Mentally Disturbed Woman Subdued : Show of Force by SWAT Criticized

Times Staff Writer

The mother of a mentally ill Oceanside woman who held police and a Sheriff's Department SWAT team at bay for more than eight hours Wednesday said that the show of force by police was "absolutely unnecessary."

Senior police officers, however, cited the woman's history of mental illness and her wielding of a butcher knife as sufficient reasons for storming into the home after firing tear gas.

Oceanside police were called about 10 a.m. Wednesday to the home of Janet Gerber, 41, in the 1100 block of California Street by a relative concerned about her welfare, according to police. When they entered the home, police say, the woman lunged at them with a butcher knife.

After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the woman, Oceanside police called the SWAT team at about 3:30 p.m., department spokesman Bob George said. With neighbors relocated to a nearby school, SWAT officers fired tear gas into the home and removed the woman about 8:30 p.m.

"Let me put it this way: She wasn't hurt and nobody else was hurt," George said. "That doesn't sound like too much force to me."

Gerber's mother, who asked to be identified only as Mrs. Fox, said her husband, Leon Fox, called police so that they would take Gerber to a hospital. Mrs. Fox said Gerber was on lithium, a drug used to control erratic mood swings, but had stopped taking it because it made her "groggy."

"All we were trying to do was get police to escort her so she can get medication," she said, "but they treated her like she was Al Capone or Dillinger or something."

On Thursday, the acrid smell of tear gas filled the small California Street home where glass and ashes were strewn about. There were 12 tear gas cartridges in the home, a huge hole in the garage door and half a dozen broken windows.

Gerber's daughter, Dina, 18, who was with her brother, Brian, 16, and a friend in a police wagon near the scene, said the incident never should have happened.

"Momma was just confused and frightened," she said. "She's never hurt anybody. If they would have let us talk to her, none of this would have happened, but all they wanted from us was the floor plan of the house."

Gerber was taken to Tri-City Medical Center for 72-hour psychiatric observation, George said. Mrs. Fox spoke to her by telephone late Thursday and said: "She seems to be fine now."

During the ordeal neighbors were evacuated and police negotiators tried repeatedly to talk with Gerber by telephone, George said. But the woman sounded incoherent at first and later took her telephone off the hook.

"We kept talking with her but she wouldn't listen to us," George said. "She mistrusted everybody. She didn't want to talk to her family. So it was kind of a no-win situation."

About 8 p.m., SWAT team officers fired tear gas and concussion grenades into the home and 20 minutes later they entered the home when Gerber did not come out.

George said police had learned of Gerber's history of mental illness from a doctor at the scene and that a background check showed that she had attempted suicide at least once before.

"We are charged with protecting people's lives whether they like it or not," he said.

Times staff writer Anthony Perry contributed to this report.

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