The two Jeffs Part II: Guilty plea leads to tragic end

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.

Bev Wittler of Spirit Lake said she enjoyed everything about her son Jeff.

Except his illness.

What started out as an ADHD and anxiety diagnosis at age 10 evolved into bipolar disorder with psychotic features for Jeff at age 22.

"He would have basically normal periods and then the descent into depression and manic episodes," Bev said.

Area defense attorneys say 80-90% of their caseloads can be linked to substance abuse or mental illness. That was true for Jeff as well. As he got older, he tried to keep his labyrinth of thoughts and emotions under control through alcohol and marijuana. Jeff's parents looked for help, both close by and out-of-state.

"My main complaint is how they basically push them out the door," Bev said. "I always felt like he needed to be somewhere for at least six months so they could experiment with some meds that might help Jeff. I felt like I could cry each time they closed down one of Iowa's mental health institutes."

One of the mental health providers the Witter family turned to more than a decade ago was Compass Pointe.

Operations at the behavioral health provider came to a halt April 15, after an emergency meeting of its board members. Dickinson County Treasurer Kris Rowley said the closing was due to several factors, including back debt and large, one-time expenses, like a recent roof repair. A change in state funding seemed to be the largest factor, however.

"There was a state block grant that we received from the Iowa Department of Public Health," Rowley said. "Instead of being just money given every month, it was money given on a reimbursement cycle. That started in January, and we just didn't have deep enough pockets to be able to carry that weight."

Other providers have scrambled to cover Compass Pointe's caseload, but April's announcement was another blow to a system that couldn't help Jeff and the Wittler family in time.

Bev still thinks of the quiet moments at home as her son was growing up.

"He would come into my bedroom and sprawl across the end of the bed asking if I wanted to talk," she said. "He did this often. He called me his personal counselor."

But on the night off June 1, 2009, Bev was uneasy as she turned in for the night. She knew Jeff's illness was winning an internal struggle. He had walked away from his job earlier in the day and came home with a bad mood and sense of failure.

Bev recognized a manic episode and talked Jeff into admitting himself to the mental health unit at Spencer Hospital.

"He agreed, but seemed quite upset on the way down," she said.

The emergency medical team in Spencer was responding to the aftermath of car accident as the Wittlers arrived. The delay made Jeff impatient so he left the hospital on foot. Bev couldn't find him, so she called her sister, who lived in Spencer, for help.

"She said he walked to her house and she gave him a ride home," Bev said. "She didn't realize what was going on."

Bev tried talking to Jeff when they both got back to Spirit Lake, but her son wasn't open to a conversation.

"It was late, and I had to get up early for work so I went in the bedroom and locked the door so I could get some sleep," she said. "Apparently, he didn't like that I locked the door."

Jeff's criminal record had a pair of OWIs, a public intoxication citation and a criminal mischief arrest, but nothing in his history approached what happened next. Jeff broke through Bev's bedroom door.

"I could tell right away that he was out of control," Bev said. "I was shocked beyond belief when he hit me several times and became quite fearful. We were really best buddies. I was always there for him."

Bev managed to call 911. She then broke away from her son and ran outside moments before Jeff pushed her down onto the cement.

"In reading one of the police reports, when Jeff was sitting in the police car he told them he had completely lost his thoughts," she said. "I was admitted to the hospital in Sioux Falls, and Jeff went to jail. It broke my heart to read in another report that he was crying in jail and was worried that he had hurt me terribly."

Authorities said Jeff had a knife when he attacked his mom. Her hand needed reconstructive surgery from a slash. Melanie Summers Bauler, the Assistant Dickinson County Attorney at the time, told the court Bev's nose was severely injured and required surgery as well.

Jeff was booked into the Dickinson County Jail and charged with attempt to commit murder, a Class B felony; willful injury, a Class C felony; assault while participating in a felony, a Class C felony; going armed with intent, a Class D felony; domestic abuse assault, an aggravated misdemeanor and interference with official acts, a simple misdemeanor.

"When they originally charged him, I was shocked at the charges," Bev said. "I saw it as domestic abuse, but the county attorney saw it as something much worse. Coping with the arrest and the jail time was very hard on Jeff and I. I could not even talk to my son on a video camera, by phone or by letter for quite some time. I never could see any value in that. It was a cruel punishment for a mentally ill kid and for me."

Bev is still troubled that the only time she got to see her son early on was in the Dickinson County Jail. Jeff was transported to a mental health unit near Iowa City for an evaluation, then back to Spirit Lake to await the court process.

Jeff's attorney and the Dickinson County Attorney's Office fashioned a plea agreement to lesser charges Bev thinks her son was left with no other option but to accept a plea deal. A couple of the worst charges against him were dropped. He entered a guilty plea to the willful injury and going armed with intent on May 24, 2010.

Buena Vista County Attorney Paul Allen has no connection to the 10-year-old case in Spirit Lake, but he is familiar with the struggles families face as they go though the court process.

"I think it is most important to realize that addiction is a disease, and prosecutors, at least those in my office and I expect across the state, try to fashion plea agreements that effectively address dependency and/or mental health issues, even when those agreements call for incarceration," he said. "Incarceration, while justifiably a scary prospect for a defendant, can sometimes be the most effective avenue for treatment for a number of reasons."

Bev asked the court to look past the attack and find a punishment that addressed her son's underlying issues.

"His dad and I went to the sentencing with hope that they would send him to a mental health place where they could try out some different meds on him to find one that would work longterm," she said.

Bev liked the relatively close proximity of the Mental Health Institute in Cherokee. And, she spent the spring and summer of 2010 researching ways to help her son. She saw television segments on doctors in California and Texas who might be able to help. She promised Jeff she'd take him to a West Coast doctor she saw on "Dr. Phil."

"I was excited about it and very hopeful," she said. "But my heart was broken at his sentencing when they sentenced him to 15 years in prison to be served consecutively, not concurrently."

The Iowa Medical and Classification Center placed Jeff six hours away from home, at a critical care unit in Fort Madison's state penitentiary. Jeff called home almost every night, and his mom could hear the depression in his voice. But, his manic stages were under control, and he seemed fairly normal in September 2010.

"No one bothered him there, and he even had some friends who had the same thing he did," she said. "He had a job delivering meals, participated in some sports all of which made me feel better. I had nightmares, though, of my free-spirited boy being confined for being mentally ill. I couldn't imagine what he must be going through."

On Oct. 9, 2010, Bev received a call from the prison, but it wasn't her son on the other end of the line. Jeff didn't respond to several staff commands. They entered his cell and removed the blanket.

Jeff used a plastic bag to suffocate himself and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

"I told the court and I told the assistant county attorney that I did not believe Jeff would survive prison," she said. "My exact words, I think, were, 'Prison would kill him.' And it did. As a mother you just know these things."

Spirit Lake attorney Edward "Ned" Bjornstad said the process for obtaining an initial evaluation and follow up care that matches the evaluation and needs of the person is not simple or easily accomplished.

"The county attorney's office and the court do what they can regarding addiction issues but, in my opinion, the problem is greater and more complicated in its nature than the court can address," he said.

Allen, the county attorney in Storm Lake, also feels the court tries to do an effective job balancing public safety with the needs of defendants.

"The court is generally the neutral arbiter with the task of administering justice under the law, and not advocating for a particular outcome, even if it rules for a particular outcome," he said. "The prosecutor has the task of specifically seeking and advocating for justice, which may differ from the mind of one prosecutor to another. While that may seem like an unusual distinction, I think it is important when asking whether the court has done 'a good job.' In my opinion, it is really the responsibility of the prosecutor, and by extension the state, to do 'a good job' of addressing the issues within the criminal justice system."

Ten years have passed since Jeff was taken to jail for the attack that ultimately sent him to prison. His mom still sees a process that let her family down. She wants the system to see the full picture not just the mugshot at a county jail.

"We must stop using prisons for mental health patients," she said. "We must not always push mental health issues under the rug, and it should be funded well enough that people don't have to suffer so much. They shouldn't be kicked out onto the streets."

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