, she said, not everyone becomes a danger to themselves or to others.
“How do you choose who you’re going to force medication on?” Abderholden said.
At the same time, she notes there are problems with commitment laws.
“In some ways, it’s too late,” she said. “You’ve got someone developing mental illness, sometimes for a long period, before they meet the standard (for commitment). Days, weeks can go by and nothing will happen.”
That is the problem that the Reuters felt with mental health officials in Washington who told them that their son did not meet the criteria to be hospitalized.
“Politicians like to point at guns in order to distract from the lack of treatment for the mentally ill,” Doug Reuter said. “They do absolutely nothing to help the mentally ill. Yes, checks and balances need to be in place to protect civil liberties. But I don’t think Joel’s civil liberties were violated at all.”
A memorial service for Joel Reuter was held Saturday at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Memorials are preferred to Treatment Advocacy Center, 200 N. Glebe Road, Suite 730, Arlington, VA 22203.
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