February 17, 2011 in City

Jury will decide mentally ill killer’s fate

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Barbara Strandberg photo

Cole K. Strandberg
(Full-size photo)

A Spokane County jury will now decide whether Cole K. Strandberg should face the prospect of life imprisonment or indefinite commitment to a mental institution after a judge concluded he was sane in 2008 when he shot a woman with a crossbow.

Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen was highly critical of the review of Strandberg’s case by mental health professionals at Eastern State Hospital, but found that the 24-year-old mentally ill man probably was not insane on Jan. 7, 2008, when authorities said he killed 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron.

“I cannot find… that Mr. Strandberg was insane at the time of the act,” Eitzen said. “But the question should be submitted to the jury.”

The trial for aggravated first-degree murder is currently set for May 16, but attorneys for both sides indicated in court that a delay is likely.

Eitzen spoke at length about the factors she considered before deciding the insanity issue.

But she made particularly critical comments about the diagnosis and opinions offered by doctors at Eastern State Hospital, who essentially could find no mental illness with Strandberg and suggested that he was faking symptoms to get out of his murder charge.

“I feel compelled to say the credibility of Eastern State Hospital is compromised,” she said. “I cannot remember seeing a more well-documented history of mental illness coming before me.”

She added: “I do have a difficulty with him going to Eastern State Hospital for the care that he needs.”

But then she ruled against sending Strandberg to a mental institution.

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mark Cipolla successfully argued to send the matter to trial. He also criticized the local safety net for mentally ill persons in the Spokane community.

Testimony included descriptions from Strandberg’s case worker from Spokane Mental Health who called that organization’s crisis hot line two months prior to the killing with a warning that Strandberg had been talking about wanting to kill someone.

Nothing in the records suggests anyone responded, but the case worker, Cherie Dean, testified that her supervisor later ordered her to change her official records documenting her contacts with Strandberg after the killing.

“The mental health system is broken,” Cipolla said. “Spokane Mental Health had an opportunity to act and did not do so. That is probably the biggest tragedy. The system has failed (Strandberg). We failed him.

“But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether he was insane when he killed Jennifer Bergeron,” he said. Just “because he is a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t mean that he can’t make choices.”

Bugbee, who again ripped Eastern State Hospital officials for their handling of the case, said his client has a rare form of schizophrenia, called early-onset, which hinders Strandberg’s ability to distinguish reality from his delusional world.

In that world, which he refers to either as “Las Vegas Washington” or “Boulder Mountain Washington,” Strandberg hears commands from a fictional drill sergeant named “Smokey Kaiser” who told him that he needed to kill a young woman to prove his manhood.

“If you make a choice based on an insane state of mind, that’s insanity,” Bugbee said.

But Eitzen, who noted “a lot of failures along the way,” said Bugbee needed to show more than Smokey Kaiser telling Strandberg to kill.

“We need more than delusions,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult to tell … when he is in his delusional world or not. We see persons with paranoid schizophrenia who do not commit violent acts. This is not a decision I made lightly.”

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