Crime, the safety net, and mental illness

In the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora, we’re going to talk tomorrow about psychiatric conditions that could lead a person to commit such a crime. We’ll also ask “what gaps in the mental health structure could be filled to help people before they turn to violence?”

That question reminded me of the story of JoAnn and Joe Zwack. In 2000, American RadioWorks did a documentary series about the insanity defense called Jailing the Mentally Ill.

Their son, Kyle Zwack, who had been a typical kid, transformed as a young adult. Here’s what John Biewen reported:

The Zwacks say the changes in their son began when he was 21–an engineering student at the University of Minnesota. He grew distant, pacing in his room. Then came talk of suicide. Then bizarre rages.

One incident shocked the Zwacks into realizing they were losing the son they’d known. A young woman whom Kyle was trying to date wrote to the Zwacks saying Kyle was harrassing her.

“I thought the girl was lying because it didn’t sound like my son,” recalls JoAnn.

When JoAnn confronted Kyle with the letter, he demanded she hand it over. She replied that he could have it after his father had read it. Kyle stormed upstairs to his room and returned with a can of mace that he carried in his part-time job as a security guard.

“And he sprayed me,” JoAnn says, her voice breaking at the memory. “And he went down to the police station and reported me for withholding his federal mail.”

The Zwacks tried to get their son help. Get him committed. But the court wouldn’t do it until he was a proven threat to himself or others. That didn’t happen until a shootout with police officers. He was found guilty and sentenced to 62 years in prison.

–Stephanie Curtis, social media host