by: Chris Legeros Updated:
SEATTLE - Joel Reuter, 28, barricaded himself inside his Capitol Hill condo last July, ranting from his balcony window while he held a 9 mm handgun. After a seven-hour standoff with Seattle police, they said the mentally-ill man fired on SWAT team officers. They fired back and killed him. His parents got the word of his death in a police tweet. His father, Doug Reuter said, "This was just a real shock to us cause Joel had never owned a gun, he hated guns."
The Reuters don't blame officers for trying to protect themselves and others. Nancy Reuter said, "They were doing their job, they've got a very tough job." They also think Joel was so sick that he thought he was shooting at "zombies." The Reuters see serious flaws with how Washington laws deal with the mentally ill. They said, "He fell through some cracks that were more than cracks, they were the size of the Grand Canyon."
For months leading up to the shooting, Joel's family and friends called police, and mental health professionals. They pleaded that the normally bright, friendly, software engineer be involuntarily committed to a hospital so he could get treatment. They were told he didn't meet the criteria of being a danger to himself or others. Doug Reuter said, "I asked what does? That's when they said, well if he had a loaded gun in his hand, with a finger on the trigger, we could get him help." Reuter said, "The help he got was to be shot and killed."
In March, Joel was hospitalized in Vancouver, Canada after he attempted suicide. In April, he was hospitalized in Everett after he totaled his BMW and sideswiped cars on I-5. Then in June, he wound up at Harborview after threatening people. By then, his parents said he wasn't taking his medications. He didn't even know who he was. His parents said, "He thought he was a Luciferian angel and angels don't take meds."
The Reuters said Joel was first diagnosed as bipolar as a college student in Arizona and they think that state had a better way of dealing with the mentally ill. One that kept him mentally stable for six years. They said family and friends could petition for a mental health assessment in Arizona, something family members can't do in Washington. That job is done by designated mental health professionals in each Washington county. Joel was ruled "persistently or acutely disabled and in need of treatment" in Arizona, whereas the criteria in Washington seemed focused on whether he was a danger to himself or others. The biggest difference they noticed was the time of treatment. In Arizona, Joel was ordered into a year of combined inpatient and outpatient care, with follow-up to make sure he took his medications. Washington judges can order 14 days of inpatient care or 90 days of outpatient treatment, that can be upped to a maximum 180 days. Doug Reuter said, "If the laws had been in place to keep Joel in the hospital until he was well and mandate a one-year follow-up where he is taking his medicine, none of the rest would have happened, none of it would have happened."
The Reuters want to see Washington adopt the Arizona model for dealing with the mentally ill. They are in Olympia this week hoping to meet with state legislators who will listen to their story. Doug is a former Minnesota state lawmaker, so he knows the legislative process. He will spend the next session lobbying for changes that he hopes may prevent tragedies like the one involving his son.