The day before he apparently stabbed his father at the family’s home in rural Bath County, the son of Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds underwent a psychiatric evaluation but was not admitted to a hospital, because no bed was available.
Deeds was listed in fair condition late Tuesday after his son, Austin, stabbed him in the face and chest, then shot himself in what investigators suspect was an attempted murder and suicide.
The incident thrust the senator back into the spotlight after several years of quiet. Deeds (D) vaulted to the statewide political stage in 2009 as the Democratic nominee for governor, only to lose to Republican Robert F. McDonnell (R). After the defeat, Deeds went through a divorce and largely receded from public view, even though he stayed on in the Senate.
The violence also culminated what appears to have been a downward spiral for Deeds’s son, Austin, 24, a banjo-playing former campaign volunteer for his father who dropped out of college last month and whose apparent psychiatric problems had prompted an examination Monday.
The attack on the senator brought new scrutiny to Virginia’s mental-health system. Six years after the Virginia Tech massacre, which prompted an outpouring of attention and dollars for state mental-health care, advocates still say the system is starved for money and reform. Lawmakers, state officials and mental-health advocates expressed agreement Tuesday that a shortage of beds for patients in crisis is one significant problem.
On Monday, a magistrate issued an emergency custody order for Austin Deeds, who was also known as Gus, after he had been evaluated by officials at the Rockbridge County Community Services Board, said Mary Ann Bergeron, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards. The boards oversee the local provision of mental-health services across Virginia.
Dennis Cropper, who leads the Rockbridge County Community Services Board, also confirmed the younger Deeds’s psychiatric evaluation, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Rockbridge officials had called hospitals in the area looking for a spot but were unable to find one, Bergeron said. “I can tell you right now, it was multiple hospitals that they called,” she said. “That is a very rural area. The hospitals are few and far between.”
Bergeron said local hospitals have been reducing and in some cases eliminating psychiatric wards, making it more difficult to find spots for people requiring involuntary detention, particularly in more rural parts of the state.
“I wouldn’t say this happens every day, but it’s more common than we’d like for it to be,” Bergeron said.
State investigators said Tuesday that they were still trying to establish a motive and the sequence of events that led to the violence, which they said appeared to begin with an altercation between the men.
After his son attacked him, Deeds, bleeding from his face and chest, walked to the end of his driveway in Bath County, about 100 miles west of Charlottesville, police said. A cousin driving by spotted him, called police at 7:25 a.m., then drove him to a nearby farm. A helicopter flew the senator to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where doctors performed surgery.
When they arrived at Deeds’s home Tuesday, investigators found Austin Deeds suffering from a life-threatening gunshot wound. Austin died before they could stabilize him.
The spasm of violence stunned the community of Bath County, where the elder Deeds grew up and is well known.
“We are totally devastated. He has been our little hero all of these years,” said Betsy Byrd, 74, of Healing Springs, who works at a boutique across the street from Deeds’s law firm and talks with him at least a handful of times each week. “. . . His pains will go away, but he will never get over losing a child. His heart must be broken. All of our hearts are broken.”
Several friends and neighbors said they knew little of the younger Deeds’s struggles, and the reason for his psychiatric evaluation remained unclear late Tuesday.
Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), a close friend of the senator’s, spent the day at the hospital with the family.
“He was very close to his son and spent a lot of time trying to help him,” Toscano said.
Deeds’s political rise in Virginia has spanned two decades, beginning with his service as a county prosecutor and including time as a state delegate, state senator and gubernatorial candidate. Across the state, politicians expressed sorrow Tuesday, including McDonnell, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
“The news from this morning is utterly heartbreaking,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Creigh Deeds is an exceptional and committed public servant.”
Deeds and his second wife, Siobhan, whom he married last year, had returned Friday from a week-long trip that included stops in Spain and Ireland, according to posts on Siobhan Deeds’s Facebook page.
Until last month, Austin Deeds was a student at the College of William and Mary, where he first enrolled in 2007, according to the college. He was one of the state senator’s four children from his first marriage, and his only son.
Sarah E. King, 27, a family friend, said in a telephone interview that Austin had dropped out of William and Mary in his senior year, then returned to the college before withdrawing again in October. King said she could not explain why he had left school, but she described him as someone of many interests, including the guitar and banjo. “He was a great kid — full of life,” she said. ”He was always picking on something and playing bluegrass.”
Diane Dudley, who knew Austin from the music library at William and Mary, said he would recount cooking the day’s spoils on hunting trips. Once he told Dudley about “recycling a picket fence and making a banjo out of it.”
“He was proud of his father,” she said. “He had told us about his parents divorcing and his father remarrying. He seemed to have a good relationship with both” parents.
Austin Deeds accompanied his father on the campaign trail in 2009, expressing admiration that the senator did not possess the stylized good looks of McDonnell. “He’s all natural, almost to a fault,” Austin told a reporter. “He colors his hair with early mornings and hard work and life.”
In 2009, police charged Austin Deeds with possession of alcohol as a minor, according to court records. The case was dismissed after he performed community service.
State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), a frequent advocate in Richmond for boosting mental-illness funding, said she hoped a tragedy involving one of their own would motivate her colleagues in the General Assembly to act. “God, I pray so,” Howell said. “It’s been going on now for decades, and at some point we have to put some resources in.”
In Virginia, mental-health authorities can hold people for four to six hours after a magistrate judge issues an emergency custody order. After that, a magistrate must issue a temporary detention order, or TDO, to allow an individual to be held for 48 to 72 hours for further evaluation and treatment. But the order cannot be issued without an available bed.
In 2012, the Virginia Office of the State Inspector General probed how often clinically necessary TDOs are not issued because no facility is available to accept the patient. Over a 90-day period, the office found that 72 people were turned away despite the fact that they met the criteria to be involuntarily held for treatment.
While representing just a small number of the 5,000 TDOs issued during the time period, the office still warned about the dangers of turning away, for lack of resources, people found in need of immediate detention.
The elder Deeds is known as a measured lawmaker in Richmond, where he has served since 1991. “I don’t believe a lot gets done by screaming from the mountaintops about something,” Deeds said during a 2009 interview, describing his political style.
Deeds ran for attorney general in 2005, losing to McDonnell by a mere 360 votes. He ran for governor in 2009, winning the Democratic primary in an upset victory over McAuliffe and Brian Moran — but losing by a landslide, 17 points, to McDonnell in the general election.
On the campaign trail, Deeds was known for his informal charm, often tweeting the songs he was listening to on the road, including tunes by the Grateful Dead and the Band.
Anne Adams, the publisher of the Recorder newspaper in nearby Monterey, Va., described Deeds as an “integral part of this community” who is “well loved and well respected by everyone in the area.”
Deeds was depressed after losing the gubernatorial race, she said. But he had seemed to rebound. “Recently, he’s probably been happier than I’d seen him in a long time,” she said.
After the shootings at Virginia Tech, Deeds said the tragedy had brought a fresh “urgency” to the cause of improving the state’s mental-health system.
The issue remained important to him. Only last week, his Facebook page linked to a New York Times article about flaws in the nation’s system for treating children and adolescents with mental-health problems.
Jennifer Jenkins, Justin Jouvenal, Ben Pershing, Ian Shapira and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.