Bess Huffland burst out the front door of John Umstead Psychiatric Hospital holding her discharge papers in her left hand, her two pill bottles in her right. She looked around for a trash can, for a safe way to dispose of the medicines.
She paused at a fork in the walkway, brushed her tangled white hair out of her face with the back of her hand and moved on quickly. The strap of her overstuffed bag shifted on her shoulder, causing her to stumble but not fall. She raced along the paved walkway, determined to get ahead of the social worker assigned to drive her home. At age fifty-seven, Bess was still fit enough to outpace the much younger woman as they rounded the corner of the main building to where the state-owned vehicles were parked. With a discrete flip of her hand, she tossed both pill bottles into the open Dumpster beside the parking lot.
She knew this territory well. She knew the hospital routine from admission to discharge and found it easy this time to talk the doctor into setting her free. She had been through this two dozen times, and she had learned the magic words so her keepers would open the doors with a provisional discharge. She gained her freedom more easily this time because it was the fall of the year, and the student psychiatrists were still relatively new in their first clinical rotation. The young doctors were not yet experienced in what she considered their silly game of getting her to agree with them that she was really sick. She did agree with the doctors that she needed to take medication so that she would feel better and act right. She knew how to play the game. These new psychiatrists in training looked so young to her. Just kids. While she was in the hospital under observation, she did take the medicine, some of it, and she did act the way they wanted her to act, when anyone was around. And when she said that she felt better and said it in just the way they wanted to hear it, in the right tone of voice, they said she could leave. They reminded her they could bring her back with the stroke of a pen.
Eighteen hours after she walked out of the hospital, she woke up from a good enough night of sleep and smiled. She finally had it figured out; she understood the real problem. Now all she had to do was find the damn things.
She began her search methodically, with energy and determination, feeling strong and confident. First she removed the covers from the wall sockets and used a pair of pliers to pull out the wires as far as possible. Nothing unusual there. Then with some effort, she fashioned a steady platform of chairs and boards beneath each of the ceiling lights, removed the fixtures and pulled those wires down as far as they would reach. She remembered to turn off all the power in the house. She knew enough to be careful in case they had rigged a trap to electrocute her now that she was on to them.
By midmorning the wires of every electrical fixture or outlet in the house hung down or were completely ripped out of the openings. Only the two outside lights on each side of the front door remained untouched. As she positioned a chair to stand on to work on these, the morning mail carrier came by and spoke to her.
“Hey there, Mrs. Huffland. Don’t have much for you today, just some advertisements. Can I hand ’em to you?”
She ignored him. He took note of the fact that although she was fully dressed in a large shirt that hung out over jeans, her white hair was untended, and she was covered with dust and flecks of wall insulation from her labors. She wore a pair of new running shoes but had a sock on only one foot.
The mailman knew a little about Bess Huffland’s problems. The town of Canter was a small place. The modest wood frame houses that lined the streets of this neighborhood held many retirees, and on a typical good weather day the postal carrier would often not have to use the mailboxes, but just give the mail directly to the people who were waiting for him to come by. Sometimes he would stop for a minute and discuss the news of the day with the people on their front porch as they read the Canter Ledger.
Bess Huffland’s lack of response to the mail carrier made him pause for a moment and look through the open front door at the jumble of wires, lighting fixtures, and the disorganized furniture in the front room. He said nothing more but walked far enough away so he could use his mobile phone discretely to call the town police.
The police dispatcher was not happy to get the call that particular morning. All the law enforcement personnel in the county and nearby towns were working on the big annual county pot bust. It was now late enough in the year for the natural foliage of the countryside to change color sufficiently to reveal the distinct green of maturing marijuana crops. A state police helicopter had already identified a particularly large field that seemed to be the right color for closer attention. If they acted now, they might surprise the growers. Sixteen county and town police cruisers and their officers stood poised outside the police station, ready for action.
The police relayed the information about Bess Huffland to the local mental health center, five blocks from her house. The clinic director, John Randt, took the call and explained to the frustrated officer that the staff at the clinic would be standing by to assist, but the police needed to take the lead to take her back to the hospital. The policeman tried to argue that no officer was available, but John Randt insisted that the help from an officer was required by law. He knew Bess Huffland well and knew she would not go back to the hospital voluntarily.
The police duty to assist the mental health staff ultimately fell to John Cheatham, a rookie officer, who cursed softly to himself when he learned that he would miss the marijuana raid. He had taken several patients to the state hospital before, and he knew it could be an all-day affair, getting the paperwork right and then waiting to see the doctors.
But all he said was “yes, sir” and drove away to his assigned task.
Bess Huffland watched him pull up to the house and get out of his car. Standing on her front step, she put her hands on her hips, bent forward at the waist, and yelled at him, “Not this time … not again!” She ran inside and slammed the door.
The staff member on emergency call at the mental health center was a twenty-year veteran of his profession, a registered nurse named William Ronald. He arrived just after the officer, and the two of them stood on the front porch discussing what to do next. A call back to the clinic to John Randt found them all in agreement that there was nothing else to do but go ahead and find a way into the house. They all agreed that what she had done to the wires of the house fit the definition of dangerous behavior, therefore the law allowed them to take coercive action.
The early September day was unseasonably warm, and the sun shown directly down on the two men standing on the front porch. Officer Cheatham felt increasingly uncomfortable and frustrated, still angry about having been assigned this duty. He took the butt of his service revolver, knocked out a small window in the front door and reached inside to undo the lock. Once inside, he could not find Bess Huffland.
He walked through the house opening doors. William Ronald stayed on the porch, talking with John Randt on his cell phone. The young officer called out loudly, “No one is going to hurt you, Mrs. Huffland. I just got this order that I need to take you to the hospital for a checkup.”
After going through all the rooms in the house, and going back and opening closet doors, John Cheatham heard a sound in the downstairs bathroom. He opened the door and saw her silhouette through the translucent curtain. He slowly pulled it back. Bess Huffland took aim and fired one shot with her Magnum pistol and struck him directly in the middle of his chest.