Letter to the Editor

Remembering Jeff

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our beloved son is gone. On October 9, 2010, Jeffrey took his own life. He was filled with despair, depression and, he felt, no hope for his future. We tried to give him hope, but he could not see it. There are many things that make me angry and sad and things that are heartwarming, a few of which I want to address in this letter. I had a previous letter to the editor in the June 2, 2010 edition of the Dickinson County News, which explains the first part of our story. This is the end of our story.

I have lost all respect for our legal and justice system, at least in this county. No one listened to my pleas for Jeff. In fact, at the assistant county attorney's request, the judge ordered that I, his mother and the victim, could give no opinion on what should happen to my son. I explained to the judge that in my opinion, the assistant county attorney changed her mind from probation in the summer of 2009 to going to trial or a plea bargain by the spring of 2010, and how I felt this was to use Jeff as an example of why she should be elected in the primary for county attorney.

I asked her what the good was of Jeff going to prison ... how would that help him? She stated "Well he'll come out with a clean slate and start over again." How does a young man such as Jeff come out with a clean slate and start over again?

Jeff was overcharged. He could have been charged with domestic abuse assault, resulting in a much shorter prison sentence than 15 years. People get as much time for killing someone (manslaughter) as my son got. It took several months to get visitation, talk on the phone or write letters back and forth to Jeff. Since June 1, 2009, I had one face-to-face physical visit with Jeff, and this was the last time we saw him alive. This was the last time I ever got a hug from my son. I had to obtain my own attorney and had a hearing under a different judge and finally gained the privilege to even visit Jeff.

I wrote a 14 page victim statement to the judge addressing Jeff's bi-polar, depression and anxiety history and his past suicidal ideation. I advised the judge of how I had tried to take him to the Spencer Mental Health unit the day before and since their emergency room was busy we had to wait, and Jeff, in the state he was, refused to wait.

The judge chose to admonish me at sentencing that commitment procedures should have been followed. That is exactly what I was trying to do that evening ... get him committed. I have since talked with the CEO of Spencer Hospital telling him that if they are going to have a mental health unit they then need a way to immediately deal with mentally ill patients. He did agree, although I do not know if this has been done.

I explained to the judge how hard it was for Jeff to stay on medications that gave him sometimes extreme side effects. I explained to the judge that we would like him committed to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute to get counseling, see if they could get correct meds for him, and then be released home with probation and strict monitoring, perhaps being court ordered to have someone else administer his medications. Jeff was previously under court order to take his meds, and he did so until the doctor released him and the judge released him. He was never non-compliant with meds while court ordered.

I explained to the judge that we wanted to take him to one of two places ... one in Texas or one in California where they did brain imaging where they could tell which part of the brain was not working correctly and targeting specific medications to that area. If anyone is suffering mental illness, please read the book "Change your Brain...Change Your Life" by Dr. Daniel Amen. Jeff knew that when he got out of prison we were going to take him there, and he was somewhat excited about that, but apparently his despair was so great he could not wait for that.

The judge told Jeff he had escalating violence. I explained to the judge about fights (4) Jeff had been in and why they happened. The judge said I loved my son too much to protect myself. I am not a dumb woman, judge! I had my boundaries with my son. I admit my son had some scrapes with the law, but I cannot express enough ... my son was not a danger to the public. Anyone who really knew Jeff would tell you that.

I told the judge that Jeff deserved some punishment (he had already served a year in jail) and then mental health treatment. The victim assistance coordinator told me that Jeff was very angry that night and deserved to go to prison and be punished ... he was punished for a year before he even left for prison. The tables were turned here in that I was Jeff's mother and the victim. I unconditionally love my son, and I know he was ill the night he hurt me. The coordinator was of no help to me at all in this situation. The judge also had several letters of support from various family members. All were apparently ignored.

I am also angry because at Jeff's sentencing, which should have lasted a short time, the assistant county attorney just had to play the 9-1-1 tape, to further upset his father and I and Jeff. This was not a trial, it was a sentencing. And did they ever stop to think that maybe the reason I was yelling so loud was to awaken the neighbors, which is exactly what I was trying to do? And always she carried around bloody pictures of me. I work in a hospital. I know that head wounds bleed profusely and I had a large cut on my hand. Would not that produce a lot of blood? I reiterate, I was admitted to the hospital in stable condition.

And I say it again ... I was not stabbed! I am angry because the chief of police came in to view the sentencing as well as the county attorney herself. In my opinion, it was to see that Jeff receive the maximum sentence he could get. They had the right to be there, but it did not seem right to us. I am angry because the judge ordered Jeff to pay for $31,000 in costs most of which could have been avoided. He felt he could never repay that amount of money, another reason for his despair. I am angry because the judge ordered consecutive sentences instead of concurrent sentences.

I am angry because Jeff was as far away from home as he could get (400 miles), thus making it very difficult for us to see him on a regular basis. I am angry because he died in a "psychiatric" ward of a prison. We thought he was at least safe there. I am angry because he received no regular counseling, psychotherapy or group therapy. Jeff was a deeply depressed young man who was locked up in his cell (room) every night at 8:45 with no one to talk to (I used to be the one he talked to late at night when he was feeling depressed) and only his own thoughts (and a small television) for company. This room is where he died!

For those who put him in prison I wish you could stand in my shoes, as the mother of this, our only child, and remember the nights he called me and told me he had cried in his room, or the nights he told me he was sick of being where he was and that he just did not want to live anymore, or the nights he would sometimes call three or more times in a night because he was so lonesome for us. Or of the nights he would call and I could tell he had been crying.

He would call his grandma and tell her how very much he missed his parents. I will never forget the anguish in Jeff's voice as he broke down and spoke at his sentencing, stating that he was scared to go to prison, that he does not know why he did what he did, and that he loved his mother and, in fact, that I, his mother was the only reason he was alive at that time. That anguish will haunt me until I die.

I am angry because one week prior to Jeff's death I had e-mailed the head psychologist down there and told her in that e-mail that I had some very serious concerns about Jeff. I did not hear back from her, but then I also figured he was in a psychiatric ward so he would be safe. How wrong I was!

On the heartwarming side, we have had a huge outpouring of support from this community, friends and family. We have received so many cards and letters from former teachers, friends and family saying how no one disliked Jeff, how intelligent he was and what a nice young man he was. I have heard from classmates who said Jeff always made them laugh. We heard from three fellow prisoners who stated Jeff was well-liked by everyone at the clinical care unit and was fun to be around. He hid his depression well from those he wanted to hide it from. Our pastor and church have been exceedingly supportive and also provided a beautiful funeral service, at which there were no dry eyes.

I still have Christmas presents wrapped for Jeff from last year. I always told him that whenever he got out, even in the heat of summer, we would put up the Christmas tree and celebrate. He will celebrate with the Lord this year. Judge David Lester, Melanie Summers Bauler, Cathy Hanson, Rosalise Olson and Martin Koch (presentence investigator), you will all be able to celebrate this and future Christmases with your children. We will not have that luxury! We will never see his smile again, nor hear his voice again.

How will we ever survive this ourselves? I do not know! The pain is almost unbearable! The only and last thing I can do for our son is advocate for him by telling the public that he was a wonderful, intelligent young man with deep depression and bi-polar disorder, and that he was in a place he should not have been in! Hopefully his case might bring more public awareness to the fact that we are using our prisons as mental institutions. To see what our son was really like you may go to the Turner Jenness Funeral Home Website to read Jeff's obituary.

God Bless You Jeffrey! You are always in our hearts!

Beverly Wittler

Spirit Lake