Abbott's cry for help

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jason Abbott's documented history of violent and aggressive behavior merited some form of medical intervention long before he was arrested and charged with killing four people, according to medical experts interviewed last week.

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James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel
James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel

"There were clearly obvious indicators that this individual needed some mental health services, given his history of aggressive behavior and (criminal) convictions," said Dr. Brendan Kiernan, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Juneau.

Whether he got the treatment he needed is unknown. His surviving family members declined to comment, and legal and medical officials with knowledge of Abbott's medical history declined to be interviewed for this story citing professional obligations of confidentiality.

What is known is that Abbott's troubles started long before he was arrested on a charge of murder last week.

'God help me'

When police showed up at 18-year-old Jason Abbott's grandparents' house on March 25, they said he was standing on the front porch holding a knife to his own throat, while his aunt and his grandmother were nearby and covered in blood.

Officers said Abbott had stabbed both of them. His grandmother later died at the hospital. His aunt survived and was released from the hospital last week, her condition unknown.

Inside the house were three more victims, police said. His grandfather, covered in blood, sat dead in a recliner, police said. Abbott's aunt and her boyfriend lay dead on the floor nearby, both with obvious stab wounds in their backs, according to police.

After police subdued him with a stun gun, Abbott, who 25 hours before had been released from jail after allegedly assaulting his mother, let out a yell neighbor Fred Hope said he could hear from where he was watching a few doors down.

"He let out the loudest yell," Hope said. "He said 'God, help me,' and I thought, a man just killed people and he's asking God for help."

Whether Abbott is guilty of murder is for the courts to decide. He's pled not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. His trial is scheduled to start July 14.

Abbott's plea last week, however, was not his first cry for help.

'I need help'

"Help me. Help me in anyway you can cuz this is way too hard to do by myself," Abbott wrote in 2004 to his girlfriend at that time, Amanda Hammock. "I need help with school, drugs, suicidal temptations, homicidal temptations and everything else."

Abbott also wrote: "I'm afraid I might kill myself or kill someone else."

The letter ended with, "I love you with every single piece of my heart."

In another letter, Abbott told Hammock: "I think I wanna strangle you but I think not."

Those letters were presented to Sitka Magistrate Bruce Horton by Hammock's mother, Kristal Hammock, in 2004. She was trying to convince the judge to issue a restraining order to keep Abbott away from her daughter.

Horton denied the request, on grounds that there was insufficient evidence that Amanda had been a victim of domestic violence, according to court records.

Short-term restraining orders like those requested by Hammock can be issued against someone if there's a likelihood that the person had committed an act of domestic violence, according Mandy O'Neal Cole, a manager at the domestic violence agency, AWARE.

She said letters like Abbott's could be seen as an act of domestic violence, but such decisions are left up to a judge's discretion.

Kiernan, the Juneau psychologist, said Abbott's letters were a clear signal that something needed to be done on a medical level.

"Based on those threats to this girl and threats of killing her, more than likely an evaluation should have occurred," Kiernan said. "More than likely a mental health evaluation should have occurred right then and there."

It's unknown if Abbott ever received treatment after the request for the restraining order was denied.

A few weeks later, Abbott pled guilty to consuming alcohol as a minor. It was one of several alcohol-related charges Abbott would rack up in the next three years.

In the summer of 2005, Abbott was arrested and accused of breaking into a building and trying to steal several bottles of alcohol, according to newly released records from the Department of Health and Social Services.

Department officials said that when Abbott tried to flee the scene, he injured a police officer by throwing a bottle at him.

Abbott spent about six months at the Johnson Youth Center before he was released into the care of his mother, Kathy Jack, in February of 2006, according to the department.

Later that year, after two probation violations, Abbott was sent back to the Johnson Youth Center, where he spent another year.

Johnson Youth Center Superintendent Dennis Weston said he could not discuss Abbott's medical treatment history, but said that all youths placed at the center undergo a mental health screening when they first arrive to determine if they are suicidal, and they have access to mental health professionals while at the center.

Modeling gang behavior

After he got out of Johnson Youth Center, Abbott moved to the Lower 48, possibly to Florida, according to Amanda Hammock. When he came back, they said he was interested in gang life, particularly with a street gang called the Crips.

Former girlfriend Amanda Hammock said Abbott said that Crip gang members were "warriors for God," and that the gang's name was an acronym for "Christ rest in peace."

Hammock said there was a connection between Abbott's fascination with the Crips and his dislike for the color red, which is the color often worn by members of one of the Crips' rival gangs, the Bloods.

Abbott was arrested two days before the stabbing occurred on a charge of assaulting his mother. Court records show he told her that he thought the colors red and orange were evil, and had thrown away a set of red place mats. Documents also state Abbott denied assaulting his mother, but admitted to having an argument with her about the color red.

The young man also had shaved his head and eyebrows to rid himself of sin days before his arrest for allegedly assaulting his mother, Hammock said.

Extreme changes in behavior like those Abbott exhibited when he shaved his hair and ranted about evil colors are warning signs that something was wrong, according to Dr. Heidi Lopez-Coonjohn, a psychiatrist who works at the Johnson Youth Center.

"Any sort of changes, you want to be aware of, and to comment on, and follow up on in some way," Lopez-Coonjohn said.

Acquaintances said Abbott used crystal meth, and Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt said that drugs may have been "a factor" in the stabbing deaths.

Kiernan said the possible drug use, the history of violent behavior, and Abbott's modeling of gang behavior showed a man at high risk of dangerous, aggressive behavior.

Dr. Lawrence Maile, clinical director at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, said behavior like Abbott's over the past few years was an "escalating pattern" that is a "warning sign."

But medical experts said despite the apparent warnings of aggressive and dangerous behavior, predicting the crimes that Abbott is accused of committing was impossible.

"There is no way to predict such an heinous act would occur," Kiernan said. "But there certainly were early signs of a very troubled and disturbed teenager."

Because of the lack of information available about Abbott's medical history, the medical experts interviewed would not say if and how Abbott should have received more care. But they said his example should serve as warnings to friends, parents and officials who know troubled teenagers not to ignore obvious warning signals.

"We need to be more diligent of the signs," said Markie Blumer, a visiting psychology professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

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