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.