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Amid Warning Signs, Isla Vista Killer Slipped Through System

| May 26, 2014
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A student lights a candle at a memorial for one of the victims of Elliot Rodger during a series of attacks near the UC Santa Barbara campus. (Robyn Beck/AFP-Getty Images)

A student lights a candle at a memorial for one of the victims of Elliot Rodger during a series of attacks near the UC Santa Barbara campus. (Robyn Beck/AFP-Getty Images)

Amid the horrific accounts of the Isla Vista mass murders and the ugly misogynistic resentments expressed by alleged killer Elliot Rodger, one of the startling facts to emerge in the incident is that Santa Barbara sheriff’s deputies met with Rodger on April 30 to determine if he posed a threat.

The officers checked on Rodger at his apartment “at the request of state mental health officials, acting on an expression of concern by his mother,” says the New York Times. “They left after a calm and polite Mr. Rodger assured them that there was nothing to worry about. The officers reported that Mr. Rodger was shy and had told them that he was having difficulties in his social life.”

The encounter with the deputies is described by Rodger in the 134-page autobiographical manifesto he sent out shortly before the attack. The document, which lays out the plans for a killing spree, is a bitter recounting of his life and the deep resentments he had build up, especially toward the women who continuously rejected him, he said. Here’s an excerpt about the meeting with the deputies, which occurred after he had posted disturbingly bitter videos online:

After only a week passed since I uploaded those videos on YouTube, I heard a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to see about seven police officers asking for me. As soon as I saw those cops, the biggest fear I had ever felt in my life overcame me. I had the striking and devastating fear that someone had somehow discovered what [I] was planning to do, and reported me for it.

If that was the case, the police would have searched my room, found all of my guns and weapons, along with my writings about what I plan to do with them. I would have been thrown in jail, denied of the chance to exact revenge on my enemies. I can’t imagine a hell darker than that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, but it was so close.

Apparently, someone saw my videos and became instantly  suspicious of me. They called some sort of health agency,   who called the police  to check up on me. The police told me it was my mother who called them, but my mother told me it was the health agency. My mother had watched the videos and was very disturbed by them. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the full truth of who called the police on me. The police interrogated me outside for a few  minutes, asking me if I had suicidal thoughts. I tactfully told them that it was all a misunderstanding, and they  finally  left. If they had demanded to search my room … That would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me. It  was  so  scary.

It was all because of the videos. I must have expressed too much anger in them. I immediately took most of them off of  YouTube, and planned to re-upload them a few days before the Day of Retribution. This incident made me realize that I needed to be extra careful. I can’t let anyone become suspicious of me. All it takes is for one person to call the police and tell them that they think I’m going to perpetrate a shooting, and the police will be coming to my door again, demanding to search my room. For the next few  days, I felt extremely fearful that they could show up anytime. I kept one of my handguns with a few loaded magazines near me just in case such a thing did happen. If they did show up, I would have to try to quickly shoot them all and escape out the back window. I would then have to perform a hasty mockery of my plans, with the police on my tail. That will ruin everything. Thankfully, all suspicion of me  was dropped after I  took down the videos from  YouTube, and the police never came back.

Rodger Visited by Sheriff’s Deputies in April

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown discussed the visit by his deputies on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

“We were asked by the mental health department to conduct a welfare check with Elliot Rodger to determine if he was a danger to himself or anyone else. This was prompted by a call by a third party; the mental health department contacted one of his relatives who had expressed some concern about his well-being.

“Our deputies went to check on (him) and contacted him outside his residence. They found him to be rather quiet, timid. He was polite and courteous. He was able to convince the deputies that this was all a misunderstanding. That although he was having some social problems, he was probably not going to be staying in school and returning home. He was able to make a very convincing story that there was no problem, that he wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else. And that he just didn’t meet the criteria for any further intervention at that point. Obviously looking back on this, it’s a very tragic situation, and we certainly wish we could turn the clock back and change some things….

Brown said that after reading Rodger’s manifesto, he believed the youth was able to “fly under the radar” in terms of his “likelihood of propensity to hurt anyone else.”

“When you read his autobiography and manifesto that he wrote,” Brown said,  “it’s very apparent that he was able to convince many people for many years that he didn’t have this deep underlying obvious mental illness that manifested itself in this terrible tragedy.”

Brown said Rodger had purchased three handguns in the year before the incident, and because he had never been “institutionalized or committed for an involuntary hold,” the weapon sales were not flagged. When asked if anything in the visit should have prompted a check of Rodger’s weapons purchases, Brown said, “I think they actually, probably spoke to him about weapons, but I’m not sure a weapons check was conducted.”

Southern California Public Radio KPCC spoke to a pair of mental health experts about Section 5150 of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, which potentially could have allowed for authorities to detain Rodger involuntarily.

“They’re looking for body language, they’re looking for how you look at the officer,” said CarolAnn Peterson, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work. “[Taking note] if I’m kinda looking down or I’m looking at other directions. But if I’m looking directly at you — I’m answering the questions, I seem very calm, nothing seems out of the ordinary — law enforcement may not think that there’s a problem.”

Carla Jacobs, board member at the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, told KPCC that “waiting for danger means the danger can lead to horrendous tragedy as we have seen over and over again.” Doris Fuller, executive director of the center, told CBS News: “Once again, we are grieving over deaths and devastation caused by a young man who was sending up red flags for danger that failed to produce intervention in time to avert tragedy.”

KPCC said the sheriff’s office did not respond to a request to discuss any training on mental health issues the department receives.

Rodger’s Mental State

An attorney for Peter Rodger, Elliot’s father, told news organizations that the younger Elliot was highly functioning but had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. The New York Times and the L.A. Times spoke to neighbors and friends of Rodger’s and his family, most of whom described a sense of isolation and depression in Elliot. Both papers describe an incident at a party last summer resulting in one of the three contacts Rodger had with police. Rodger “tried to shove women off a ledge where they had been sitting,” according to the L.A. paper. “Several men intervened and pushed him off the ledge instead, and he injured his ankle.” Police interviewed him afterward, but no action was taken.

The paper sums up any warning signs of potential violence in Rodgers this way:

It’s tempting, now that the finale has been written, to think that someone could have stepped in before Rodger killed six people and wounded 13 Friday before apparently killing himself, that the law could have been crafted to raise a red flag, to compel someone to act.

But according to interviews with Rodger’s acquaintances, law enforcement officials and mental health professionals, all that was known about the 22-year-old college student was that he was terribly sad. And being sad is not a crime, nor the sort of mental state that would, alone, cross a legal threshold requiring official response.

George Woods, a San Francisco psychiatrist, told the paper that Rodger was in an early stage of pre-psychosis, in which the patient can commonly mask symptoms. “They aren’t telling people their business,” he said.

In his 134-page screed, Rodger mentioned he had been under the care of Dr. Charles Sophy of Beverly Hills. Sophy had prescribed Risperidone, Rodger wrote, an anti-psychotic drug that the National Institutes of Health describes as treating “mania (frenzied, abnormally excited or irritated mood) or mixed episodes (symptoms of mania and depression that happen together).”

Rodger wrote that he would not take the drug and that he never saw Sophy again.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, writes that an online trail of Rodger’s posts on the Internet “suggests an ideology behind his lust for revenge.” The center details racist comments Rodger made on PuaHate.com, which the SPLC describes as “an online forum known for its misogyny.”

A friend of Rodger’s mother told the New York Times that Rodger’s mother read the manifesto detailing his murderous plans just 10 minutes before it began. She called her ex-husband, Rodger’s father, and then 911. Both parents raced separately to Isla Vista, but when they arrived it was too late.

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  • bochinchero

    Possibly the Isla Vista tragedy was allowed to happen due to poor police work. On seeing their son’s YT videos, Elliot’s alarmed parents had the cops do a welfare check. He successfully convinced them he was fine when they came to the door. However, the police failed to first check the gun registration database where they would’ve discovered Elliot had recently bought a Glock 34 and Sig Sauer P226, both legal and registered in his own name. Strict California gun control laws were in place and functional, but the police evidently were sloppy. Those recent registered gun buys would’ve been a huge red flag in this situation. The database was only checked after the fact. This looks like a significant oversight.

    • Bright Blue

      It is not illegal to own firearms. Even if the police knew that he had purchased guns, he was not holdable. He was calm and collected. He could have come up with a story for the guns, too. There was no “slipping through the system” here. Everyone did what they were supposed to do: he was too slick and too smart to get caught.

      • bochinchero

        That’s true, but the combination of alarming legal videos with the recently purchased legal guns surely should cause more scrutiny, if not from the police, maybe from his parents. It should’ve been noticed.

        • Bright Blue

          I think he WAS noticed. He just wasn’t “holdable”. In other words, there was no legal reason to detain him on a mental health or any other kind of hold. But, it does bring up that police officers are not therapists and that their short conversation with him is what prevented him from being more thoroughly assessed is worrisome. On the other hand, someone this cool & collected would be assessed by a mental health professional probably as “creepy but not holdable.” It’s not Law & Order where the psychiatrist can just “see” that someone will be violent. Folks like Rodger aren’t going to tip their hand.

          • bochinchero

            He was noticed, but no one made the minor effort to check the firearms database where they would’ve seen the two recent gun purchases. That’s an important oversight.

  • vincewarde

    bochinchero’s comments are right on. California’s gun laws are about as strict as the Constitution will allow – even Gov. Brown has said as much. Until we stop focusing upon more and more restrictive gun laws and start looking at the other factors – such as mental health care (and detection) – these incidents will continued to happen at the same rate.

    Additionally, if we are going to have gun registration (not necessary for background checks) than why in the world is that information not given to responding officers?

  • jc

    Fair reporting, Mr. Brooks. So little coverage of this sheds light on the massacre’s connection to misogyny, and this piece does it at the lede. Media has been narrowly focusing this massacre on mental illness, all the while ignoring that Elliot’s manifesto and video clearly outlines that his motive for murder was solely because girls would not have sex with him.

    Yes, this is about gun control. Yes, this is about mental health care/mental health stigma. But when we say that the massacre was motivated only by mental illness, we ignore large problems of entitlement, masculinity, male socialization. The media never lets us forget that this is an act of madness, but it is an act of misogyny also.

  • Bright Blue

    I’m not sure why Dr Woods has declared that Elliot Rodger was in a state of “pre psychosis” and what evidence he used to determine this. It appears that Rodger did not slip through.= due to any oversight on anyone’s part: he was too smart and too slick to get caught. He knew how to be charming, quiet and calm and say all the right things.

  • elldogg

    I would have to say there is not way to prevent something this hideous from happening in this situation. For one thing you can’t blame police–the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is NOT their duty to PROTECT citizens. Another is that with the strictist gun laws in the nation there was no legal way to stop him from buying a gun, and unless they would ban knives in California (next step liberal politicians will try) his 3 roommates would still be murdered. Things like this WILL happen, no matter what laws and restrictions you make on people there will still be mass-murders and people getting injured.