Murder of Kent teacher calls attention to mental health crisis in Washington

A Tacoma mom stabbed and killed on Wednesday has been identified as 66-year-old Gail Gese, a teacher at Cedar Heights Middle School in Kent.

Investigators say the suspect is her son, 31-year-old Michael Gese, who was reportedly having a mental health crisis.

Gail Gese’s death is once again highlighting the lack of mental health resources in Washington state. Her neighbors grappling with her murder say Gese had struggled to get her son help.

“I knew her son had some mental health problems for a long time and she had tried to help him,” said Devon Abejo, a neighbor. “She did try very hard. And he did have a decline the past few years,” she said.

Court documents say Michael Gese stabbed his mother in her neck, using a “serrated steak knife.” It happened at her Tacoma home at 6:40 a.m. while she was on the phone with 911, reporting that her son “was having a mental health crisis.”  Prosecutors also said, per reports, “the defendant suffers from undiagnosed schizophrenia, and drug-induced mental health issues.”

Three neighbors told KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun they had seen Michael Gese walking around the neighborhood, yelling or talking to people who weren’t there.

Following his arrest, Michael Gese told police he was having an issue with his mother, concerned he couldn’t live at her home any more. Documents detail, “he said he had to, ‘pop the robot’s head off,’ which he was trying to do.”

“I don’t think he would ever intentionally hurt his mother. When he realizes what he’s done, he has to live with that on top of everything else,” Abejo said. “I was never afraid of him, I’m just devastated this happened to the family because the father is in the hospital – he’s suffering from dementia,” she said.

“Look at what it had to come to. It’s sad. That lady had to lose her life for her son to get real help,” said Josh Morton with Cupcake Construction. He was working in the area and was there for the police response to the homicide.

Michael Gese is now in the Pierce County Jail, charged with first-degree murder, but waiting for a competency hearing.

The number of people in Washington state jails waiting for mental health evaluation or treatment has skyrocketed. According to DSHS, that number went from 996 inmates in 2015 to 2,397 in 2022 – significantly more than double. It’s a problem that KIRO 7 has covered in-depth.

DSHS says on its website that the state is “in the midst of a mental health crisis” and “the demand for all forms of mental health services far outweighs what is available.”

Dr. Sunita Iyer of UW Bothell says the problem is far reaching – both from increased need and a shortage of professionals in the field.

“I haven’t intersected with a single part of our society that is finding it easy to access mental health services right now,” Iyer said. Iyer is an associate teaching professor at UW Bothell’s School of Nursing and Health Studies. Her teachings focus on mental health.

Iyer also reminds that mental illness doesn’t predispose someone to criminal activity.

“The harm that can happen there is if we conflate mental health and criminal activity as being one. Ultimate what that could do is criminalize mental health,” Iyer said. She said she is working with students and professionals to address mental health before it becomes a problem.

“A huge piece of this is literacy. Just understanding that mental health, behavioral health is something that we all manage,” Iyer said. “Really it’s just, it’s human health.”

Meanwhile, Gail Gese’s neighbors wonder if the system could’ve better helped Gail – and her son.

“I really wish there were better mental health services for things like this,” Abejo said. “She was really dedicated to her family and it is just incredibly sad that it ended this way.”

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office  says there are about 80 to 85 inmates, or about 10% of the population, waiting to get help at Western State hospital.

In King County, there are about 100 inmates at the jail, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office – about 8%.

The good news – there are about 100 beds at state-run mental health facilities opening in 2023, starting with 16 that recently opened at Maple Lane, near Rochester.