In the scorching Idaho wilderness, a grieving mother seeks the pain that haunted her son
Sun., Nov. 7, 2021
Justine Murray poses with her son Ethan Murray, who was shot and killed by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies on May 4, 2019, after he allegedly pulled an item from his pants. (Courtesy of Justine Murray)
They had been building a bomb for a while. At first, they were discreet and kept the pieces hidden, so almost no one would notice. In time, the parts grew and spread out. Wires – white ones, green ones, brown ones, their copper innards exposed – told a more obvious story.
The more Ethan looked, the more evidence he found. It was a complex explosive, not the homemade Coke bottle kind you might find on the internet. This one was being built by an expert, neatly packed into computer towers. The guts of telephones were strewn about, their innards sacrificed to a new purpose.
He had to do something to stop them.
Ethan’s mother, Justine Murray, pulled her Volkswagen into the driveway just as he emerged from the house. Ethan was trembling and hysterical. Murray’s partner followed Ethan into the yard. He had just doused the fire Ethan lit under the bed.
Through Ethan’s tears and frustrated warnings about the bombs, his finger-pointing and erratic, confused speech, Justine pieced together what was happening to her son.
“We need to get to your girlfriend, now,” she lied. Instead, she called the hospital.
“My son is having a mental health crisis. We are bringing him in.”
Several years have passed, though Murray has an agelessness to her, a quality of youthfulness that is betrayed only by a thin line of gray at her scalp. Her hair falls in a red brown waterfall over her shoulders, and she twists handfuls of it, letting go sometimes to cover her face as she cries through her story.
It was a dry July day and the air was heavy with smoke. Just outside Atlanta, Idaho, deep in the Sawtooth Mountains, Murray and her partner, Matt Connery, were moving along a dusty trail at a steady clip. Two weeks earlier, the pair embarked on a nearly 1,000-mile journey to hike the Idaho Centennial Trail in honor of Ethan.
In the midst of a mental health crisis in 2019, Ethan was shot to death by a Spokane deputy.
Murray and Connery hoped promote and support more training for first responders and police officers to help them identify and de-escalate mental health crises in the field. Murray has her own reasons for choosing this particular path.
“Ethan lived in crisis every day,” she said. “This is the closest I can get to that.”
In the first weeks of their hike, they did not see a single person on the trail. And in the 120-degree heat of the desert, they didn’t see a single tree either.
The Idaho Centennial Trail, stretching from the Utah state line to Canada, offers incredible challenges for even the most adept wilderness seeker. It crosses some of the most brutal terrain the Northwest has to offer. For many, it is an invitation for constant crisis. Whether for solidarity, purity of experience or weight, Murray didn’t even bring a chair.
Murray is a shopkeeper in Sandpoint, Idaho, living in a modest house on a street shaded by large oak trees. She grew up in Illinois, in the kind of town where her trailer home or teen pregnancy were not remarkable. She has that interminable Midwest niceness.
When she talks about Ethan, her memories of his childhood are broad, as if those years were part of a dream.
“He loved board games when he was young, and the outdoors,” she said, pausing to step over a rock.
She can describe what his smile looked like when he still had one. The notes in his report cards were always the same: Ethan is chatty, sharpens his pencil often, needs water at his desk.
They were behaviors a parent accommodates, expects a child to overcome.
“He was so bright,” Murray said. “I knew it wasn’t ADD. He was doing fine in school.”
As he grew up, something began changing. He lost motivation, seemed less happy. When Ethan started smoking marijuana as a teenager, he discovered a temporary relief from his growing depression. Murray brought it up with his therapist because she was concerned about how much he liked it and how much he was using.
“It’s just a phase,” Murray remembers being told.
Ethan grew tall and thin, and cropped his brown hair close. He dressed as though it wasn’t particularly important to him. He did not maintain friendships. Eventually, he just stopped smiling at all.
Murray doesn’t know when she started losing him exactly, only that she began mourning before he died.
A growing body of research on schizophrenia suggests clear association between marijuana use and earlier onset of psychosis, particularly for those with family history of psychosis or schizophrenia. Ethan did not have any of those risk factors.
“This is not necessarily causation,” said Dr. Joe Wassif, a psychologist at Bonner General Behavioral Health in North Idaho. “For some, marijuana use can bring their condition to the surface.”
Wassif notes that this association is stronger for marijuana than other drug categories, such as hallucinogens. There is an urgent need for more research and discussion, particularly with the increased availability of recreational marijuana, he said.
In Ethan’s case, the combination of marijuana use and increasing mental instability led to joblessness, homelessness and exposure to harder drugs. To the public eye, he looked like just another addict on the streets and was openly stigmatized and often criminalized. He had no history of violence or even resistance to law enforcement, despite his frequent rides in the back of a patrol car.
As Ethan started using meth, it became increasingly difficult to tell whether he was high or a young man losing his mind. It was not until Ethan was 20 that he first clearly lost touch with reality. Confusing conversations and a paranoid hysteria culminated in a bizarre episode where he boarded himself up in his girlfriend’s home.
Ethan’s mother had heard law enforcement refer to her son as ‘gravely ill,’ but now a specialist from the hospital gave her clear answers.
“This is not drugs, and it is going to get worse,” she was told.
After the diagnoses, Murray said, she questioned his every oddity and tic, everything she ate when she was pregnant. The family had no history of mental illness, so perhaps it was a head injury? Or her divorce from Ethan’s stepfather? She knows the answers are not going to be found on the trail through Idaho or anywhere else, but that’s not why she came .
She has come to be closer to him, to know him better, and to find love and peace in that understanding.
To live with schizophrenia is often to live in fear.
Murray trekked her way through her own existential threats every day, from encounters with aggressive bears to teetering precariously along cliff edges with a loaded pack. When she woke up in the morning, she did not know where she would sleep that night, or if her body could provide what she needed of it mile after mile.
“Every day was a crisis for Justine,” Connery said. He paused and turned, his backpack swinging as he glanced down the trail behind him. Murray watched her feet as she picked her way across a creek bed.
“She had to overcome so much.”
If it wasn’t the physical challenge, it was the emotional duress and gravity of why they were hiking. In those moments, she quietly retreated to the recess of her own mind. Only she never lost her grasp on what was real and what was imagined. A grasp on reality she watched her son lose as periods of lucidity and stability grew fewer and farther between.
“Someone was always after Ethan,” she said, “the FBI or the Hell’s Angels.”
Ethan’s substance abuse began leading to premature conclusions about his behaviors. This often delivered him into a penal system rather than a mental health system.
Murray tried to help her son. She called police when he seemed a threat to himself; she tried to manage his care through medical providers; she spoke with judges and doctors; and she welcomed him home when he surfaced.
“He always came home,” she said. “He always called me when he was in trouble.”
Those moments were not warm reunions, though they bonded over cooking and hikes. Ethan rarely smiled or laughed. He was mistrustful and suspicious. He responded only in a flat monotone, appearing bored with interaction or activity.
The visits often culminated in Ethan wandering down dark highways on frosty nights wearing only a T-shirt. Murray would call the police for help. But law enforcement’s response is limited when a person does not pose a threat.
For weeks and months at a time, Murray would not know his whereabouts. Somehow, he made it all the way to Florida.
On a blistering summer day in 2016, a 22-year-old Ethan found himself barefoot on the pavement outside a store. He wasn’t wearing much, because it was hot, and he wasn’t sure where his shoes had gone or how exactly he’d gotten there, but he couldn’t walk anymore and his feet burned. He knew he needed to leave. He saw a motorized shopping cart . No one was using it.
After police arrested him for theft, the courts decided he was unfit to stand trial, and Ethan was admitted into a state hospital for care.
“I knew he was safe. He was overmedicated, but he was safe,” Murray said of his stay in the hospital. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and she continued, “Sometimes I feel guilty, because, you know, I don’t have to worry about him on the streets anymore. Because sometimes I feel relieved about that.”
After nearly two years of waiting to stand trial, without notifying the family of prescriptions for the medications that had kept him stable, Ethan was released back onto the streets.
On May 4, 2019, just months after his release, still barefoot, sober and lost in his schizophrenia, Ethan wandered the edge of an apartment complex in Spokane. His words did not make sense, his behavior was confusing and erratic. People called the police.
When police arrived, an officer followed Ethan into the nearby woods. Police reports from what happened next describe a verbal altercation, and that Ethan pulled a weapon from the pocket of his sweatpants.
The officer shot Ethan in the chest and head at close range. Ethan died in handcuffs. Crime scene investigators found a BIC pen, a lighter and sunglasses on the ground.
It was a sunny afternoon in early May 2019. Ethan’s mother sat down with friends to eat lunch at a lakeside restaurant. She ordered a salad with chicken and crusted pecans. When her phone rang, she stepped outside.
She can remember the waitress, the sound of the cars driving by, the feel of the rough concrete on her skin as she crumpled to the ground, but she cannot remember the words. Those with her remember her long, shrill wail as it echoed across the parking lot. It was the sound a mother makes when she imagines bullets tearing through her child’s flesh .
By August 2021, Murray and Connery could be mistaken for homeless vagabonds, despite brand name apparel. Connery’s leathered and lean figure bordered emaciation and exhaustion, his stewardship of this long journey having taken its toll on his body.
They spoke of the shame they felt when people looked at them with skepticism, of how it must feel for homeless people who see those expressions every day.
“We are dirty and we smell bad,” Murray said. At first glance, people appeared wary. “At least if they look long enough, they can tell we are hikers.”
They became more comfortable in the thick forests of their northward trek. When they stopped for dinners, the pair spread out a tarp and shared their meals from the same pot, sitting on the ground in their grimy clothes. Out here, there was no judgment.
The two had a quiet intimacy, a sacred knowledge of each other’s suffering, seen in the kindness and patience they extended to one another in every exchange. It is the kind of compassion they want offered to those in need.
“It’s lasagna!” Matt said excitedly, peering inside the bag at a pile of dehydrated rubble that had the colors but not the shape of the dish.
Connery had his own struggles with mental health in the past, somehow surviving depression and suicide attempts to make his way to this relationship. He understands how the stigma of speaking openly about mental health leads to further misunderstanding, and in many cases, tragedy.
This is part of their mission and that of the Ethan Murray Fund. In collaboration with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the pair is campaigning to raise awareness of the need for more training and de-escalation tools for law enforcement and first responders.
In October 2019, Spokane County prosecutors found the officer involved in the fatal shooting “justified” in his actions based on the reports filed.
Murray points to many failures in the system – from training to equipment to inaccuracies in reporting – that contributed to the officer’s actions and the prosecutors’ conclusion.
“The officer who shot Ethan did not have a Taser on him,” Murray said.
That fact is part of the federal lawsuit the Murray family filed against Spokane County this year, in which they allege that excessive force, failure to use de-escalation tactics and inadequate training led to the unnecessary death of Ethan Murray.
There is a nationwide trend to improve resources for these first responders, with organizations like Mental Health First providing tailored training for law enforcement to address mental health crises without compromising safety. Other organizations and cities are encompassing substance abuse in this training.
San Francisco, for example, has crisis intervention teams to reduce the demand on paramedics and law enforcement. Of the 17,000 calls the city received for mental health or behavioral crisis the first year of their program, only 132 reported a potential for violence or presence of a weapon. The shift in policy has freed up vital resources.
Wassif, who works with such cases among others, explains that while many with schizophrenia may appear to a passerby to be a danger, they most often are not. Yet it takes some specific knowledge and training to manage those situations safely and to empathize with the experience the mentally ill person may be having.
Eugene, Oregon, has had one of the most successful programs in the nation for nearly 30 years. Known as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a mental health specialist and an EMT respond as a team to calls where mental and behavioral health are indicated.
When Murray talks about these programs or individuals like the famous “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” who recently had a documentary on HBO, her voice rises.
“It isn’t that I don’t get angry,” she said. “I don’t show it to many, though. But Matt has seen me angry.”
Connery acknowledged he has seen those moments.
“I’m so proud of her,” he said. “We just want to see a change.”
As the weeks and months crept by, the challenge was no longer to get up early and beat the blazing sun, but to not waste daylight by lingering in the warmth of sleeping bags.
As Murray passed through her hometown of Sandpoint, a police officer pulled over in front of her and leapt out of his vehicle. Murray’s stomach sank as she wondered if they had done something wrong.
“You’ve made it so far!” the officer said with a smile. “I’ve been following you guys online!”
A few days later, the same officer appeared along their route. He gave them pastries, decided they needed hot coffee as well and drove off to fetch some.
Each mile brought gifts. Donations large and small lifted her spirits, evidence that other people see the same need for change, the same need for awareness.
As they passed their house in Sandpoint, Murray and Connery slept in their own bed for a night. Ethan’s ashes sat on the mantel.
On a rainy day in mid-September, after 900-plus miles and three months of road, trail and bushwhack, the two were close to the end. They walked through the forest of hemlock and cedar north of Priest Lake.
Just a few hundred yards shy of the border, American Falls pours Canadian water into the United States and the Idaho Centennial Trail ends in an abrupt mountain cul-de-sac. The water pools in a cool green and blue, then rushes over, around and through glistening grey stones. The canyon walls sprout mangled trees.
Murray’s eyes are swollen with tears as she stares into the waterfall. More than anything, she wishes Ethan could be here to see it.
Ammi Midstokke is a Spokesman contributor and columnist living in North Idaho. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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