By the time he was 14, Cole K. Strandberg scared his parents. Barbara and Richard Strandberg struggled to help their oldest son control his temper. The cattle ranchers hid the knives in their Curlew home, locked their gun cabinet, sought professional help and worried about their son’s increasingly violent tendencies and criminal behavior.
“At one point I stood up in court and said ‘what is it going to take for him to get some help?’ ” Barbara Strandberg said during a recent interview. “I think I’ve got my answer now.”
Her 22-year-old son now sits in the Spokane County Jail, charged with first-degree murder in what even he described as the “gruesome” killing of 22-year-old Jennifer M. Bergeron, according to court documents.
Barbara Strandberg hopes her son’s long battle with mental illness and her and her husband’s struggle to find help will send a message to state lawmakers about the need for better mental health services.
“Olympia needs to get the message. There are some children that are so sick that they need to be committed,” she said Monday evening. “Their parents are at risk. Their girlfriends are at risk. Their friends are at risk. They need to commit these people.”
Cole Strandberg’s first brush with the law came in 2000 when he was convicted in Ferry County of malicious harassment. Over the next six years, Strandberg was convicted of third-degree malicious mischief, resisting arrest, criminal harassment, fourth-degree assault, taking a motor vehicle without the owner’s permission, possession of stolen property, third-degree assault, driving while suspended, minor in possession of alcohol, trespassing and violating a restraining order against his mother, according to court records.
On Jan. 7, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after he walked into Sacred Heart Medical Center about 7 a.m. and told employees: “I have a dead body. It’s a girl. I will probably go to prison,” according to court documents.
Police found a body – later identified as Bergeron – at his apartment at 1304 S. Chestnut St. and described the scene as “extremely brutal.”
A crossbow, pliers, butcher knife and brown belt were used in the killing, according to court documents, and a note reading, “Watch the shocking video of Cole Strandberg” was found in Strandberg’s apartment. Under that message on the same paper but in big orange letters was the word “Strangle,” according to the documents. Investigators found an unlabeled VHS tape in his apartment, but police said it contained nothing relating to the homicide. Strandberg told police he met Bergeron at the Spokane Transit Authority bus station and knew her only by her first name.
The Strandbergs last saw their son Christmas Day, when he came to their Curlew home. The visit was pleasant, Barbara Strandberg said, a contrast to the Thanksgiving holiday that ended in confrontation. The couple had bought Cole a plane ticket to Arizona so he could spend the holiday with his parents at their second home. But he hadn’t brought enough medication and soon ran out. When he lost his temper and yelled at his mother, his parents sent him back to Spokane early.
He called a couple days later to apologize.
“He explained to us about the pills and said, ‘You know I love you, mom,’ ” Barbara Strandberg said.
Barbara Strandberg said she and her husband “tried everything” to find help for their son. He’d been diagnosed as schizophrenic about four years ago, but doctors had long warned that his illness could be more complicated. One doctor said he had a personality disorder and exhibited signs of slight mental retardation, Barbara Strandberg said.
Cole attended school in Curlew through the third grade, then was homeschooled until the seventh grade, when he attended a private school for a year before enrolling at a public school. But he didn’t last long, his mother said. After threatening and disturbing drawings – some Nazi related – he’d made were shown to a teacher, he was expelled, his mother said.
“It was really bad stuff. We don’t know where it came from,” Barbara said. “It kind of came from no where.”
After Cole’s expulsion, the Strandbergs struggled to find a school that would accept him. He got into the Shamrock Educational Academy – a private school in Newman Lake – but ran away after just a few months. A school official said she couldn’t comment on the status of any students, past or present. His parents sent him to a psychologist, who said he was slightly mentally retarded and had a personality disorder that would take months to assess, Barbara Strandberg said.
But the family couldn’t afford expensive psychiatric care. Insurance wouldn’t cover it, so Cole had access to only what Ferry County could provide him. At about 16, Cole was sent to the Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane but ran away after a few months.
“He was never getting better,” Barbara said. She grew frustrated with the mental health services in rural Eastern Washington, which she said never seemed to take her concerns about her son seriously.
The following year, Cole was sent to the Maple Lane School – a state school for mentally ill juvenile offenders – after he cut off a cat’s head and placed it in a neighbor’s mailbox.
He stayed at the facility for about a year. When he returned to his parents “he seemed to be getting better,” Barbara Strandberg said.
But it didn’t last.
Strandberg and her husband fought with Cole to get him to take his medications. When he turned 18, they struggled to get his cooperation on things like applying for Social Security assistance. At one point, he checked himself into the Scared Heart Medical Center for mental health treatment but ran away. He was released one day after he returned, his mother said.
“We were trying to follow some of the advice we’ve been given: Let him hit bottom and let him come back to you,” she said. “We had had it, but we wanted him to get better….that never really happened.”
Cole spent nearly a year in jail a couple years ago after being convicted of taking a motor vehicle, possession of stolen property, third-degree assault and resisting arrest. He moved to Spokane after his release, where Barbara Strandberg said he had access to better mental health services. He got involved with the Coalition of Responsible Disabled, which helped him find an apartment.
“Things had been going along far better than they have ever gone in Cole’s life from that point on,” she said. A CORD representative said she couldn’t comment on Strandberg’s relationship with the organization.
The improvement the Strandbergs had seen in their son came to an abrupt end last week.
Barbara Strandberg said her son called her the morning of his arrest, about the time he reportedly showed up at the hospital, bloody and telling hospital staff he had “done something bad,” according to court documents.
“It didn’t seem like he could speak” she said. “It was a couple words then just nothing. I was like ‘Cole, Cole, Cole’ and just nothing.”
Barbara Strandberg called his case manager with Spokane County and asked her to check on her son.
When she called back, the case manager said something was terribly wrong and that police would be contacting her shortly.
Strandberg worries about Cole getting the help he needs while in jail – such as regular medication. It’s a battle, she said, that she and her husband have been fighting for years.