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Killer’s Parents Sue L.A. County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The parents of killer Jeremy Strohmeyer are suing Los Angeles County, alleging that social workers deliberately withheld crucial information about his birth mother’s mental illness that would have stopped them from adopting the toddler.

Strohmeyer is currently in a Nevada prison without possibility of parole for the murder of 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson in a Nevada casino two years ago.

Before Winnie and John Strohmeyer adopted their son in 1980, they indicated on a county form that they would not accept a child whose birth parents had a mental illness, according to a copy of the form. But county employees knew Jeremy’s biological mother had been diagnosed as a chronic schizophrenic and neglected to inform the Strohmeyers, according to the claim for damages filed late Thursday.

The staff working on the adoption “engaged in an elaborate cover-up of the birth mother’s background in an attempt to quickly place Jeremy in the Strohmeyers’ home,” the claim contends.

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The nation reeled at accounts of Sherrice’s gruesome strangling in a toilet stall by Jeremy Strohmeyer, then 18, who later told police, “I just wanted to experience death.”

The Strohmeyers hired a high-profile legal team that included Leslie Abramson and Nevada attorney Richard Wright, and spent more than $500,000 on their son’s defense, according to court papers. The case was resolved in a plea agreement presented in September 1998 just as the trial was scheduled to begin.

In July 1996, Winnie Strohmeyer filed a lawsuit against her former employer, Western Digital Corp. in Irvine, contending that she suffered emotional damage because her family was torn apart by the company’s mistreatment of her.

That lawsuit alleging age and sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation was filed three months after she was laid off. The company, a maker of computer disk drives, contended that Strohmeyer quit voluntarily and that her distress was caused by her son’s problems.

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In suing Los Angeles County, the Strohmeyers are seeking reimbursement for their son’s defense as well as unspecified compensation for their pain and suffering, according to court papers.

Winnie Strohmeyer said the couple chose this action in hopes of ensuring that future adoptive parents are spared from being misled or uninformed about their child’s biological background. The dearth of information about their son’s background meant they could not take appropriate measures to help him at an earlier age, she said.

“I don’t think we’re an isolated case. We want to make sure this does not happen to other families,” Winnie Strohmeyer said.

(In fact, weeks before the murder, at his parents’ insistence, Jeremy Strohmeyer began to see a therapist. He was diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit disorder.)

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Neil Rincover, spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services, said the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit. “As soon as they deliver it to us, we’ll review it and have something to say.”

Gregory W. Smith, the Strohmeyers’ attorney, said that had they known in advance about their son’s background, “they probably would not have adopted him.

“If the county told parents these types of things, Jeremy could have been monitored. He would have had psychiatric evaluations and this horrible thing never would have happened.”

In a form dated Jan. 1, 1979, the Strohmeyers indicated that they would take a child whose father was unknown or whose parents had a history of drug addiction. In the category of unacceptable traits of birth parents, they included mental illness, mental retardation, significant use of LSD, and epilepsy.

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Smith said that after the adoption, his clients were given a watered-down and misleading version of the birth mother’s history that lightly referred to mental health problems.

To help decide what qualities would be unacceptable in an adopted child, Winnie Strohmeyer said, the couple consulted a pediatrician. “We went into it thoughtfully,” she said.

According to adoption papers filed in 1980, Jeremy’s biological mother dropped out of school in 11th grade, went to Europe with a “drug pusher” and returned exhibiting wild behavior. She was diagnosed in 1976 as a chronic schizophrenic who was “unable to care for herself,” according to her probation officer’s report. At the time of Jeremy’s birth, she was being treated for mental illness and was rehospitalized a year later, according to the report.

After Jeremy’s adoption, adoption worker Edith Epstein wrote the Strohmeyers a letter, saying: “One day in the future Jeremy will ask about his birth parents and how he came to be adopted.”

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The letter provided basic background on the boy’s biological mother, saying: “Her problems began in high school when she began to use drugs and alcohol.

“In 1975, she gave birth to a son [an older brother of Jeremy] she placed in adoption. Later she appeared mentally ill and was hospitalized at the time she gave birth to Jeremy.”

Smith, the Strohmeyers’ attorney, said the biological mother “didn’t ‘appear mentally ill,’ she was mentally ill.”

Times staff writer E. Scott Reckard contributed to this report.

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