Op-Ed: My daughter was murdered, but it was misguided mental health laws that put her in danger
Earlier this month, word came to me that my precious daughter Amy had died, probably at the hands of another. Her body was found in an abandoned rental car in an upscale neighborhood of Hermosillo, Mexico, four hours south of the Arizona border. She had been missing since Christmas Eve. Her husband filed a missing person report with the Orange County Sheriff, and with each passing day, we became more and more worried.
About five years ago, in her late 30s, Amy had fallen victim to mental illness. One shrink called it bipolar psychosis; another, schizoaffective disorder. Whatever its name, it gripped my little girl’s psyche and wouldn’t let go. Medication never had an opportunity to help because her fevered brain told her not to take it. Therapy was futile. She booked into and out of treatment facilities across the country — all to no positive end. Like her brave husband, I had to stand by helplessly and watch her unravel.
I knew something about mental illness, having written a book on the subject. “In The Best of Families” was about the family of Ronald Reagan’s personal lawyer Roy Miller — a high-octane partner at the blue chip firm of Gibson, Dunne & Crutcher. Despite his money, connections and political clout, Miller was unable to prevent schizophrenia from destroying his family. His elder son overdosed on aspirin while his younger son raped and murdered Roy’s wife of 30 years.
“In The Best of Families” was meant to be an exhortation to politicians and the public to reexamine mental health “reforms” that President Reagan and others had championed. These ill-conceived laws shuttered scores of mental hospitals, “freeing” patients to live on their own. They made it more difficult to hospitalize someone resistant to treatment.
As a direct result of these changes, Amy had little chance of defeating her insanity. The courts, police, social service agencies, psychiatrists — they were all able to dodge responsibility with impunity because severely psychotic people have the same rights and privileges as any other citizen.
Amy was a lawyer, and quite a good one, so she knew how and when to invoke her rights. Until the last several months before her life imploded, she used every trick in the book to dodge incarceration — her last best hope of getting enforced treatment. Mental illness brought delusions, tics, bizarre behavior and uncontrollable mood swings, but in Amy’s case, it didn’t touch her street smarts. She could shriek foul invective while torching her husband’s high school yearbooks or wrecking car after car, but clean up by the time the cops showed. Acting as though nothing had happened, she talked her way out of arrest time after time. Involuntary holds can only be imposed if a person is deemed a danger to herself or others, and Amy was usually able to convince authorities she was neither of those things.
An indifferent bureaucracy failed Amy, too, even in instances where it could and should have intervened. In April, concerned about Amy’s erratic driving, I used a DMV form to request that my daughter’s license be revoked. I did everything the website said to do, and then waited in vain. I never heard anything, and Amy’s license was never revoked. If it had been, she would not have been able to rent the car she drove to Mexico, where she was killed.
She rented the car in Las Vegas on Dec. 23, then sent off a flurry of pleading texts, as she had been doing daily for years, and disappeared into Mexico. An FBI agent called my son-in-law a week after he filed his missing person report. The battered body in Hermosillo was almost unrecognizable. Fingerprint confirmation was pending, but the passport and purse inside the rental car belonged to Amy Suzanne Riley, 44, of Foothill Ranch, Calif.
I know many of you will send condolences when you read this. I know they are heartfelt and I thank you ahead of time. But if you can muster and sustain some form of fury akin to my own, I would ask that you offer that instead of thoughts and prayers.
I dropped the ball 25 years ago when my book “In the Best of Families” came out. I had intended to use Roy Miller’s tragedy as a cudgel against the unthinking men and women elected to Congress and the California Legislature. But the same week it came out, O.J. Simpson was arrested and charged with Nicole Simpson’s murder. I was immediately plunged into covering that story, and my good intentions fell by the wayside. Now I intend to fulfill my obligation.
Today, there are over 2 million people behind bars in this country, and a large chunk of them are mentally ill. The homelessness crisis now hitting every big city in America is as much about psychosis as it is lack of affordable housing. With every school mass shooting, voices from the left as well as the right cry out for better mental health treatment, then do nothing. We all need to be angry about this, to raise our voices and demand better. Amy’s loving and extended family is still waiting for answers about exactly what happened to her in Hermosillo. But whatever else is uncovered, one thing is clear: Mental illness was a primary factor in her death, as it is in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.
There is another thing I remember about the week my book came out and O.J. made his mad dash down the 405. I was headed in the same direction that night to meet up with Amy for a James Taylor concert. She had just finished her freshman year at UC San Diego and had proudly bought us tickets with her own money — a Father’s Day gift she knew I’d love because Taylor was my musical hero as well as hers. It was a grand and memorable night, and now it is a memory I cling to. The refrain he sang from “Fire and Rain” is particularly haunting now:
“I always thought that I’d see you again.”
Former Times staff writer Dennis McDougal lives in Memphis and is the author of 14 books.
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