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Stories Added - November 2009
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Questions linger as San Jac shooting victims buried
Polk County Enterprise - November 2009
COLDSPRING – A triple murder and suicide in the Bear Creek community Saturday has left grieving friends and family grappling with questions about whether the tragedy could have been averted. According to San Jacinto County Sheriff James Walters, long-time San Jacinto County resident Oliver Bills, Jr., 43, apparently killed his adopted mother, Gloria Bills, 71, his girlfriend Shara Torres, 28, and her four-year-old daughter, Sara Whitmire, before committing suicide Nov. 7. Speculating as to a motive, Walters said Bills “might have been off his medication.” In a press release from the sheriff’s department on Monday, Nov. 9, Walters said “deputies responded to a verbal disturbance at 171 Outlaw Lane about 8 p.m.” Several friends and family members say they called the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office as Oliver Bills’ behavior became increasingly erratic Saturday.
Mark Campbell of Huntsville worked with Oliver for 15 to 20 years. He expressed his frustration at the long delay before a deputy went to the residence during an interview that followed Wednesday’s service. Walters told a Houston Chronicle reporter that he and his officers were devastated. “We had grown men out there and their hearts were broken, especially with that baby,” he said. “It took them (sheriff’s office) seven hours to send someone and then they send one cop.” Campbell said, “Oliver was a good man. I know he didn’t have a death wish because he was nervous about working on top of tall buildings. He (Oliver) would not take his medications because it made him feel foggy.” Wess Follis – long time friend and co-worker – described Oliver as a hard worker. “He would help anybody he could.” Campbell spent several hours at the Bills residence Saturday and From Page 1A he said he called SJCSO himself, in addition to the calls Gloria Bills made asking for help.
Deputies were called about this time last year when Gloria Bills needed help getting her son to a mental hospital, according to Campbell. “I would like us to have gotten there earlier and prevented this,” said Walters, who took over as sheriff 10 months ago. On those prior occasions, deputies were at the house within an hour, Campbell said. Former Sheriff Lacy Rogers was well aware of Oliver’s long-standing medical problems. Since the shootings, Campbell said he found out that staff of the mental hospital in Rusk where Oliver had been treated for bipolar problems in past years called the sheriff’s department eight times Saturday trying to get an officer out there. Oliver was adopted by Gloria when he was about one week old and he has always been bipolar, according to a neighbor who asked not to be identified. “She (Gloria) loved (Oliver) dearly, but was always afraid of him,” the neighbor said. Joe Vessell knew Oliver and worked with him since 1993. He described Oliver as a good man, a very good carpenter who suffered with mental illness.
“Family and friends were steadily calling the sheriff’s department saying please get out here,” Vessell said. San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Captain Carl Jones said they started receiving telephone calls about a sick man at the residence around mid-day Saturday before a patrol car was finally sent around 8 p.m., roughly one hour after a staff member at the Burke Center called SJCSO. Jones told a Houston Chronicle reporter that Bills’ behavior was becoming more unruly, but he still just appeared to be an ill man with no history of violence. Jones said Bills is suspected of killing his adoptive mother and the four-year-old child with a shotgun before killing his girlfriend and himself with a .22 rifle. It is believed the killing spree took place shortly before the sheriff’s department arrived. “The case is still under investigation,” Walters said. Livingston-based Texas Ranger Ron Duff said Wednesday he has not been contacted about joining the investigation. Friends and family have a lot of unanswered questions as well. “His girlfriend was there with her young daughter,” Campbell said. “They were scared to death. But the sheriff’s office told me they were busy right now and had no time to go out there.” Campbell left at 6 p.m. believing that deputies would be there soon.
Campbell said Bills had been insisting that the mental hospital had put an implant in his brain, police were out to kill him, that mechanical rabbits were hiding in the woods and that the devil was in him and that’s why he “couldn’t look at his mother,” according to the Chroncle report. Friends and family said Oliver’s illness made him hear voices and hallucinate whenever he stopped taking his medication. David Cozadd, spokesman for the Burke Center, declined to speak about a specific patient, citing privacy rules. Cozadd did however discuss how employees who staff the center’s 24-hour crisis help line decide whether a call is related to an imminently dangerous situation. Once the staff member gets basic information about who’s calling and whether they’re seeking help for themselves or someone else, they move pretty quickly into the nature of the call, Cozadd said. “In light of what I’ve read about the horrible situation in San Jacinto County, law enforcement and others involved in crisis intervention are at the mercy of what people convey during that call,” Cozadd said. “Not everyone with a mental illness is an emergency. Law enforcement may be called, but things that are said may not rise to the level of an emergency.”
Help line staff ask callers if the person at the center of the crisis has made threats to harm themselves or someone else. If threats have been made, staff members ask whether the person has a plan for how the threat will be carried out. They also may offer suggestions to the caller for coping with the situation. “We ask if there are weapons in the home and suggest ways to get those weapons out of the house, maybe lock them in the trunk of the car. We encourage people in danger to go elsewhere,” Cozadd said. Those actions are discussed with the caller in addition to the staff member evaluating whether there’s an emergency. Staff members offer ideas on how to keep things from escalating, Cozadd said. Cozadd added that any emergency situation is fluid. Someone suffering from a mental illness could quickly transition from acting violently toward objects to directing violent behavior toward people. “Help line staff members listen to the level of worry or concern of the caller,” Cozadd said. The number of crisis situations is escalating throughout the 12-county region served by the Burke Center, Cozadd said.
“I’m coming to believe some of what we’re seeing may be a direct result of the economy. A lot of people are going through very tough times,” Cozadd said. “We’re getting more calls from people seeking mental health care for people not in crisis as well.” But the subjective view of staff on the help line is that calls coming in to the help line seem to be more serious than in the past, according to Cozadd. Not having the money to pay the most basic bills can be a huge stressor, he added. “I may be without electricity or without gas to get to my minimum wage job — the economic conditions play a huge role.” The growing demand for mental health services in East Texas prompted the Burke Center to open a psychiatric center in Nacogdoches on Dec. 8, 2008.
“The region was in critical shape. There were no inpatient psychiatric services in the region. Patients had to go to Rusk or —if they have the resources — a private facilty in Houston, Palestine or Shreveport. They’re all far away,” Cozadd said. In the first nine months the Nacogdoches facility was open it saw 649 people that came from the Burke Center’s 12-county service area. The center can provide psychiatric care virtually at a moment’s notice. They contract with an emergency specialty group out of Houston. Through a telehealth link, patients can sit down in front of a TV screen and camera and see a psychiatrist. If necessary, they can be started on meds quickly.