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10 YEARS AGO: Right treatment could have averted tragedy, family says

Trina Kleist
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 10, 2006 by The Union.

In the months before the shooting of Jan. 10, 2001, Scott Thorpe’s relatives tried to contact the Nevada County Behavioral Health doctor who was treating him.

His mother, Marilyn Thorpe, had started her son with a psychiatrist when he had visited her in Nebraska, five years before the incident. He did well in the early years of treatment.

“He laid out his medication on his dresser each day,” she said.

But they wanted to tell Dr. George Heitzman, Thorpe’s doctor in Grass Valley at t he time, of the disturbing changes they were noting in the 39-year-old man with the late-blooming mental illness.

“We wanted to have an input with the doctor, and he wasn’t talking to us. He was citing confidentiality issues,” said Kent Thorpe, Scott Thorpe’s brother. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to share with me. Here’s some things we are observing as family members.’ We just wanted him to receive information from us.”

There was, in fact, nothing in the state’s patient confidentiality laws that prevented a doctor from receiving information from a patient’s relatives, said county Public Defender Tom Anderson, who defended Thorpe. Heitzman could not be reached for comment.

After the rampage, Thorpe returned to his Mooney Flat Road home, called his brother and told him what he had done. At the time, Kent Thorpe was a Sacramento policeman.

“I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What?’” he recalled.

Then, Kent Thorpe called Nevada County Sheriff’s officials, who still didn’t know who the assailant was, and helped them negotiate his brother’s arrest.

Scott Thorpe eventually was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Five years after the incident, he remains at Napa State Hospital for the mentally ill.

Nevada County rumors have had Thorpe free on weekend passes or for holiday reunions. But Thorpe was sentenced to life at Napa by Judge Carl F. Bryan II.

It was learned at Thorpe’s trial that Napa hospital staff there could find him sane one day. But to go free, he would have to return to Nevada County and be found mentally fit at a sanity trial.

Kent Thorpe and his wife make the 150-mile round trip to Napa to visit his brother about once a month.

“It was a matter of, ‘Let’s try this and observe his behavior, change the medicine, change the dosages,’” Kent Thorpe said. “There were times when we’d go visit him and he’d seem doped up. That’s not the case now.”

“He’s almost like the normal Scott,” said sister-in-law Sharon Thorpe. “There’d be no inkling that he had a mental illness, and that’s what the proper medicine would do. That’s why it’s such a travesty.”

As part of his therapy, Scott Thorpe is asked to talk about what happened. He chokes up and cries. “He’s having to live every day with the crimes he has done,” Sharon Thorpe said. “He says, ‘I wake up every day and I cannot believe it.’”

Scott Thorpe receives quarterly reviews by a team, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, activities director and others. They give him a rating according to his level of participation, response to treatment and disturbances he may cause.

Now 44, Thorpe has worked his way up to the hospital’s highest rating.

For his family, there is bitter irony in knowing that, now, he is getting the treatment he needed.

“He knows his life is ruined, and all the things he loved, he’ll never have any part of again,” Marilyn Thorpe said.

“Of course,” she added, “it’s a whole lot different for us. We can still talk to Scott. The other families, they can’t talk to their loved ones.”

Four months after the shooting, Kent Thorpe had a heart attack. He retired from the force after that; he and his wife remain in Sacramento.

He recalls with gratitude the compassion shown to his family by the people of Nevada County during the hearings and trial.

“They could tell just by looking at us, we were devastated,” Kent Thorpe said. “They realized there was a problem with the mental health system there, and Scott wasn’t getting the treatment that he should have had.”

Marilyn Thorpe continues to live in Omaha, where she has relatives. She sent letters of sympathy and apology to the survivors and families of the dead. She stays in touch with some of them.

“I’m far removed from it,” she said. “If I lived there with all those people, I don’t know how I’d do.”

She has not come to peace with what happened, despite her religious faith, but said she handles it better than she used to.

“I can’t even describe it. It’s unimaginable,” said Marilyn Thorpe, now 75. “It just ruined everybody’s life. The older I get, the more it bothers me.”

The Thorpe family worries about whether the problems within the county’s Behavioral Health Department that led to the tragedy have been fixed.

“I hope, somehow, we can change the mental health system so that, five years from now, some other families don’t have to talk about it in an article,” Sharon Thorpe said.

“If something as horrible as this can’t change the system, what can?”

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