A sentencing Monday brought together two troubled families, one grieving the loss of a beautiful girl who wanted to become a crime scene investigator and the other a family who tried unsuccessfully for years to find help for a mentally troubled son.
Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen consoled both families as she sentenced crossbow killer Cole K. Strandberg to what attorneys expect will be a life sentence for the brutal 2008 slaying of 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron.
“This is a horrible situation,” said Eitzen, who described the case as one of the worst she’s seen in 18 years on the bench. “I can’t help but feel the pain on both sides. My heart breaks for all of you.”
Strandberg, 26, killed Bergeron by shooting her in the head with a crossbow on Jan. 7, 2008. Investigators also found evidence that he had sexually assaulted Bergeron during the crime. Eitzen sentenced him to more than 36 years in prison, at which time he would go before the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board for possible release.
Eitzen asked Strandberg twice if he wanted to give a statement; he replied, “I have nothing to say.”
According to expert testimony during trial, Strandberg suffers from early-onset paranoid schizophrenia that causes delusions. Strandberg was said to receive orders to kill from an imaginary drill sergeant named Smokey Kaiser.
Prior to the slaying, a previous girlfriend of Strandberg’s told a counselor at Spokane Mental Health that he had threatened to kill her with a crossbow. But that counselor testified at an earlier hearing that her superiors failed to act, ordered her to change her records and later terminated her.
“The tragedy here is unspeakable,” Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla said. “Spokane Mental Health had an opportunity to stop this and they didn’t.”
Jeff Thomas, associate director of Spokane Mental Health, said he’s bound by confidentiality requirements and could not comment about the Strandberg case.
Defense attorney Chris Bugbee said his client has improved through proper medications, but medical advances must be made before his client could get out of prison.
“With today’s technology, I’m not sure we will ever see his release,” Bugbee said.
Bugbee also ripped the local mental health system for its handling of the case.
Strandberg had been involuntarily committed to Eastern State Hospital about three years before the killing, where he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to his mother.
After the killing, however, doctors at Eastern State Hospital refused to medicate Strandberg, claiming he was faking a mental illness to try to get out of the murder charge.
Said Bugbee, “they concluded he had no mental health issue or defect, which is appalling based on what is in the record.
“There is no question that doctors at Eastern State Hospital should have known” Strandberg’s diagnosis, Bugbee said. “They think they are helping the prosecution. But they complicated a case which should have been resolved years ago.”
At a hearing earlier this year, Eitzen said “No thinking person … could possibly say” that Strandberg doesn’t suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.
Eastern State Hospital’s Dr. William Grant, who earlier testified he thought Strandberg was faking his mental illness, denied Bugbee’s claim of trying to help the prosecution.
“It’s a close call,” Grant said of Strandberg’s mental illness diagnosis. Asked about Eitzen’s earlier comment, he said: “That’s the judge’s opinion. But I can see where she is coming from.”
Strandberg’s mother, Barbara Strandberg, said she fought for years to find resources to help her troubled son and brought her son to Spokane from the family home in Curlew to be closer to mental health professionals.
“I did everything I could. We went great lengths trying to get him help. This was a burden you could not believe, dealing with his mental illness,” Strandberg said.
The mother said she always expected to get a call, but thought she would learn that her son was the one who was killed.
“I’m Christian. I believe in the goodness and the light and the hope. My son was exactly the opposite,” she said.
Bergeron’s mother, Victoria Huizar, of Houston, read a letter from what she thought her daughter would say.
“You took my life from me and with it all the things people look forward to,” Huizar said. “It was hard watching my mother cry again over what you did to me.”
After the hearing, Huizar, too, criticized the mental health system.
“I’m appalled they knew about it and didn’t stop it,” Huizar said. “She’s always going to be in my heart. She was so beautiful. She would have had a wonderful life.”