10 YEARS AGO: Laura’s parents become advocates of change
January 8, 2016
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 11, 2006 by The Union.
Five years after their first born was fatally shot on Jan. 10, 2001, Amanda and Nick Wilcox are still coming to grips with the violent act that took their daughter and the damage it has done to their family.
"The only justice I could have was Laura back, and I can't have that," Amanda said.
Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old who was running for student body president at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, was home visiting on Christmas break that day. Having served as a summer intern at Nevada County's Behavioral Health Department, she was filling in for a sick employee when Scott Thorpe walked through the front door and started shooting.
Four of his shots found Laura.
"My life felt like it was stripped of meaning because I was a mother," said Amanda Wilcox, whose only daughter was the first victim in a shooting spree that left three dead, three seriously wounded and an entire community on edge.
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"I had to focus on other things."
At the top of that list were her two sons, though Amanda said losing her daughter sometimes left her afraid to love the boys for fear of losing them, too.
"Caleb is older than his sister; she was 19," Amanda said. "There are milestones like that which put a lump in your throat … I still have days where I don't stop crying. (18-year-old) Nathan feels like he was robbed of part of his childhood."
The families of each of the victims of Jan. 10, 2001 — the day that mental health patient Scott Thorpe changed the course of their lives — have done their best to focus on the future. For Amanda and Nick, that has meant being advocates for change.
"It's a thin scab; it doesn't heal easily," said Nick of losing his daughter. "It's been hard, it's been very hard … We're good in public, but there are tough times and tough days."
While there have been plenty of hard days, healing has also come to the family in the form of their advocacy against gun violence and the death penalty. Although they feel Scott Thorpe is rightly incarcerated for life, the Wilcoxes don't condone capital punishment.
"We see the death penalty as institutional rage and retribution," Nick said. "But our underlying theme is nonviolence.
"The issue picked us. Two years before Laura's murder, she did a paper on (gun violence) when she was a junior at (Nevada Union High School)."
"I had always been disturbed by firearm violence anyway," Amanda said. "We grew up as Quakers, and one of the basic tenants was nonviolence. Because of our background, we naturally leaned on that."
Their advocacy work was kicked into high gear just three weeks after the tragic shootings, when a gun show was held at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. The Wilcoxes protested the event as being a possible purveyor to gun violence.
"It was a slap in the face, knowing that Scott Thorpe had been an attendee (of past shows)," Nick said.
"It was so offensive after what had happened," Amanda added.
At the show, Nick said, a man approached him to say that had his daughter had a gun the day she was killed, she would still be alive. Incredulous, Nick took the comment in a silent, steeled resolve.
The promoter and vendor of the gun show were later arrested for selling illegal firearms to State Department of Justice agents and were convicted on a misdemeanor firearms charge. One such gun show followed soon after, but none have been held locally since, the couple said.
"It made our point," Amanda said. "We made it too uncomfortable for them and Nevada County. The promoters did it to themselves."
Amanda said that the gun-show incident and some law-abiding gun owners did, however, teach her some new respect for gun owners.
"I've learned that my neighbor can have a gun," she said. "Just because I don't like it doesn't mean they shouldn't have one."
Prior to the shooting, Amanda had donated money to the Brady gun control campaign and the Million Moms March in May of 2000. Now the Wilcoxes find themselves advocating for much more and with much louder voices.
"We're effective because of what happened and because we're not paid," Nick said. "We've discovered that every legislative door is unlocked."
One door the couple have walked through belonged to former Assemblywoman Helen Thompson of Davis. Thompson had put a bill before the legislature in 2001 that would allow involuntary treatment of mental illness patients if they were a threat to themselves, or to others, or if they refused treatment after a mental illness diagnosis.
That bill failed to garner enough support to pass, but it was resurrected into what is now known as "Laura's Law" and was passed in 2002. The bill, however, lacked funding and had conflicting language that could make it difficult to implement.
The Wilcoxes understand that the provision allowing mental health patients to be detained involuntarily is highly controversial. Involuntary institutionalization is what led then Gov. Ronald Reagan to revamp the mental health system in the 1960s.
"But the great promise was never fulfilled to give care in community settings; it never happened," Nick said. "There is a strong tendency to deny involuntary commitment due to cost. But we learned during the trial that Thorpe was the most mentally ill person the psychiatrists had ever interviewed."
They also learned that Thorpe had a cache of unregistered weapons, was stalking a woman at the county's Behavioral Health Department, and had stopped taking his medication at the time of the shootings.
It is with no small irony that they learned that soon after Thorpe was put in a state mental institution for life, he was taking his medication again and doing much better because of it.
The Laura's Law experience eventually led the Wilcoxes to the 2004 ballot initiative Prop. 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which will be used for new measures for patients across the state. How Laura's Law will come into effect with the Prop. 63 funds is still unknown, but the county agreed in its settlement of a lawsuit with the Wilcoxes to implement it when new funding becomes available.
"We saw Prop. 63 as something to make a lasting difference, so we donated $15,000 (to the cause from the $60,000 they were awarded in the settlement.)," Nick said.
"We're not experts on mental illness," Amanda said, "but we helped raise awareness."
They are now focused on stopping the use of the death penalty in America and work closely with a group known as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. This spring, they will testify for a bill asking the state Legislature to suspend the death penalty until a full examination of its use is completed.
"Whether you're for or against (the death penalty), it's unconscionable to execute innocent victims," Nick said. "To apply it along social and racial lines is wrong, even if you support it."
Part of that belief was bolstered when the Wilcoxes realized that Thorpe did not target their daughter. They understand that his illness led to Laura's death and the eventual apology from the county for not handling it correctly. They also understand that lawyers may have precluded any official apology; but it still hurts.
"Victims often just want to hear 'I'm sorry,'" Amanda said.
"It took a lawsuit and three years to get it," Nick said. "I still have residual anger over how we were treated by Nevada County."
At the same time, Amanda said, they are focused on the future. "Scott Thorpe does not have a hold on us."