By AMANDA BLAND
For The Frontier
By the time an incoherent William Matthew Stick walked into All Soul’s Unitarian Church with his mother’s blood on his jeans, he had already waited a month for a mental health appointment.
During a psychotic break in October 2012, the then 20-year-old hid behind a refrigerator before lunging at his mother with a knife that he then thrust into her chest. Stick believed he was in the midst of the apocalypse and thought he was freeing Veronica Stick from demonic possession. Part of the delusion was that the knife was imbued with magic.
Stick’s family had noticed his increasingly strange thoughts and behaviors and scheduled a mental health evaluation less than a month before he killed his mother. He was scheduled for an appointment at the Claremore Indian Hospital but would have to wait two months before being seen by a professional.
William Matthew Stick was found not guilty by reason of insanity in his mother’s death.
Nearly 5 percent of adults in Oklahoma have a serious mental illness, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. However only about four out of 10 who are diagnosed received treatment during the survey period, 2009 through 2013.
Veronica Stick had noticed signs of depression in her son, but the family had no idea how disturbed his thinking had become, said his father and Veronica’s husband Michael Stick.
“We just couldn’t get him in to find help. … Our system is broken,” Michael Stick said.
The Sticks, Assistant Public Defender Brian Rayl and later Tulsa County Public Defender Rob Nigh spent two years and eight months arguing in court filings that Matt Stick should be found not guilty by reason of insanity of the first-degree murder charge he faced.
District Judge William LaFortune ruled in their favor Thursday and remanded Matt Stick to the custody of the Oklahoma Forensic Center for treatment indefinitely.
He pointed to the reports of forensic psychologists for both the prosecution and defense as supportive of the insanity defense. Each found Stick suffered bipolar I disorder with psychotic features.
He acknowledged some people may be of the opinion the defendant should be punished but “that is simply not the conclusion to be reached.” State statute concerning the insanity defense requires prosecutors prove the defendant’s sanity at the time of the act in order to convict them, which the state failed to do, LaFortune said.
Stick’s father, a steadfast supporter and advocate for his son, reiterated that he knew from the beginning mental illness was to blame for his wife’s death.
He should be treated “not as a criminal (but) as a patient,” Michael Stick told reporters after the verdict was read. He described the years since the homicide as a nightmare, noting resolution of the criminal case “took forever because of the courts.”
Mary Ellen Jones knows the struggle parents endure to advocate for their adult children who suffer mental illness.
In 2001, her son, then a graduate school student, suffered his first psychotic episode and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was hospitalized five times over nine months and has had to be returned to inpatient care numerous times since then.
He’s spent the last 16 months living in treatment centers after a seizure triggered an unusually long episode.
During that time Jones said she’s thought to herself “is this the time that he’s just never going to come out of it?”
But after being transitioned to a different residential treatment facility, the 40-year-old has regained lucidity.
Jones and her son’s care providers are working to transition him back to independent living.
Within a year of the diagnosis, Jones and her husband joined a National Alliance on Mental Health support group for family members affected by a loved one’s mental illness.
They were soon asked to lead the group, which Jones continued after her husband’s death in 2006.
Mental illness often impacts families suddenly and relatives aren’t prepared to respond quickly, she said.
Jones said getting the patient into treatment, seeking support from others and remaining hopeful are critical.
“It’s wonderful to talk to someone who understands,” she said of her Thursday night group that meets at All Souls Unitarian Church every other week.
NAMI maintains and can provide a list of treatment, housing and financial assistance options as well as a guide for the process of civil commitment, or treatment mandated by court order.
Civil commitment is the only way Jones has been able to keep her son in treatment.
“I just got a call this morning — someone whose relative doesn’t think he/she needs help, which is often the case,” Jones said.
Getting a judge involved is a difficult step, she said, but she recognizes the necessity because of how unpredictable mental illness can be.
“He gets put in handcuffs or whatever, which is horrible, and then gets locked up. It’s a sigh of relief — he’s safe,” she said.
Untreated mental illness in some cases can cost a life, such as Veronica Stick’s homicide.
Jones has followed the case since news broke of Veronica Stick’s death outside the family’s home on Oct. 5, 2012. Matt Stick was arrested hours later when he arrived at All Souls, where he and his mother worked.
“It was the illness, not him. That’s what people need to understand,” Jones said.
The state’s argument
As Assistant District Attorney Julie Doss tried the case on April 30, she quoted recorded phone conversations Matt Stick made to a friend from the jail.
“I’m not that crazy.”
“I’ll be out before I’m 30.”
“I think this might be a blessing in disguise.”
Doss made clear to the court that an insanity defense has in many cases resulted in a greatly reduced period of confinement at the Oklahoma Forensic Center when compared to prison sentences for murder.
Some patients are released in as little as seven years, she argued.
A defendant in a similar murder case from 2004 resurfaced in the district court in April.
Stephen Miguel Moten was admitted to the Oklahoma Forensic Center in 2006 after he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in his mother’s death.
Five years later, District Judge William Musseman granted Moten conditional release. He was later allowed to move into a Tulsa apartment with his fiancee in 2014.
Prosecutors filed felony charges of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and attempted larceny of an automobile, which allegedly occurred on April 1 and 3.
Musseman revoked the conditional release and remanded him back to the center.
The new case was then dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors can choose to refile the charges at a later date.
Of the Stick case, Doss told The Frontier the district attorney’s office respected the judge’s decision.
“We wish them nothing but the best as they go through the mourning process,” she said.
Hope and awareness
One of the NAMI support group’s affirmations emphasizes the power of hope.
“I never gave up hope from Day 1,” Michael Stick said Thursday.
A pastor at Haikey Park Baptist Church, Michael Stick’s faith and the prayers of his supporters carried him throughout the proceedings, he said.
Matt Stick has been consistently medicated and is “doing great,” according to his father.
Though seated in the courtroom’s jury box with other inmates, Matt Stick appeared engaged and frequently looked toward his father and more than a dozen other supporters in the gallery.
Michael Stick said he and his two other children can now begin to grieve and heal. He plans to tell his story by writing a book about God’s unconditional love.
He will also continue to advocate for people with mental illness, something Jones said is greatly needed.
Sharing their experiences helps others understand mental illness and its impact, she said.
“Some of us describe ourselves as mama bears. No matter how old your baby gets, mama bear is there.”