Help Or I’ll Shoot

Samson Berhe might have gotten the treatment he needed, if only he’d committed a crime.

Michael Robb's daughter Louisa was growing. She had just passed her first birthday and was ready for a new car seat. So Robb, a popular tennis coach at Newport High School, drove his black Jetta to Southcenter Mall to pick one up. He was returning to his West Seattle home at twilight when he spied a teenager behaving strangely along West Marginal Way. As Robb stopped and rolled down his window, the boy pulled a long shotgun from a bag, stuck it to Robb's head, and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly.The car rolled off the road, coming to rest on railroad tracks. The boy ran off toward the Duwamish River. A police helicopter and K9 units were unable to find him.The next morning, police responded to a report of an unknown black teen on a company barge in the Duwamish who was attempting to wave down passing boats. When they reached the barge, with TV helicopters overhead, police found 17-year-old Samson Berhe in soaked tennis shoes and boat clothes. His own waterlogged attire, matching the description witnesses gave of the clothes worn by the shooter, were also onboard. He surrendered without incident.Berhe, who is scheduled to go to trial in Robb's murder next week, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He's on anti-psychotic medication and is shuttled regularly to Western State Hospital for care. But the irony is that only by killing Robb did Berhe finally become subject to the mental health treatment he has seemingly needed for years.By the time of the murder, Berhe had amassed a worsening record of erratic episodes and threatening behavior that was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. But because he never committed a serious crime—and because his one prior brush with the law resulted in a record-keeping snafu—Berhe never entered the state's extensive, early-intervention program for juvenile mental health, which is reserved only for young offenders. Instead Berhe and his Eritrean parents made intermittent, uncoordinated contact with unconnected authorities—the schools, Harborview Medical Center, and the cops—until the worst happened."That's the unfortunate aspect of our mental-health system," says psychologist Eric Trupin, director of the University of Washington's Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy. The bias of the system, says Trupin, is: "You've got to get into big trouble."Samson Berhe is now a soft-spoken man of 20. He's polite, engaged, but barely audible over the din of the visiting lobby at the King County Jail in downtown Seattle. His broad shoulders fill out the orange prison uniform. Berhe says his lawyer told him not to discuss the specifics of his case. He says only that he's "disappointed it happened. I guess I gotta deal with it now."He passes the time dreaming up inventions—over 1,500 so far, he says. He carefully draws them in pencil on notebook paper, adding descriptions on the back. One is a light that could attach to a car's speedometer and change colors with the driver's speed, alerting both motorists and cops when the speed limit is being exceeded. Another is a detachable muffler filter for older cars which could be used to stop pollution. He presses the back of the paper against the glass in the visiting booth. If he ever gets out he wants to go to Japan, he says—"the technology capital."When Berhe was first taken into custody and sent for a psychological evaluation, he reported hearing voices, claimed the ability to read minds, and told the staff at Western State he was descended from African kings and had a "special relationship with the Creator," according to exam records. For more than two years, he was consistently found too unstable to go to trial.But by January 2006, an examiner reported that Berhe laughed at the absurdity of delusional notions, such as the television talking directly to him. Last November an examiner found that Berhe was acting generally pleasant and cooperative and declared him competent to stand trial. "It is my opinion that Mr. Berhe's symptoms are currently sufficiently managed for him to assist in his defense and understand the nature of the proceedings against him," the examiner wrote.Berhe today seems more like the son his father remembers. "When he was a little kid he was a very good kid," Yemane Berhe says, sitting in the family's dark living room with the shades drawn.Yemane Berhe and his wife, Zodi, emigrated from Eritrea in 1984. Yemane still struggles with English and directs questions to his wife, who has a better handle on it from her work as a maid in a hotel in California. Three years after their arrival, Samson was born, the fourth of the Berhes' seven children.The family moved to Seattle in 1991, when Samson was barely more than a toddler, eventually moving their large family into a Seattle Housing Authority residence in West Seattle. Things started out all right. Zodi Berhe says her son was like most other kids, often talkative and active.But then around middle school, he started having trouble. It began with calls from his teacher. Berhe was taking any paper distributed in class and immediately wadding it up into a ball. His behavior became increasingly disruptive, finally leading a teacher to call a meeting with Samson's mother. "His teacher told me at that time he has problems," Zodi Berhe says. Her son eventually switched schools, something he did a few more times as his behavior became increasingly difficult to deal with. He started using alcohol and drugs, including marijuana, methamphetamines, Ecstasy, and, according to court records, "sherm"—a hallucinogen ingested by smoking joints or cigarettes dipped in a mixture of PCP and formaldehyde.Even more disturbing, his mother says, he began having outbursts and telling her about voices in his head. "I wanted to help my son," she says. But she didn't know where to turn.Seattle Public Schools Prevention and Intervention Program Manager Robert Conroy says the district has counselors in the schools, but they focus largely on academics, and most split their time among buildings. They try to help kids as problems arise, but "when you have a school with 1,200 or 1,500 kids, it's very hard to follow up."When Berhe was 15, he was caught riding in a stolen van with a friend. The friend was booked in the juvenile detention center. Berhe was released to his mother.He was eventually charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, "taking a motor vehicle without permission," but the charge was filed with an incorrect spelling—Behre—of his last name. He failed to show up for a hearing later, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, also under the incorrect last name. Samson Berhe apparently had no more contact with the justice system until the murder three years later.Were it not for that name misspelling, Berhe's—and Robb's—fates might have been quite different.King County has a state-funded program designed with kids like Berhe in mind—kids with severe mental-health disorders as well as substance-abuse problems that may be making those disorders worse. But the program is reserved for those who've been locked up for a crime.The UW's Trupin oversees the program, called Family Integrated Transitions, which is run through the University of Washington's psychiatry department. It involves six months of close monitoring of kids, starting when they've got two months of incarceration left. A team of therapists and drug-abuse specialists from the UW aim to help the subject, and the subject's family, deal with the combined mental-health and drug issues and keep the kid sober.To qualify, a person has to be diagnosed with a drug problem and a severe mental disorder, such as schizophrenia, that can be treated with medication, and has to show suicidal tendencies. All of these would show up in Berhe in the years leading up to Robb's death.For young offenders who never get incarcerated, there's a second statewide effort called Functional Family Therapy. Run by a for-profit Seattle company of the same name, this three-month program also aims at integrated mental-health/drug-abuse counseling that gets the family heavily involved. Both programs have shown significant success. In 2004, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy determined that kids who had committed a felony and completed either program were more than one-third less likely to commit another felony.Trupin says that under ideal circumstances, treatment for mental-health disorders would emphasize early detection and intervention, similar to cancer treatment. The sooner you start, he says, the easier it is to keep a condition in check. Adults with mental illnesses and violent propensities can be even harder to track and keep in any kind of treatment, as evidenced by the recent notorious case of James Anthony Williams, who stabbed Sierra Club employee Shannon Harps to death on Capitol Hill on New Year's Eve.Berhe's behavior became increasingly unmanageable after his arrest in the stolen van. In May 2004 his mother called police to report that Samson was poking himself with sharp objects and laughing. He poured water all over the house, saying he was trying to "wash away the devil," his parents told police. When officers arrived, he was covered in white dust—the result of punching a bag of flour. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center and released later that day.A spokesperson for Harborview says King County's Mental Health Division is responsible for determining what happens after someone is brought in by police for psychological evaluation. King County Mental Health Division Assistant Director Jean Robertson says she can't speak to the specifics of Berhe's case, but adds that a basic assessment is done when someone is brought in to determine if they are enough of a threat to warrant keeping them. If he didn't want to be there, and the person performing the evaluation decided he wasn't an imminent threat, "they wouldn't have any authority to hold him," she says.Two weeks after her son returned from Harborview in May 2004, Zodi Berhe again called police saying her son was threatening to hurt himself and others. This time a King County evaluator found him to be dangerously unstable and sent his case to a King County Superior Court judge. Zodi testified to her son's increasingly dangerous behavior, and Samson was involuntarily committed to Fairfax Hospital in Kirkland for one month. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Three years after the trouble had begun, Berhe was receiving his first mental-health treatment.Berhe was sent home from Fairfax with a prescription and instructions to continue seeing a therapist. Within a month he had told his counselor he had suicidal thoughts and was sent back to Fairfax for another month, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and again sent home with medication. But after he came home the second time, no one followed up with him or his family, and he continued to deteriorate.Trupin says one of the reasons his program works is the attention paid to how a kid is doing over a longer period of time. Inside the justice system, it's easier to keep track of what kind of help a kid is getting, observes Bobbe Bridge, president of the Center for Children and Youth Justice and a state Supreme Court Justice. On the outside it's tougher, due in part to what Bridge calls "funding silos."Programs for substance abuse are funded separately from those that target mental health, she explains. The money is tied to a specific kind of treatment, so separate programs are set up to deal with each. Additional factors, like family relationships and education, get money from still other sources, and again new programs are created. The separate pieces rarely work together, she says, so, unlike with Trupin's program, no one has a picture of how a kid is doing overall. "The information just doesn't get shared in a way that is going to really allow the services to kick in at a time when it could prevent a lot of deeper-end issues—deeper-end meaning getting more and more criminally involved," Bridge says.A psychological evaluation after his arrest noted that Berhe had been receiving no mental-health treatment of any kind during the months leading up to the murder of Michael Robb. Samson's mother called police on June 19, 2005, one week before the killing, saying her son was threatening to commit suicide. "Fuck all the haters in the world," Berhe reportedly told police when they arrived. He was taken to Harborview and released the same day.The following days were a whirlwind of psychotic episodes and criminal activity, according to police records.After returning from Harborview, Berhe allegedly joined two other men, Raymond Valencia and Gregory Triggs, who broke into a house in Berhe's West Seattle neighborhood. The trio stole two shotguns, a pistol, ammunition, two televisions, and two DVD players, according to a statement Valencia made to police two months later. Valencia planned to sell the weapons. The stolen goods were kept at Triggs' home.On June 20 Valencia was picked up by Bellevue police in connection with the theft of two cars. In his statement to police, he told them that Berhe had stolen one of the cars and given it to him. Berhe was not investigated at the time.Two days later, Berhe's father dialed 911 after Samson allegedly assaulted a visitor. Responding officers described Berhe's speech as erratic, noting that he claimed to rule the world. Yemane Berhe told police he feared for his family's safety. Berhe was again taken to Harborview and again released. A toxicology test was performed and resulted positive for methamphetamines and marijuana. But Berhe was released the same day.In August 2005, Valencia was arrested for the June break-in, having been matched to prints found at the scene. (He later pleaded guilty.) He told police that after Berhe was released from Harborview on June 22, Berhe had returned to Triggs' home demanding the shotguns; that Triggs had already unloaded one for $90, but handed the 20-gauge, pump-action Ithaca shotgun over to Berhe; and that Berhe told Triggs he wanted to kill somebody. One neighbor would later tell police that Berhe had said on at least a dozen occasions that he was going to "kill all the white people." She also reported seeing him with a shotgun on the morning of June 26.Police came into contact with Berhe again about 4:30 p.m. on the day of the murder when they were called to investigate a theft at a neighborhood house. Berhe was released at the scene for lack of probable cause, but an officer made a note of seeing yellow shotgun rounds lying on the ground near where he was questioned.Three hours later, police got the 911 call reporting a shooting on West Marginal Way.Michael Robb's widow, Elsa Robb, has filed suit against the city of Seattle and two police officers, saying Berhe should have been stopped long before he pulled the trigger. (She declined to be interviewed through her attorney, Timothy Leyh.) "Had the Defendant Officers placed Berhe in secure custody [at the time of the 2002 car theft or in the days leading up to Robb's murder], the tragic and unnecessary death of Michael Robb would not have occurred," her complaint says. The city has denied the allegations in court filings; City Attorney Tom Carr declined to comment.If Berhe's insanity plea is rejected and he is convicted of first-degree murder, he could be out in as little as 20 years under state sentencing guidelines. If the insanity plea holds, he'll go to Western State Hospital, where his release would be up to the discretion of the medical staff. It is possible Berhe could be back on the street by the time he is 40.Justice Bridge says the state is aware of the gaps in the mental health–care system that allow kids like Berhe to slide through until something severe happens. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that allows kids on Medicaid more visits to a therapist and that allows less-severe mental-health disorders to qualify for state-funded care. The bill also frees up money to study options for bringing programs like Trupin's outside the justice system. The bill itself doesn't solve the problem, Bridge says, but it's a step in the right direction. "We've come a long way in the 20 or so years I've been involved with this," she says.lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus