June 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Officers Ignored Mellberg’s Troubles Report Finds Commanders Repeatedly Overruled Fairchild Gunman’s Doctors, Instructors

By The Spokesman-Review
 

UNPUBLISHED CORRECTION: The name of Dean Mellberg was misspelled in this story.

Dean Mellberg stayed in the Air Force for almost two years because his commanders repeatedly overruled doctors and instructors wanting to discharge the troubled airman, a just-released report reveals.

The man who committed the worst mass murder in Spokane history slipped through a system designed to weed out people who are mentally unstable or incompetent at their jobs, an Air Force inspector general team says.

Mellberg was both, the report makes clear.

But the Special Management Report - released Wednesday under pressure from Congress - concludes the military is not responsible for Mellberg’s shooting spree at Fairchild Air Force Base that killed four and wounded 22 before he himself was killed.

“It is the opinion of the review team that the Air Force could have neither anticipated nor prevented this tragedy,” the five-member team writes.

“However, there existed opportunities to modify the circumstances under which Mellberg departed the Air Force.”

Sen. Patty Murray, who led a bipartisan group from both houses of Congress in pushing for the report’s release, declined to comment directly on that conclusion.

“I believe there are changes all the services can make to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” said Murray, D-Wash.

Between June 1992 and December 1993, the report says, mental health experts at three different times recommended Mellberg be discharged, yet he remained on active duty.

A psychologist said he should not finish basic training because he was nervous, excitable and couldn’t interact with other trainees. If he remained in uniform, the psychologist said, he was not fit for any job that involved nuclear weapons, security police or handling firearms.

Investigators said Mellberg apparently was al-lowed to finish basic training because a new squadron commander decided to follow her impressions from an interview with the young trainee rather than the recommendation of the psychologist.

No restrictions were placed on his future assignments, although the job he was given didn’t involve security police or weapons.

Doctors at Fairchild and at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, said the young man - variously diagnosed as paranoid, schizophrenic or psychotic - should be discharged and placed in a civilian treatment program.

Instead, Mellberg was transferred to Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M. The inspection team said that was a result of a new diagnosis by a new doctor at Wilford Hall and unclear instructions from a medical board that thought he should be discharged.

But it also notes that Mellberg’s family contacted their congressman, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who began making inquiries shortly before the airman was transferred. Mellberg’s supervisor at Wilford Hall was aware of that congressional inquiry, and may have decided to transfer him rather than start a new round of discharge proceedings, the report says.

Base officials at Cannon did not receive any warning of Mellberg’s troubled history. A month after his arrival, a minor infraction triggered a new series of mental health exams.

He was diagnosed with autism and a paranoid personality disorder and given an honorable discharge for a personality disorder, which allowed him access to military bases for up to two years.

In mid-June, he returned to Spokane, stayed in a motel and bought a semi-automatic assault weapon and a 75-round clip. On June 20, he took a taxi to the base hospital annex, and began his shooting spree by killing Maj. Thomas Brigham, a psychiatrist, and Capt. Alan London, a psychologist, who had recommended his discharge.

Although the report was written last August, the Air Force had rejected all requests for its release by Mellberg’s family, the victims’ families, the news media and members of Congress.

Murray and a dozen other members of Congress recently wrote Defense Secretary William Perry, asking that the military’s mental health system be re-examined and the report released.

“I felt the families should have access to the report,” she said. “They had lost loved ones. They deserved the hear something back from the Pentagon.”

, DataTimesILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Findings in Mellberg case An Inspector General team listed several administrative failures in Dean Mellberg’s military career: Doctors did not check into Mellberg’s report that he received counseling as a youth. If so, they may have performed an expanded mental diagnosis that “probably would have disqualified him from enlistment.” A psychologist in basic training “strongly recommended” his discharge for anxiety and obsessive traits. The squadron commander overruled the recommendation. The psychiatrist and psychologist at Fairchild, both of whom Mellberg would later kill, recommended his discharge. The squadron commander decided against that because, among other reasons, discharging an airman after 12 months of training was not economical.A vaguely worded recommendation to discharge Mellberg was misunderstood by officials in Texas. He was instead reassigned to a new base.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Findings in Mellberg case An Inspector General team listed several administrative failures in Dean Mellberg’s military career: Doctors did not check into Mellberg’s report that he received counseling as a youth. If so, they may have performed an expanded mental diagnosis that “probably would have disqualified him from enlistment.” A psychologist in basic training “strongly recommended” his discharge for anxiety and obsessive traits. The squadron commander overruled the recommendation. The psychiatrist and psychologist at Fairchild, both of whom Mellberg would later kill, recommended his discharge. The squadron commander decided against that because, among other reasons, discharging an airman after 12 months of training was not economical.A vaguely worded recommendation to discharge Mellberg was misunderstood by officials in Texas. He was instead reassigned to a new base.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email