Fourth Place Writing – Features


The ongoing aftermath

When Carole and Jerry Wood realized two of their children had severe mental illness, they did their best to help. Today, one son lives in recovery. The other is in Fulton State Hospital after a tragedy destroyed his family. Carole and Jerry still try to move forward.
By Christie Megura

WARRENSBURG — Car­ole Wood used to worry about a dan­ger­ous train cross­ing near her home. She wor­ried for her chil­dren’s safety. Today she real­izes she knew noth­ing about the most dan­ger­ous and dev­ast­at­ing force in her sons’ lives. She de­scribes how men­tal ill­nesses brought con­sequences that she and her hus­band are still cop­ing with today:

A roost­er crows as Car­ole and Jerry Wood sip cof­fee at their kit­chen table one morn­ing this spring. The day is wak­ing on the couple’s 99-acre farm just out­side of War­rens­burg in west-cent­ral Mis­souri.

A black cat stretches out on the roof. Chick­ens cluck in the front yard. New­born twin calves tuck against their moth­er in a pen be­hind the house.

It’s the per­fect place for grandkids. And six of them used to come, al­most every day, from their par­ents’ house a quarter mile down the gravel road.

Jared. Joshua. Emily. Han­nah. Mori­ah. Kat­lin.

Car­ole Wood would chide them not to leave their bikes and toys scattered across the lawn.

Today she would love to have them back.

Some­times, with help and per­sever­ance and maybe a bit of luck, severe men­tal ill­ness gets prop­erly treated over time. Some­times help comes too late, after a rifle fires and a fam­ily is torn apart.

Car­ole and Jerry Wood have walked both roads.

Sam, the couple’s 46-year-old ad­op­ted son, has schizo­phrenia. After a life of battle with crime, wan­der­ing and home­less­ness, he now has a stable, in­de­pend­ent life in Montana.

Ray, the couple’s old­est bio­lo­gic­al child, who is 48, has been dia­gnosed with schi­zoaf­fect­ive dis­order. For the last 12 years, he has lived in Fulton State Hos­pit­al after be­ing charged with killing his wife and four of his six chil­dren.

For more than 25 years, Car­ole and Jerry tried to nav­ig­ate the com­plic­ated and of­ten opaque world of men­tal health to find help for their sons. For the first time, they have agreed to speak at length about how men­tal ill­ness – and the in­tric­ate sys­tems that sur­round it – changed their lives forever.

In one case, the sys­tem even­tu­ally worked.

In the oth­er, it failed.

A hope­ful be­gin­ning
Jerry and Car­ole met on a blind date in early 1959 when he was home in In­de­pend­ence, Mis­souri for a week­end from the U.S. Air Force. They went to a pro­duc­tion of “The Tam­ing of the Shrew” in Kan­sas City.

“As soon as I saw her, I knew I’d marry her,” Jerry says now. “I knew it, I just knew it. And I told her so.”

After the play, they went out for cheese­cake. Every year since, on Feb. 20, they try to have cheese­cake.

For the next two years, they wrote al­most daily or saw each oth­er on Jerry’s leaves, then mar­ried in 1960. They moved a lot be­cause of Jerry’s mil­it­ary post­ings. Their first son, Ray, was born in 1963 in Altus, Okla.

They wanted more chil­dren, but had trouble con­ceiv­ing. So in Janu­ary 1966, when they were liv­ing in North Dakota, they ad­op­ted a 4 ½-month-old boy. They named him Sam. They knew very little about his bio­lo­gic­al par­ents or back­ground.

Six years later, they ad­op­ted a daugh­ter, Jenny. Not long after, Car­ole learned she was preg­nant. Mar­garet was born in 1972.

After Jerry left the mil­it­ary in 1969, the fam­ily moved to Alaska, where Jerry got a job fly­ing planes. The Woods didn’t plan to stay more than a few years. Then the troubles with Sam began.

One son struggles, one steps up

Sam was a quick learner. He crawled at 6 months and walked at 9. On his first birth­day, he ate his chocol­ate cake without drop­ping a crumb. Des­pite the years of trouble that were to come, Car­ole and Jerry re­mem­ber him as a kind, in­tel­li­gent baby.

He was just 4 when the mis­chief star­ted. Odd items – things that didn’t be­long to him – ap­peared in the house. One day, Car­ole found a pack of ci­gar­ettes in Sam’s pock­et.

Maybe it was a phase, the Woods thought. With prop­er dis­cip­line, Sam would learn right from wrong.

But when he was 9, fire de­part­ment of­fi­cials came to the Woods’ house to say Sam had star­ted a small fire in the nearby woods. In middle school, he began skip­ping classes, burg­lar­iz­ing homes and nab­bing cars for joy rides.

Car­ole and Jerry put Sam in a be­ha­vi­or modi­fic­a­tion pro­gram; Car­ole would track his good and bad be­ha­vi­or on a chart taped to the re­fri­ger­at­or. They tried fam­ily ther­apy, but it didn’t seem to help. Some psy­cho­lo­gists im­plied Sam’s be­ha­vi­or was the res­ult of bad par­ent­ing.

No one ever sug­ges­ted his is­sues were linked to men­tal ill­ness. Even if they had, the Woods say today, they might not have been able to ac­cept that. And after all this time, and all they’ve been through, they say they still don’t know to what de­gree, if any, men­tal ill­ness played in Sam’s ac­tions dur­ing his youth.

What they do know is how his be­ha­vi­or ra­di­ated through the fam­ily. Mar­garet would leave her purse hanging on the doorknob and later real­ize money was miss­ing. The fam­ily star­ted hid­ing their be­long­ings.

“Dur­ing this peri­od of time, you’re still try­ing to main­tain a nor­mal house­hold,” Car­ole says. “You have this de­term­in­a­tion that things are go­ing to be nor­mal for the oth­er chil­dren. At the same time you’re try­ing to work with him and make things right with him.”

Sam was 14 when he was ar­res­ted for try­ing to rob a per­son at knife­point. He was sent to a ju­ven­ile de­ten­tion and treat­ment cen­ter in An­chor­age. He spent four years there and com­pleted eighth grade, but nev­er at­ten­ded a real high school or earned a GED. He was re­leased on his 18th birth­day – now a leg­al adult.

Sam de­cided to take off on his own. There was noth­ing his par­ents could do to stop him.

“We fi­nally de­term­ined that we didn’t have the an­swer to Sam,” Car­ole says. “We wer­en’t really be­ing help­ful to him any­more.”

As Sam be­came more re­bel­li­ous and un­pre­dict­able, Ray de­veloped in­to the pro­tect­ive, ser­i­ous older broth­er. He watched over Jenny and Mar­garet when his par­ents were pre­oc­cu­pied with Sam. From an early age, he demon­strated an im­press­ive work eth­ic.

Ray was just 5 when his par­ents agreed to pay him 10 cents for each pick­et he painted on the fam­ily’s fence. He earned enough to pur­chase his own bike. As a teen­ager, there was noth­ing he liked more than auto­mo­biles. He saved up his money to buy a plum-crazy Dodge Su­per Bee. As much as he loved that car, he drove a more prac­tic­al car to his track, wrest­ling and swim­ming prac­tices.

“Ray is prob­ably one of the finest people you’d want to meet,” Car­ole says. “He really is. He’s a fine and gentle and kind per­son. A really good per­son. And every­body that knows him, works with him, feels that way about him.”

New starts – and shock­ing set­backs

Sam was two years gone when Car­ole and Jerry Wood de­cided to leave Alaska. They had fam­ily in Mis­souri, and were mem­bers of the Re­or­gan­ized Church of Je­sus Christ Lat­ter Day Saints, which had a com­munity near In­de­pend­ence.

Car­ole and Jerry had al­ways dreamed of own­ing a farm. So when a 160-acre prop­erty came up for sale near War­rens­burg, they packed up with Jenny and Mar­garet, and moved to Mis­souri.

Ray was 22 at the time. He wanted to join them on farm someday, but stayed be­hind in Alaska for a job and a girl­friend, Tina Egan.

Not long after Car­ole and Jerry moved, they re­ceived the shock­ing news that Ray was in the Alaska Psy­chi­at­ric In­sti­tute. He had had a men­tal break­down and was dia­gnosed with atyp­ic­al psy­chos­is. It was Decem­ber of 1985.

To this day, Car­ole and Jerry won­der what triggered the in­cid­ent. Ray seemed fine just a few weeks earli­er. Maybe it was the paint fumes Ray was ex­posed to at work? More than 20 years later, they know they’ll nev­er know.

What they didn’t know at the time was that Ray had pre­vi­ous struggles he he hid from them. It wasn’t un­til dec­ades later that he told them he ex­per­i­enced emo­tion­al dif­fi­culties after re­turn­ing from a trip to China with some friends, but with­drew and dealt with those is­sues privately.

At the time, they thought Ray’s break­down was an isol­ated in­cid­ent. They fo­cused on help­ing him move for­ward – an in­stinct that was re­in­forced when, on May 23, 1987, Ray mar­ried his girl­friend, Tina.

Newly mar­ried, Ray and Tina packed their be­long­ings in­to a truck and moved to War­rens­burg. At first they lived in Car­ole and Jerry’s base­ment. Ray and his fath­er es­tab­lished a chim­ney clean­ing busi­ness. Ray drove school buses to make ex­tra money. He was 26 when his first child was born.
Car­ole re­mem­bers the ten­sion wait­ing for the birth. A crowd of re­l­at­ives and friends gathered as Tina pre­pared to de­liv­er the baby in the down­stairs tub, then cel­eb­rated the baby’s first cries. Jared was wel­comed in­to the fam­ily. Ray proudly em­braced the role of fath­er.

Ray, Tina and Jared moved in­to a trail­er on Car­ole and Jerry’s prop­erty. They wanted to add to their fam­ily and needed ex­tra space.

Car­ole and Jerry hoped Ray’s fo­cus on fam­ily would keep him stable. What warn­ing signs they re­mem­ber were minor – oc­ca­sion­al mood swings, trouble sleep­ing.

Yet Ray’s ill­ness was tak­ing hold again. He had a second men­tal break­down in 1990. He was ad­mit­ted to West­ern Mis­souri Men­tal Health Cen­ter in Kan­sas City. He had pre­vi­ously been dia­gnosed as bi­polar, but now was dia­gnosed with chron­ic para­noid schizo­phrenia.

Al­though the dia­gnoses and treat­ments would change over the next 10 years, Car­ole and Jerry had to face the fact that Ray’s prob­lem in Alaska wasn’t a one-time event. Their son suffered from men­tal ill­ness that eluded a cer­tain iden­ti­fic­a­tion – and a cer­tain cure.

At times, Ray sunk in­to phases of re­mote de­pres­sion. At oth­er times, he felt good and was, as his par­ents say, on fire. His en­thu­si­asm and pas­sion were un­stop­pable. He was re­lent­less in pur­suit of his goals.

One of those goals was to raise a large fam­ily. Between 1989 and 1998, five more chil­dren were ad­ded to the fam­ily.

The couple and their six chil­dren even­tu­ally moved in­to a house that Ray built a quarter mile away from his par­ents.

Tina home-schooled the chil­dren. She taught mu­sic les­sons and passed on her mu­sic­al tal­ent to her kids. She could com­pose mu­sic on the pi­ano and play in­stru­ments like the cla­ri­net, flute and gui­tar with ease. Her chil­dren would line up and sing to­geth­er in their home and at church.

When Ray felt well, he was the act­ive fath­er his par­ents fondly re­mem­ber. He would race the kids down the drive. Some struggled to ped­al fast enough on their bikes while oth­ers took off on foot. Ray would take the fam­ily camp­ing. He liked to lift his chil­dren up and hold them in his arms.

“Really, when things we right, there was no hap­pi­er fam­ily,” Jerry says. “They played, they worked, they did everything to­geth­er.”

“For lack of know­ledge”

Car­ole and Jerry re­mem­ber the warn­ing sign: Ray’s beard. When he went from clean-shaven to scruffy, trouble was com­ing.

When that happened, they would sit with him for hours. They could see he was afraid when his ill­ness was over­power­ing, when it caused him to lose his sense of self.

“Learn­ing by ex­per­i­ence is no way to learn how to deal with men­tal ill­ness,” Jerry says. “One thing we learned, and learned it late, is when someone is hav­ing a break­down you can­not talk reas­on (to them). And you need to get ex­pert help.”

But back then they didn’t know where to turn. Des­pite the many trips to clin­ics and hos­pit­als, neither Car­ole nor Jerry re­mem­ber be­ing told about edu­ca­tion­al classes or oth­er sup­port re­sources.

Look­ing back, they some­times won­der if their ef­forts to help just en­abled their son’s ill­ness. Dur­ing man­ic stages, Ray would ob­sess over pro­jects. When he de­cided he would build his fam­ily’s home, he simply marched out to the spot with noth­ing but a shovel, ready to dig. Jerry couldn’t stop his son when he was like that, so picked up some tools and lent a hand.

Oth­er times Ray would be­come para­noid about evil thorn bushes or an­im­als. He would throw magazines to the ground at the mar­ket be­cause he didn’t like the faces on the cov­ers.

“It was like he was los­ing him­self,” Car­ole says. “And that’s what was scary.”

For all the trouble Car­ole and Jerry had ex­per­i­enced with Sam, Ray’s be­ha­vi­or was something they had nev­er en­countered.

“When I look back on that, I don’t know,” Car­ole says. “I think … how did we not see it?”

The doc­tors wer­en’t much help. Ray’s med­ic­al re­cords were private. By law, doc­tors couldn’t dis­cuss his con­di­tion with his par­ents without his con­sent. So the only people who had full ac­cess to dia­gnoses and ad­vice were Tina – who was pro­tect­ive of Ray and seemed to be in deni­al about his ill­ness – and Ray him­self.

The law also pre­ven­ted Ray from be­ing in­vol­un­tar­ily com­mit­ted to a hos­pit­al un­less he was deemed a dir­ect phys­ic­al threat to him­self or oth­ers. He was hos­pit­al­ized after his ma­jor break­downs in 1985 and 1990. There were oth­er times the fam­ily was able to con­vince him he needed in-pa­tient treat­ment. But he al­ways had the right to check him­self out. He nev­er ac­cep­ted that he was men­tally ill. Once he sta­bil­ized, he wanted to be home with his fam­ily.

“What good does it do to ex­plain all this to a per­son who is men­tally ill, doesn’t be­lieve he’s men­tally ill, and then they send him home?” Car­ole says.

Car­ole and Jerry now mar­vel at their own ig­nor­ance and deni­al about their old­est son’s struggles. They wer­en’t re­search­ers with soph­ist­ic­ated know­ledge of the med­ic­al sys­tem. They were fo­cused on caring for their fam­ily and main­tain­ing nor­malcy on the farm.

With the wis­dom of hind­sight, Jerry says this: “The scrip­ture, you know, says, ‘for my people are des­troyed for lack of know­ledge.’ And I can sure agree with that.”

A fragmented life

As Ray’s prob­lems grew at home, Sam was jump­ing trains or tak­ing buses across the coun­try. Some­times he stayed in pris­on or halfway houses. Oth­er times, he slept on the street.

The de­tails of those years are lost to Car­ole and Jerry. What frag­ments of know­ledge they had are scattered in a red ad­dress book that Car­ole stores in the kit­chen.

The book has been used so much that the bind­ing has fallen apart and the pages are turn­ing yel­low. Each page is cramped with scribbles that show Sam’s con­fus­ing mi­gra­tion. Car­ole and Jerry would re­ceive oc­ca­sion­al phone calls that helped them piece to­geth­er parts of his life. A name here. A state there. Texas. New York. Cali­for­nia.

“It’s like watch­ing the death of your child,” Car­ole says. “To see Sam go­ing off in­to bad path­ways, and to real­ize he would nev­er be the kind of per­son we thought he was.”

Car­ole spe­cific­ally re­mem­bers one call.

Sam was on the line, telling her there was a man with him, a man who had been with him for most of his life. Car­ole asked Sam to de­scribe the man.

What did he look like? What did he act like?

Sam had no an­swers.

At first, Car­ole couldn’t un­der­stand how someone from Sam’s child­hood – someone she didn’t re­mem­ber – could be with him now. Then she real­ized: there was no man. It was all in Sam’s mind.

It would be sev­er­al more years be­fore Sam was of­fi­cially dia­gnosed with schizo­phrenia. But the red ad­dress book shows how many ques­tions about his life were nev­er answered. Like how Sam man­aged to get So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits, or how and when he found his way in­to the men­tal heath sys­tem to get help.

“It’s a mir­acle he sur­vived,” Car­ole says.

Both of Car­ole’s boys were wrest­ling with forces bey­ond their con­trol.

One was lost, some­where miles away.

The oth­er was just down the gravel road.

Valentine’s Day hor­ror

The news broke and quickly spread. From an NBC sta­tion’s web­site in Kan­sas City:

A wo­man and her four chil­dren are found shot to death in their home early Feb­ru­ary 14 near War­rens­burg, Mis­souri. Two oth­er chil­dren from the same fam­ily, a girl in­fant and a three-year-old girl were also shot. They were trans­ferred to Chil­dren’s Mercy Hos­pit­al and of­fi­cials there said they are both ex­pec­ted to live.

Twelve years have passed. But Car­ole and Jerry still don’t un­der­stand.

Jerry’s sunny dis­pos­i­tion fades. His eyes be­come a vivid blue as the tears form. He presses his weathered hands against his mouth. He can’t bring him­self to speak.

Car­ole cries and shakes her head. Her voice gets low as she pre­pares to re­mem­ber.

It happened on Valentine’s Day, 2000.

Ray had not slept well for days. Car­ole and Jerry knew he needed help. Early that morn­ing, they con­vinced him to come to their house, away from the chaos of the kids, to try to get some rest.

But Ray wouldn’t stay in bed or sit still. He paced frantic­ally.

“We were afraid for him,” Car­ole says. “We wer­en’t afraid of him.”

Ray de­cided to go back to his house, back to Tina and the chil­dren. But he re­turned not long after. He came run­ning, not on the gravel road but through the fields. He jumped fences and ran in a straight line to­ward his mom and dad.

Car­ole in­hales. Her words come out in a whis­per. Pain and dis­be­lief mark her face. She re­peats what Ray told Jerry that morn­ing:

“Daddy, Daddy. I shot my fam­ily.”

Car­ole’s voice shakes as she re­calls what happened next. Des­per­a­tion when call­ing the po­lice. Shock when ar­riv­ing at the scene. Empti­ness when it was all over.

Tina, 31, Jared, 10, Joshua, 8, Emily, 7, and Han­nah, 5, were found dead when po­lice ar­rived. Mori­ah, 3, and Kat­lin, 1, wounded, were rushed to the hos­pit­al.

Ray was forced to the ground.

Car­ole and Jerry watched as their loved ones were taken away, one by po­lice, the oth­ers by am­bu­lances.

Ray was charged with five counts of first-de­gree murder, two counts of first-de­gree as­sault and sev­en counts of armed crim­in­al ac­tion. The case nev­er went to tri­al be­cause he was ruled in­com­pet­ent due to men­tal ill­ness. He was com­mit­ted to Fulton State Hos­pit­al — the old­est psy­chi­at­ric hos­pit­al west of the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Fight­ing for what was left

Car­ole and Jerry spent much of their time after the shoot­ings in the hos­pit­al, wait­ing, pray­ing for Mori­ah and Kat­lin to sur­vive.

Emma Jo Cool, a long-time friend from the couple’s church, saw the im­pact of the tragedy. Jerry be­came ill with grief. Car­ole was dev­ast­ated. The en­tire con­greg­a­tion felt per­son­ally af­fected by the loss. But Car­ole and Jerry drew on what strength they had to fo­cus on Mori­ah and Kat­lin.

The grand­par­ents wanted guard­i­an­ship of the girls, and they wanted the room to be ready.

Vo­lun­teers from the couple’s church came to the farm in the weeks that fol­lowed. They ren­ov­ated a room of the house, adding pink car­pet and flor­al wall­pa­per.

But the girls nev­er came.

In­stead they were moved to Alaska to live with Tina’s sis­ter. Car­ole and Jerry were denied vis­it­a­tion rights.

In time the TV trucks with the big, white satel­lite dishes stopped com­ing by.

The meals sent from friends stopped, too.

The farm fell quiet.

A hard-fought sta­bil­ity

Sam now lives in Billings, Mont. He de­clined a re­quest for an in­ter­view, but his par­ents speak to him al­most daily by phone, and try to vis­it once a year.

They say Sam is tak­ing care of him­self, sup­por­ted by a com­munity of friends and cowork­ers. He does a vari­ety of out­door jobs like mow­ing lawns and rak­ing leaves. He doesn’t own a car, so uses a bike to get around. He is di­li­gent about tak­ing med­ic­a­tion for his men­tal ill­ness be­cause he doesn’t want to go back to pris­on. He has a pre­scrip­tion to own a cat be­cause his doc­tor says it’s a good source of ther­apy.

As happy as Car­ole and Jerry are that Sam is in­de­pend­ent and stable, they can’t help but com­pare his situ­ation to Ray’s.

“I al­ways thought, and it’s a ter­rible thing to say, but I al­ways thought that it was kind of a bless­ing that (Sam) nev­er got mar­ried or had chil­dren,” Car­ole says.

One lost, one saved

For a few years after the shoot­ings, Car­ole and Jerry would call Mori­ah and Kat­lin and send birth­day pack­ages. But the girls’ guard­i­an even­tu­ally stopped tak­ing their calls, and they lost touch.

The girls turned 16 and 14 this spring. The grand­par­ents sent cards, hop­ing they would be de­livered. They hope one day, when the girls are old enough, they will reach out.

It can still be hard for Car­ole and Jerry to see oth­er chil­dren. The kids in their church who were their grandkids’ ages have trans­formed in­to young adults. It makes them think of what their four lost grand­chil­dren could have be­come. Jared, the first grand­child and the one who would drink tea with Grandma in the quiet af­ter­noons, would have been 23 this year.

Ray re­mains in Fulton State Hos­pit­al. Doc­tors have tried dif­fer­ent med­ic­a­tions and ther­apies, but his par­ents say he is still un­able to com­pre­hend that he has a men­tal ill­ness. He is still con­sidered in­com­pet­ent to stand tri­al for the charges brought against him.

Car­ole and Jerry say Ray has nev­er denied the shoot­ings. But he be­lieves it was evil, not ill­ness, at work.

Car­ole and Jerry drive to Fulton every Wed­nes­day to see him. They say he is com­fort­able – fa­mil­i­ar with the fa­cil­ity and the people in it. He has some re­cord­ings of Tina play­ing the pi­ano; it’s his fa­vor­ite mu­sic. For a while he had a fa­vor­ite shirt, one of his that Tina used to wear. Ray wore it so of­ten in Fulton State that he fi­nally gave it to his par­ents to keep for fear he would wear it out.

Car­ole re­mem­bers a con­ver­sa­tion they had dur­ing one vis­it.

“He said he just wanted to be happy again, to know what be­ing happy was like,” she says. “I don’t think Ray will ever know that. Not in this life. Be­cause he’s lost everything that he loved.”

Car­ole and Jerry say Ray is the biggest vic­tim of the tragedy that be­fell their fam­ily.

They still live on the farm. They love the land and their neigh­bors. They feel es­tab­lished in the com­munity. They see their daugh­ter’s chil­dren. They have their routine.

Car­ole passes Ray and Tina’s house in the morn­ing when she takes the dogs out to run. It still sits empty.

Dur­ing the day the couple drinks cof­fee in their kit­chen. There are pho­tos framed across the walls and on the fridge. One of the pho­tos shows six smil­ing chil­dren squeezed in around their par­ents. Ray’s plaid shirt and the girls’ flowered dresses look out­dated, their smiles frozen in time.

It is a re­mind­er of what has been lost.

A red ad­dress book sits on a shelf in the kit­chen. It’s used less these days. Sam is happy, stable and no longer on the move.

It is a re­mind­er of what has been saved.