February 15, 2011 in City

Attorney says defendant was insane while killing

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Cole Strandberg is led back to the Spokane County Jail during a court break Monday. Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen ruled that Strandberg is too dangerous to leave unshackled during a hearing to determine if he is competent to stand trial.
(Full-size photo)

Accused crossbow killer Cole K. Strandberg remains mostly docile and focused while on medications. But a psychologist testified Monday that Strandberg always keeps one foot in a mystical, imagined world where others command him to kill to earn respect and he can time travel while he waits for his television-executive wife to take him to Europe.

The hearing in Spokane County Superior Court, expected to last at least two more days, is to determine if Strandberg was insane on Jan. 7, 2008, when prosecutors allege that he used a crossbow to kill 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron at Strandberg’s apartment at 1304 S. Chestnut St.

The defense argues he was, and wants Judge Tari Eitzen to indefinitely commit him to a mental institution. Prosecutors, however, want him sent to prison for the rest of life with no chance of release.

Dr. Craig Beaver, a neuropsychologist, testified that it was his opinion that Strandberg’s mental illness – which first presented when he was teenager – kept him from understanding that it was morally wrong at the time he admitted killing Bergeron. Detectives later found a list of instructions in his apartment written in blood.

“In the weeks leading up to the event, he was actively trying to fulfill those thoughts about killing someone,” Beaver said, and “that he had a military necessity to prove that he was a man.”

The 24-year-old has described taking rides on a fictitious “circus train” that could transport him between “Las Vegas Washington” and “Boulder Mountain Washington” which “are both places where you can do whatever you want, and killing people is what you do,” Beaver testified. “I think as his brain continues to deal with delusional material … (Strandberg) continues to build this other world.”

If Eitzen determines Strandberg was insane at the time of the killing, he will be civilly committed to state custody until he is cured of his mental illness, which Beaver described as paranoid schizophrenia. If Eitzen instead rules that Strandberg wasn’t insane, he faces trial on May 16 for aggravated first-degree murder where prosecutors will seek to have him sentenced to life imprisonment.

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla pointed out that Strandberg spoke with several other mental health professionals and didn’t mention a “mystical world” to them. He asked Beaver if it was possible that Strandberg created the story about delusions to get out of the criminal ramifications for his actions.

“That is a possibility,” Beaver said.

Earlier in the day, Eitzen ruled that Strandberg was too dangerous to remain unshackled in the courtroom following testimony that included descriptions how he punched one correctional deputy in the head, head butted a mental health professional during an interview and how another deputy suffered a broken bone in his neck during a previous effort to extract Strandberg from his cell.

“He is the most violent offender I have personally dealt with in my 20 years,” said Sgt. Thomas Hill, who supervises prisoner transports for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Strandberg’s outbursts were highlighted in a Discovery Channel show, “Behind Bars,” in 2009 that showed footage of the September 2008 incident in which Deputy Dan Leonetti suffered a broken bone in his neck. But several witnesses, including Sgt. Hill, said Strandberg has not acted out since he started his latest medical regimen.

Despite the lack of recent problems transporting Strandberg, Eitzen ruled that he must be restrained in such a way that would not allow the jury to see the shackles to avoid prejudicing the defendant during the murder trial, if one takes place.

The case began Jan. 7, 2008, when Strandberg walked into Providence 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.

Cipolla asked whether that statement itself showed that Strandberg had an understanding of right and wrong.

Beaver said he believes Strandberg had a “legal” understanding but his delusions left him no choice on how to act.

“He didn’t appreciate what he did was morally wrong because in his world it was acceptable behavior,” Beaver said. “When he’s stabilized on medication, he is better grounded, but he always has a foot in that delusional world, in my opinion.”

Defense attorney Chris Bugbee asked Beaver to list the tortured history of contacts between his client, who grew up in the Ferry County community of Republic, and mental health professionals and law enforcement.

As early as 2002 Strandberg was telling doctors that he believed people were watching him. He also said he saw shadows and had thoughts about killing other people.

He told one mental health professional in April 2002 that he was hearing voices telling him to steal and kill. Five days later, they found him with a rope around his neck.

Strandberg wrote “devil soldier” and “wolf man” on the wall of his room with his own feces, Beaver said.

Bugbee asked Beaver if it was possible that Strandberg – who reported in 2004 that he saw dead people on the street pointing fingers at him – has been faking his mental illness all this time.

“Anything is possible,” he said, “but at a relatively young age, we are seeing a young man with a pretty serious mental illness. It’s a lifelong condition. You don’t get cured.”

At the end of Monday’s hearing, the team of specially trained transport deputies unhooked Strandberg from a table he had been secured to.

As they led him past Bugbee, the attorney trying to keep him out of prison, Strandberg turned and spat in Bugbee’s face.

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