The two Jeffs Part I: Criminal cases reveal hidden hurt

Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Graphic by Christina Sorenson

This 10-part series, a collaborative effort of the newspapers of Rust Publishing, NWIA, examines the myriad issues surrounding the mental health care crisis in Iowa. Reporters and editors from the Spencer Daily Reporter, Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and Dickinson County News have contributed to the report.

There are pictures of Jeff Wittler that no one keeps in their wallet or pocketbook.

They don't get shared on Facebook.

He's wearing jail-issued orange with a painted cinder block wall in the background. He's holding a placard with his name and inmate number 161548. Jail cameras captured the image of an young adult still trying to find his way in life.

His mother, Bev Wittler of Spirit Lake, has a different set of photos to go with a different set of memories.

Most of them are good: She remembers a happy, outgoing toddler who got a little anxious and fidgety in preschool. He became a class clown in elementary school with plenty of friends and playmates. The Wittlers had a house with bunches of bicycles outside and a lot of boys inside, usually playing video games. Jeff's Christmas and birthday gifts were easy just find the latest Ninja Turtle merchandise.

"He would go to the barber shop with his dad for haircuts," Bev said. "One day Jeff was sitting on the waiting bench with an older gentleman, and Jeff said to him 'Nice weather we're having huh?' And he was just a little guy. He also had the clerk at the old Casey's store in Spirit Lake wrapped around his little finger. She fussed over him every time he walked in the door. He was very personable."

Bev still hopes people remember that Jeff, not the Jeff captured in a photo with his back against a wall and a time stamp in the corner. That two-dimensional image doesn't capture what was going on inside her son.

"When he was 10, he had his first bad anxiety attack," she said. "It scared us so we took him to the ER. They first diagnosed it as a respiratory illness because he felt he couldn't get a deep breath. But it happened again, and we got him in to see the psychiatrist in Spencer. His early diagnoses were ADHD and anxiety. This was really the start of everything."

The Wittlers took their distracted, withdrawn middle schooler to appointments with psychologists and counselors.

"But he also played baseball and football and seemed to enjoy the sports," Bev said. "We saw him get more depressed at times as he got a little older, and seemed at certain times to be more withdrawn from people. His high school days were hard for him. If he couldn't do his work perfectly, he would feel he couldn't do it at all."

When Jeff tried to unwind at night, he didn't always make the best choices. Jeff's first criminal arrest took place in November 2005, when he was charged with public intoxication in Storm Lake.

"These kids had gone to a place that sells alcohol because the place at that time allowed minors in if I remember correctly," Bev said. "I don't think they drank anything inside the premises. Jeff had taken along at least one other boy and his girlfriend. The girlfriend wanted to leave and her boyfriend started becoming physically and verbally abusive toward her. So Jeff took a couple of punches at him, telling me later he wasn't going to let this kid hurt her. I think there happened to be a policeman in the parking lot who saw this and ended up arresting Jeff. The whole story escapes me, but that is the gist of it. Jeff had a softer heart than anyone knew."

More than a decade has passed and Spencer attorney JP Greer still sees a lot of Jeffs come through his doors. He estimates about 80 percent of his criminal defense cases in some way or another involve substance abuse or mental health.

"I am discouraged by the system," he said. "State prisons do not have programming for substance abuse treatment or much of anything unless an inmate is going to be there a long time. Iowa does not spend much money on the addicted or mentally ill. They closed the residential treatment facility in Sheldon, and the one remaining in northwest Iowa is in Sioux City, and it has a wait-list of about four months. So, sit in jail four months and wait."

Jeff was back in the court system again six months after his first arrest, when he was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated and fourth-degree criminal mischief in Milford.

"He was suicidal that day unbeknownst to us," Bev said. "He had been out at our farm and had been in the house with his hunting gun trying to get up the nerve to kill himself. He had been drinking beer, headed down toward Arnolds Park, ran low on gas, stopped at Casey's and then drove off without paying. They arrested him down in north Milford. He told them he was on the way out to a country road where he planned on trying again. Meanwhile, I had been calling for him. And, when I called, the deputy answered his phone."

Bev adds the word "finally" when she says Jeff received his high school diploma in the spring of 2007. He had plans, too. Jeff started taking flying lessons at age 16, but quit before the start of the school year to focus on studies. After graduation, he wanted to take aviation courses at Iowa Lakes Community College.

"In the end it was all too much for him, but he felt like his dream was gone," Bev said. "He continued living at home. Little did we know: When he was gone, he was self medicating with beer and marijuana and had been for quite some time. This is where Compass Pointe (a now-closed local behavioral health agency) came in and we also sent him to a treatment center in Oklahoma."

Jeff was charged with a second OWI this time in Spencer in October following his graduation. Bev said his decisions were clouded by a girl he cared a lot about. He was still hiding excessive drinking and marijuana use from his parents.

"This is about the time he went willingly to a treatment center after which, watching him closely, we didn't see any further abuse of either," Bev said. "But, then he was also without what seemed to soothe his overactive, racing mind. It was a bad time for all of us. My one wish is that I wish there were more dual inpatient treatment centers that are not so cost prohibitive, because addiction problems very often go hand-in-hand with mental illness."

Buena Vista County Attorney Paul Allen also sees the need for more inpatient treatment programs and outpatient programs now that Compass Pointe has closed. Access is a problem, and defendants often find another barrier in the cost of care.

"Other than through the Department of Correctional Services, inpatient programs are often private insurance and/or state-aid dependent," he said. "Those struggling with these issues frequently do not have private insurance and have not had the opportunity to obtain state-funded care. Considering that the Third Judicial District now has only one correctional-based treatment facility, bed space is limited and wait times often extend to several months, during which time defendants are expected to comply with probation but without the structured support necessary to handle the chemical dependency. The same could be said for when mental health is a contributing factor."

Bev said she enjoyed everything about her son except his illness.

June 1, 2009, was not a good day for her son.

"That day he had gotten upset about something and abruptly left his job," she said. "He came home in a very bad mood, thinking he had failed again. I could tell he was going into a manic phase of his illness and asked him if he wanted to go down to the hospital in Spencer to the mental health unit. He agreed, but seemed quite upset on the way down. When we got into the E.R. they were attending to a car accident and told us we would have to wait. Jeff got upset and took off on foot, not wanting to wait and changing his mind about the whole thing. He didn't want to be admitted."

Jeff had an aunt who lived in Spencer. She gave him a ride home, unaware of the urgency of her sister's trip to Spencer.

"He was very distant and irritated when I got home," Bev said. "His dad was working that night so it was just Jeff and I."

PART II: "Jeff was out of control."

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