Thompson murder case spurs some to question state of mental health services

By Nicholas Johnson of the Leader
Posted 3/1/16

The sentencing of a Swansonville man who choked his girlfriend to death in a fit of paranoia before attempting suicide put a spotlight on mental health services both in and out of jails and …

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Thompson murder case spurs some to question state of mental health services

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The sentencing of a Swansonville man who choked his girlfriend to death in a fit of paranoia before attempting suicide put a spotlight on mental health services both in and out of jails and prisons.

“To date, social services, particularly the mental health system, has failed this defendant, and I believe the courts and judicial system have failed this defendant,” said Kevin Isett, a Port Hadlock–based community custody officer with the state Department of Corrections.

Isett penned a pre-sentencing report in which he reviewed official records, interviewed the defendant and the victim’s family, and made a recommendation.

Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper took that recommendation Feb. 26, giving 34-year-old Evan Daniel Thompson 15 years in prison and three years probation.

Thompson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in January, wept as he stood before the judge and a packed courtroom expressing remorse for killing 20-year-old Virginia Guadalupe Castaneda of La Push, Washington.

“Virginia was beautiful and intelligent, honest and kind,” Thompson said in court. “I believe I’ve seen her at her happiest – her big-eyed smiles when we would go clam digging, her all-telling hugs on mountaintops. I miss her and I love her. I’m here to stand up for what I’ve done, in the name of the Lord. I am solely responsible. I pray for her family and hope that one day they will forgive me. I’m so sorry.”

Castaneda graduated from Forks High School in 2013; Thompson graduated from Chimacum High School in 2000. The two had been in a romantic relationship for nearly a year, according to court documents.

At sentencing, Castaneda’s grandmother Shelly Black asked that the court sentence Thompson to life in prison, saying, “Virginia will never get to go home. Why should you?”

Defense attorney Scott Charlton asked for the low end of the state Legislature–established range of 123 months (10.25 years) to 220 months (18.33 years), saying:

“Obviously Ms. Castaneda’s life has merit, but her life can’t be quantified based on a numerical figure; it’s worth much more than 18 years. It doesn’t matter whether he goes away for 10 years or 18 years, when he comes out of prison, he’s still going to be mentally ill.”

Charlton said he did not ask for a sentence below the standard range because, “It was Mr. Thompson’s concern that her people feel they’ve gotten justice.”

Isett recommended 180 months, just more than the 171.5-month midpoint of the range.

“I believe that the factors justifying going above the mid range, of relatively small amount, outweigh the factors that would explain or justify going below the mid range,” Judge Harper said. “Ultimately, I think 15 years is appropriate.”

FAMILY MOURNS

A contingent of more than 30 family and friends, largely of the Quileute Tribe, gathered on the courthouse steps after the hearing to form a prayer circle and sing together in Castaneda’s memory.

In letters to the court, family members describe Castaneda as a bright young woman – loving, free-spirited and perpetually upbeat – with her whole life ahead of her.

In court, her grandmother and sister said she was not only a member of the Quileute Tribe, but also the Tulalip and Muckleshoot tribes.

“She’s well-known by all of the communities,” Char Jackson said, referring to her sister’s involvement in annual tribal canoe journeys around Puget Sound. “There’s going to be a spot in the canoe that’s empty because she’s not there.”

Both said the loss of Castaneda has been particularly hard on her niece and nephew.

“These young children’s lives are forever changed,” Black said. “They were only 3 and 6 when Virginia was murdered.”

Castaneda's family told Isett that Castaneda began pulling away from family and friends on the reservation while dating Thompson. They said Thompson would visit the reservation, but avoided meeting the family and appeared to be taking advantage of Castaneda, who they said was working two jobs to support him.

“Virginia loved you and trusted you with her life, and you took that love and abused it,” Black said in court. “You and Virginia were together for almost a year. Why haven’t you met or interacted with our family? Guilt because you knew you had no business being with a 20-year-old girl?”

THE CRIME SCENE

Thompson’s mother, Tracy, called 911 at about 5:30 a.m., July 23 to report her son had shot himself, jumped out a second-story window and was holding a gun to his head in the backyard.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) deputies arrived at the rural Port Ludlow home on Swansonville Road that Thompson shared with his parents, to find Thompson lying in the backyard with gunshot wounds to his head and cuts to his wrists.

Deputies found a deceased Castaneda lying face down in Thompson’s upstairs bedroom.

Thompson was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The next day, he told JCSO detectives he killed Castaneda because he believed she was a spy working a job against him.

“I asked her if she was a spy and told her I thought she might be,” Thompson told Isett in a written statement. “She moved suddenly, and I reacted like a beast.”

Thompson, who has never denied guilt, told detectives July 24, 2015 that he had used his right arm to apply a chokehold from behind. Prosecutor Michael Haas said Thompson’s mother came into the room at one point and Thompson was fearful of being caught.

“I was ‘seeing’ scenes of guns and bombs penetrating my bedroom wall, thinking she might be a robot who would stand up at any moment and blow me to bits,” he wrote to Isett. “I had to kill myself, before the guns and bombs had their way. I could not live without my love, my everything.”

Thompson went looking for his father's .44-caliber pistol, but could only find a .22. He perched himself in his upstairs bedroom window, shooting himself twice in the head before falling to the backyard below. There, he shot himself a third time.

“The fall didn’t kill him, the gunshots didn’t kill him, so he located a knife and attempted to slice his wrists,” Isett told the court. “That also didn’t kill him, but that clearly shows he understood that what he did was wrong.”

Since his arrest, Thompson has been in the Jefferson County Jail in Port Hadlock on $1 million bond. Following sentencing, Thompson was transported to Shelton for intake into the state prison system.

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Referring to the findings of a forensic psychologist’s evaluation of Thompson, Charlton told the court, “He was suffering from a delusional disorder, a psychotic disorder of thinking, judgment, perception and reality testing in the same diagnostic category as schizophrenia.”

Thompson was found competent to stand trial. Isett said Thompson knew what he was doing at the time of the crime.

“It’s not a case where you have, in my opinion, a defendant who is so delusional they did not know what they were doing,” he told the court.

Prosecutor Michael Haas downplayed Thompson’s mental illness.

“I’m not suggesting that the defendant doesn’t have psychological issues, but I think to a certain extent it’s entirely possible that they have been overstated,” he told the court.

Charlton said a third of prison inmates suffer mental illness, and are vulnerable because of it.

“For a good number of the mentally ill inmates, they’re in the general population and being penalized with solitary confinement because they have a difficult time figuring out what the unwritten rules are in prison, how to interact with other inmates, all of whom recognize that if somebody’s mentally ill, that’s a weakness and the weak are preyed upon,” he told the court. “The sad fact of the matter is that the disinvestment in mental health care in our country and in Washington has gone on far too long to be considered anything but deliberate neglect.”

Isett called Castaneda’s killing senseless. Charlton agreed, but asked that the killing be put in context.

“We ask that this court distinguish between a senseless crime borne of acute mental illness on the part of the perpetrator, and in this case Mr. Thompson, from the cold-blooded, aggravating senselessness of a crime committed either with a rational motive or without any motive other than the thrill of the kill,” he told the court.

Nothing can bring Castaneda back, said Charlton, who argued that what matters now is the level of mental health treatment Thompson will receive in prison and upon release.

Isett said whatever treatment Thompson does get will depend on his willingness to receive those services.

“I’m standing here asking for some help,” Thompson told the court. “I know I need it.”

Even with Thompson’s buy-in, Isett said he holds out little hope the prison system would provide the best possible treatment.

“You’re still struggling with a state system that, quite frankly, is woefully incapable of really providing the level of services that Mr. Thompson may truly need,” he told the court.

Isett also told the court, based on a review of Thompson’s criminal history, that local courts and prosecutors had failed him.

“Had they intervened in this man’s life when they had the opportunity to do so – not looked at mental illness as an excuse for leniency but as an excuse for intervention – we may not be here today,” he told the court. “These people may not be here today. But here we are. We still have a mentally ill defendant that is crying out for some level of help.”

In a letter to the court, Thompson’s father, Ed, said the family had sought help from local law enforcement, mental health providers and the courts over the past couple years, each time hitting a roadblock.

“We both felt helpless with no place to get the help,” he wrote, acknowledging that Evan Thompson’s paranoid delusions made him distrustful.

Judge Harper said Thompson’s mental illness is no excuse for what he did and questioned why he did not receive help earlier.

“Perhaps Mr. Thompson is the one that failed himself,” Harper said. “I don’t know if he was refusing and that was the problem, that people couldn’t physically get him into these places, or if it was a financial issue. One of the letters refers to the fact that people talked to some judge. Well, I mean, a judge isn’t a mental health councilor; a judge isn’t his lawyer; a judge isn’t his guardian or anything. Other entities and other institutions can only do so much. Ultimately, Mr. Thompson is an adult. His family doesn’t necessarily remain responsible for him once he hits 18 years of age. They may feel a moral responsibility and everything else. I don’t know, but strictly speaking, when Mr. Thompson becomes an adult, he takes on a lot of his own responsibility.”

Judge Harper noted on Thompson’s sentencing paperwork that he should be evaluated upon release and afforded any necessary treatment while in community custody.

“Mr. Thompson, I hope that you get the help that you need from here forward,” Judge Harper said. “In large part, I think it’s up to you.”

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