No good option: Parents called police on mentally ill son, but he got prison, not help

The parents of Blaec Lammers knew their 20-year-old son struggled with mental-health problems. He was on antipsychotic medications, when he wasn’t refusing to take them. Several times his parents had rushed him to the hospital for an involuntary, 96-hour psychiatric detention. It felt like a cycle without answer or end.

“Every conversation was, ‘What do we do about Blaec?’ ” his father, Bill Lammers, said from the family’s home in Bolivar, Mo.

Then, in November 2012, Blaec Lammers’s mother found a receipt for an AR-15 rifle in his blue jeans. Alarmed, she called police. Officers took him in for questioning. Blaec Lammers admitted to having homicidal thoughts and to buying two rifles with plans to shoot up a local movie theater and Wal-Mart, according to a probable-cause statement.

His parents were hailed as heroes. But today, as their son serves a 15-year prison sentence for his plot instead of getting the help they believe he needs, they are filled with doubt about their decision.

Now, Blaec Lammers’s parents look at the rampage Friday in Isla Vista, Calif. — in which 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people despite a series of mental-health red flags in recent months — and wonder whether their son had been heading down that same tragic path. Last month, deputies in California visited Rodger for a wellness check after his mother found disturbing videos that he had posted on YouTube, but authorities found no cause to intervene.


Blaec Lammers is serving 15 years for plotting to shoot up a movie theater and a Wal-Mart. His parents say he is being denied needed treatment. (Polk County (Mo.) Sheriff's Department via AP)

“The million-dollar question: Had we not done anything, would Blaec have done that?” Bill Lammers said.

The elder Lammers sees this latest mass murder — perpetrated by another young killer with hints of mental illness — as a further sign of a broken mental-health-care system and the often private struggle of families dealing with mentally ill children. An estimated 20 percent of U.S. teenagers have some mental-health irregularity, including 10 percent who have some behavior or conduct disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“You don’t want to think your son, your own blood, is going to be a shooter, a mass murderer,” Bill Lammers said. “But you’ve got to face the reality that he might’ve been.”

His son’s arrest came at a fraught time. Four months earlier, in July 2012, James Holmes, 24, walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and fatally shot 12 people and wounded 70 others. One month after Blaec Lammers’s arrest, in December 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The mental states of both shooters have been debated, along with whether their families or doctors could have done more to prevent their achieving their destructive ends. Holmes’s attorneys have argued that their client is too mentally ill to face the death penalty.

Bill Lammers, who works as a health-care software consultant, was in New York City on a business trip when his wife, Tricia Lammers, called him on Nov. 15, 2012. It was a Thursday afternoon. She had just found the receipt from Wal-Mart. Their first thought was that their son was going to kill himself. Then, they worried that he might hurt others. They agreed she should call law enforcement authorities in their rural, southwestern part of Missouri.

The Lammers family knew the sheriff well. Deputies had been enlisted before to help with their son. A couple years earlier, Blaec had stormed out of the house after an argument with his parents. They tried coaxing him back, but he ran off across a field.

They warned the sheriff that Blaec was off his medication. A couple hours later, the sheriff pulled up to the Lammers home and dropped off their son. The sheriff and Bill Lammers stood in the yard talking. Bill Lammers was shocked that the sheriff wasn’t going to detain his son, at least until he calmed down. But the sheriff explained that he couldn’t arrest someone until he had done something to justify that action. “Then it’s too late,” Bill Lammers told the sheriff. “We’re trying to prevent something.”

Bill Lammers recalled that conversation as he watched recent news coverage of the Isla Vista killings. A sheriff in California was explaining that Rodger, appearing timid and polite, did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold. Rodger had not done anything, either.

“The mental-health system is totally broken,” Bill Lammers said. “Calling the police is the only option.”

Bill Lammers, 53, owns guns. He keeps them locked in a safe. He never let his son near them. He knew that Blaec should not be around firearms. So he was shocked when he learned that Blaec had bought two rifles from the local Wal-Mart.

He bought them legally. There was nothing in the standard background check to stop him. But, as Bill Lammers pointed out, this was the same Wal-Mart where his son filled prescriptions for his antipsychotic and antidepressant pills. It was also the same store where, in 2009, Blaec Lammers was found wandering the aisles carrying a butcher knife and wearing a Halloween clown mask. Deputies escorted him out of the store that time.

Bill Lammers said he does not support laws limiting the size of ammunition clips or restricting ownership of certain firearms. But he would like to see stricter laws to prevent someone with a history of serious mental illness — someone like his son — from buying firearms.

Even after police arrested Blaec Lammers, which was followed by a burst of national attention over a foiled mass-murder plot, his father never expected him to face serious prison time. Blaec Lammers, his father said, “was for the most part a peaceful, easy-going person.” In March 2014, after a bench trial, a judge sentenced Blaec Lammers to 15 years for first-degree assault and armed criminal action.

Bill Lammers said his wife has struggled with their decision to notify authorities in 2012. She expected her son to get a wellness check. He ended up giving a confession. She feels that she ruined her son’s life, Bill Lammers said. He struggles with their decision, too. “But isn’t that better than him killing 20 or 30 people?”

“We still have trouble accepting it,” he added. “It’s just like the parents out there in California.”

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.
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