How a Psychiatric Slip-Up Killed a Cop
Timmy Halton may have been holding the gun that killed Officer Jason West, but the mental health system that failed him—and fails thousands like him—helped get it into his hand.
Timmy Halton may have been holding the gun that killed Officer Jason West, but the mental-health system that failed him—and fails thousands like him—helped get it into his hand.
What kind of mother doesn’t shed even one tear as her 29-year-old only son is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole? A very strong—albeit tired—one named Jeannette Halton-Tiggs. Her son, Timothy Halton, Jr. received the sentence on October 30 for gunning down Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West on May 25, 2007.
“I felt that it would have been disrespectful to the memory of Officer West for me to be seen by his mother and the media crying in the courtroom for my son, when her son is dead,” says Jeannette. “And it could be that I’m just cried out … I simply don’t have any tears left.”
Jeannette had been warning anyone who would listen that Timmy, who was diagnosed with the mental disorder as a child, was a ticking time bomb that would one day explode.
The media portrayed her son as a monster, but in truth Timmy Halton was mentally ill, suffering from a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia. “If my Timmy is a monster, then I guess that makes me the monster’s mother,” says Jeannette. “But he isn’t a monster—at the time he was just very sick.”
Jeannette has been haunted by the heinous crime for over two years now, and aches to reach out to the slain officer’s mother to hug her and tell her how truly sorry she is. But Cleveland Heights police officials warned her against making such a gesture. While the sentencing brings about some sense of closure for all involved, it doesn’t bring her any sense of peace.
“This killing should not have happened, and I’m going to dedicate my life to trying to change how the mentally ill are treated in this country … I want to at least make an effort to ensure that something like this never happens to another police officer, or anyone else for that matter,” says Jeannette. She serves as a spokesperson for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and is attempting to alert lawmakers to the failures of the mental-health system. She fantasizes about how powerful it would be if Officer West’s mother would join her in this effort, how the two of them could become effective change agents, but she doesn’t expect that to happen.
Jeannette says she now clearly understands that police culture in America is such that their associations, unions, and leadership are only reactive, never proactive; they wait until after an officer has been killed by an insane person, then demand that the mentally ill individual be put to death. But they never work toward changing the laws that allow dangerously sick people to roam the streets and harm innocent people in the first place. “This makes no sense to me,” said Jeannette.
She had, for over a decade, been trying to prevent her son from doing harm to innocents. She had been warning anyone who would listen that Timmy, who was diagnosed with the mental disorder as a child, was a ticking time bomb that would one day explode. When he was 8, she knew that something was terribly wrong with him when he started trapping and torturing small animals. She sought out treatment for him, first through school counselors, and then through private professionals; what insurance would not cover she would pay out of pocket. A variety of diagnoses and drugs followed, but none seemed to work.
By age 16, Timmy’s condition was worsening, and he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for juveniles, in part because he thought that Jeannette was his wife. And, because he was approaching six feet tall and weighed close to 200 pounds, he was becoming capable of backing up his violent verbal outbursts with equally violent behavior. His psychosis made him so strong that he once ripped the toilet out of the basement floor as easily as if he were lifting up a chair.
The institutionalization—counseling by professionals, along with the strong psychotropic medications—worked well, and he stayed on a fairly even keel upon his release. The hospitalization, however, was so expensive it forced Jeannette into bankruptcy. She went out and got a second job. Jeannette was—and is—not alone; mental-illness treatment has forced many an American family into financial ruin.
However, within a couple of years, despite Jeannette’s best efforts, things began to really fall apart in Timmy’s life.
“Like so many other young people in this country, Timmy, when he reached age 18, was allowed to emancipate,” says Jeannette. “He legally became an adult and was able to decide if he wanted to take his medication or not, or whether to continue seeing a mental-health professional. In cases like Timmy’s, this is absolute insanity, to allow someone who is severely mentally ill to make those kinds of choices.”
“I reached out to everyone, did everything I could,” she continues. “I told everyone who would listen to me that someone was going to get hurt by my son if he didn’t continue his medication regimen, and the only way that was going to happen was for the courts to make him my ward. But courts in this country, and even some mental-health professionals, don’t agree. They choose to not pay much attention to the persons who know these severely sick individuals the best: their caregivers, their families.”
The strong drugs that control schizophrenia have severe and unpleasant side effects: They cause weight gain (often of a hundred pounds or more) and almost always some sexual dysfunction. An 18-year-old male is unlikely to stick to a regimen of drugs with those kinds of side effects. Yet, this is the kind of decision hundreds of thousands of severely mentally ill and dangerous people in America are allowed to make for themselves.
With Timmy off his meds, Jeannette and her daughter Crissy’s lives became a living hell. They kept their bedroom doors bolted at night, cautiously peeking out to make sure he wasn’t stalking about the house when they had to use the bathroom. They served as lookouts for each other. The police were at her house so often they were like members of the family, yet Jeannette would not turn her back on her only son. She knew it wasn’t his fault, and on occasion, when properly medicated, Timmy would tearfully apologize for his uncontrollable behavior.
The family would go through periods of relative calm, but then, in 2002, when Timmy threatened the life of President George W. Bush, the Secret Service had him locked up in a psych ward for three months. One of the agents, who had personal experience with mental illness in his own family, told Jeannette that he knew of a hospital he thought might help Timmy, and he wanted to see if he could get him into the facility for treatment. However, as was his legal right, Timmy refused to go, and no one could force him into treatment against his will.
Because the police were the ones who came to intercede whenever Timmy acted out violently with his family, he came to see them as the symbolic enemy. He used to ask his mother, “Why don’t they just put a bullet through my brain when they get here?” Jeannette now says, “He really wanted to commit ‘suicide by cop,’ but it just didn’t happen that way. But there were times he clearly wanted out of his misery, to bring an end to the pain he was in.”
In 2005, after Timmy damaged a patrol car with a brick and then punched a police officer in the face, he was placed on four years' county probation. Paradoxically, during these four years, Timmy thrived. With the stability that the forced medication and monitoring provided, he managed to get a steady job, move into his own place, and even have his mother sign for him to get a brand new car. Jeannette wistfully recalls that Timmy was so proud of his accomplishments, and said to her more than once that “these people care about me and really are trying to help me.”
However, after the first year of the four-year probation sentence was served, Timmy was taken off, discharged from probation—supposedly because he was “doing so well.”
Within a few months of Timmy’s release from supervision, Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West lay dead in the street.
Sure, Timothy Halton pulled the trigger, of that there is no doubt. But his mother sincerely feels that he should have had co-defendants sitting with him in the courtroom to face the music: the court system, the mental-health delivery system, and a society that allows, tolerates, and in some ways even encourages such inadequate treatment of the mentally ill.
Now Timmy will once again get all of the meds he needs to remain stable, this time courtesy of the Ohio state prison system. While the law wouldn’t give Jeannette control over Timmy, and provide for his needs at a cost of less than $7,000 per year on the street, we, the taxpayers, will now pay over $25,000 per year for Timmy’s care for the rest of his life. And all it took to accomplish this lifetime continuum of care was the loss of a fine police officer’s life.
“I can’t sit idly by and do nothing,” said Jeannette. “I’ve got to use this burden God gave me and try to make some good out of this terrible bad or I’m afraid that I’ll go mad myself … I owe it to my son Timmy, and to the memory of Officer West.”
Jeannette Halton-Tiggs is currently working on a book titled The Monster’s Mother.
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.