The Good, The Bad & The Mad

What happens to the mentally ill in the justice system is just crazy.

A friend of the dead woman tells Westword that she was in her late thirties, with two children, and had been struggling with limited services and inadequate medication for years. "She would never complain," the friend says. "She was afraid that they'd take away what few services they did provide."

Retaliation is a genuine fear among the mentally ill, explains Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. "They've dumped a lot of people into assisted living without any standards of quality control," she says. "The state was told to fix these problems back in 2002, but nothing has changed. What I see are people getting kicked out of mental-health services because of their behavior, which seems kind of counterintuitive. People who are 'difficult' aren't going to get mental-health services at all."

Lacey Berumen, executive director of the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, has tried to raise issues about the audit with state lawmakers since its release last fall, but she, too, sees little change in the situation. "If this were any other population, there would be outrage, and the governor would appoint a task force," she says. "But nobody cares about these people — so we're filling our jails with them."


Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.
mark manger
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.

Vernon Martinez regards his childhood friend Thomas Espinoza as a lost kid brother. The boys grew up directly across the street from each other on West Nevada Place in the Athmar Park neighborhood. They were distantly related, and their mothers were tight for years. And in 1978, when Thomas was seven and Vernon was ten, the two of them literally went through fire together.

"He was a good kid," says Martinez. "Daring, sure. But that was because of his upbringing."

Neighbors say Espinoza's father liked to shoot off guns in the house. His mother, who died last winter, told police that her husband was a violent man who on occasion held a gun to her head. The couple separated when Thomas was still in grade school. By that point, he later told doctors at the state hospital, he'd already been sexually molested by a male cousin.

One spring day, Thomas and Vernon went over to another boy's house to inspect a go-kart. They took an empty antifreeze jug to a service station on Alameda and bought sixty cents' worth of gas. In a small laundry room at the back of the house, Vernon poured gas into the quarter-midget racer, spilling fuel on newspapers the other boys had put down.

"I didn't have a sense of the danger," Martinez says now. "I was telling them to hold papers because it was getting all over the place. I knew the water heater was there, but I didn't think about it having a pilot light."

The first explosion sent Vernon running through the house with his hair on fire. The second blew up the antifreeze jug and the go-kart. Surrounded by flames and smoke, Thomas kicked out a window. The other boy tossed him through the opening, then climbed out himself. Thomas apparently hit his head on the window and on a rock outside. The back of the house and the go-cart were a total loss.

Espinoza spent a few days in the hospital with first- and second-degree burns on his hands, face and back. At his murder trial last month, questioning witnesses on the stand, he kept returning to the thirty-year-old event as if it explained everything — almost as if the service station that sold a minor gasoline in an unsuitable container should be on trial, not him. Prosecutors responded by accusing him of grossly exaggerating the extent of his physical injuries and the long-term effects of any trauma he endured. Still, his older sisters say that Thomas was a changed boy after the fire — aloof, cold, suspicious, refusing to be touched.

His parents' marriage broke up that same year. Espinoza stayed with his father for a few years, then went to Oakland, California, to live with his mother. Conflicts with his mother's boyfriend (the finger-lopping incident) and gang-related fights at school followed. He struggled academically and didn't graduate. Instead, he drifted back to Denver in his late teens, fathered a baby girl, split from the mother and sank into drugs, binge-drinking and homelessness.

He was on the streets most of the time from 1988 until the late 1990s and was arrested several times for shoplifting, assault, trespassing, burglary and disturbing the peace. Espinoza would couch-surf, Martinez says, but he also went through periods when he stayed away from people. When drunk, he would sometimes talk about wanting to "fuck somebody up" and go looking for bar fights.

Sometimes Espinoza said there were voices telling him to do things, but Martinez didn't know what to make of that. "I don't know if it was because he was smoking coke or what," he says. At other times Espinoza seemed convinced that he could get rid of the demons in his head by staying sober and compulsively working out.

During his late teens, he showed up at Denver General's emergency room a few times, complaining of blackouts and memory loss; he also had superficial, self-inflicted slashes on his arms. Medical staff noted a family history of epilepsy and suspected a possible seizure disorder. He was back in the ER again repeatedly in his mid-twenties, usually after a fight. In addition to his lacerations and possible head injuries, doctors were alarmed by his rambling, paranoid comments about wanting to kill various people.

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