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Wednesday, April 8, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Judge withholds judgment on Strandberg’s mental state on day of slaying

Cole Strandberg, restrained and wearing a spit guard, leaves the courtroom for noon recess during his trial in Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday. Strandberg spat on his attorney Monday. (Christopher Anderson)
Cole Strandberg, restrained and wearing a spit guard, leaves the courtroom for noon recess during his trial in Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday. Strandberg spat on his attorney Monday. (Christopher Anderson)

A judge ruled late Tuesday that accused killer Cole K. Strandberg suffers from mental illness, but she withheld judgment whether he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen said after two days of testimony from mental health professionals, “there is no doubt” that the troubled 24-year-old suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. But she has not yet decided how that mental disease affected Strandberg on Jan. 7, 2008, when authorities say he fatally shot 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron with a crossbow.

Defense attorney Chris Bugbee said officials from Eastern State Hospital were prepared to testify for the prosecution that they didn’t believe Strandberg suffered from any mental illness but instead suffered from psychotic episodes as a result of using illegal drugs. Eitzen wasn’t buying it.

“No thinking person – and I don’t mean to be disrespectful of anyone else’s opinion – could possibly say this person doesn’t have paranoid schizophrenia,” Eitzen said. But the issue is “what was going on with him at the time of the act.”

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mark Cipolla asked Eitzen to send the matter to trial, saying that Bugbee failed to clear the “very narrow” legal hurdle that allows an insanity defense.

Strandberg “understood what was wrong and that he had a choice in committing this murder,” Cipolla said. “There is a suggestion, but no evidence, that he committed these acts as a result of a demand.”

On Monday, a psychologist testified that Strandberg hears voices in his head, including a drill sergeant named “Smokey Kaiser” who told him he needed to kill a woman to be accepted in a fictional world where he can ride a “circus train” to a lawless place called “Las Vegas Washington.”

Police also found a list of instructions in Strandberg’s apartment written in blood. On the day of the killing, Strandberg told officials at a local hospital that he had the body of a woman in his apartment and that he would probably be going to prison.

Bugbee agreed that Strandberg’s statement at the hospital showed that he had a legal understanding of right and wrong.

“He certainly talked about a voice in his head – that if he didn’t do this he wouldn’t be a man,” Bugbee said. “Given his delusional beliefs, he could have certainly believed that morally he didn’t do anything wrong when he killed Ms. Bergeron.”

Eitzen previously ruled that Strandberg was competent to understand court proceedings and assist in his own defense at trial for aggravated first-degree murder. However, if the judge sides with Bugbee, Strandberg will be civilly committed to a mental institution.

If she sides with Cipolla, the case will either be appealed to a higher court or go to trial on May 16.

Strandberg appeared in court Tuesday with a hood that prevented him from spitting after he spat in Bugbee’s face at the end of court on Monday. Earlier that same day, Eitzen ordered security to shackle Strandberg to an immobile table following testimony about his violent outbursts.

On Tuesday, Bugbee called Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic psychiatrist, who said that about 1 percent of the general population has paranoid schizophrenia, which includes symptoms of withdrawal, blunted emotions and an inability to interact socially. It has no known cure.

But Strandberg had an even rarer form known as early onset schizophrenia, which presents at about age 13 rather than the more typical age of 20 to 25.

“The symptoms are somewhat atypical from adults because they don’t have the ability to conceptualize what is happening to them,” Adler said.

Barbara Strandberg also testified about her son’s condition leading up to the killing.

On the morning of Jan. 7, 2008, Strandberg called his mother. “He said, ‘Mom.’ Then he couldn’t say anything. I finally hung up,” she said.

Strandberg called his mother a second time and again didn’t speak. “I couldn’t get a word out of him. I could tell there was trouble.”

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