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In shadow of tragedy, normal life takes root; Man who killed parents optimistic despite illness

By Encarnacion Pyle

Matt Morgan invites friends over after work for chicken casserole and spaghetti dinners.

He and his girlfriend curl up on the couch to watch Days of Our Lives.

He goes to dollar-movie theaters, plays Scrabble and sings karaoke.

This is his life, one so ordinary it's indistinguishable in his working-class neighborhood on the Far West Side, where everyone knows everyone else by name. But his life defies his history, the dark times that his neighbors couldn't imagine.

They don't know that schizophrenic visions and voices once controlled him. They don't know he spent nine years in a state psychiatric hospital. They don't know what he's done and how hard he's worked the past 14 years to become ordinary.

They don't know he killed his parents.

"I've been to hell and back," said Matt, now 38, "and I still don't know how I survived."

It started near the end of high school. Matt began hallucinating, hearing voices and thinking everyone, including friends and family, wanted to kill him.

He became homeless, drifted across the country and tried to hang himself.

Then, he learned he had schizophrenia. He received treatment and medication at a mental hospital in Pennsylvania but was weaned off the drugs once he returned home to Fairfield County. His parents tried to get him help, but no one would listen.

The pieces were in place for tragedy.

On July 25, 1991, he interrupted a late-night card game at his parents' house in Lancaster by shooting his parents and sister Marla. Jerry and Marlene Morgan died; Marla was severely wounded.

"I can still hear the voices telling me, 'Shoot them and it will all be over. The pain will go away. You'll no longer be mentally ill,' "Matt said, forcing back tears. "I was so delirious."

A year later, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity after psychiatrists testified that he had become dangerous because he had been taken off his medication.

Matt knows some people think he got off easy and should be sitting in a cell -- even though he's subject to court-ordered monitoring and rules that are stricter than if he were on parole from prison.

But they don't see how haunted he is.

He has had chest pains, nightmares, trouble breathing and uncontrollable crying fits.
"I feel this deep regret, like I've robbed so many friends and family, and even myself, of these wonderful, important people," Matt said.

Though proud of his recovery, Matt is anxious about slipping up. But his doctors, friends and loved ones say he's proof that treatment works, so long as he sticks to it.

"I feel very comfortable it won't happen again," said Marla, 44, who still has a bullet lodged in her brain. "Matt wants to get better, has worked hard to get better and will have to face a lot of issues the rest of his life because of what he has done.

"But as long as he continues with his therapy and medication and people are watching him, he'll be all right. We all will."

A downward spiral

The youngest of six children, Matt likens his childhood to the idyllic, 1950s world of Leave It to Beaver.

"We lived in a neighborhood of manicured lawns, perfect trees and children riding bicycles," he said.

His father, a retired police officer, spent nearly three decades with the Lancaster Fire Department before starting a real-estate business with his wife.

His mother watched the children until they were in school. She later became area-estate agent and opened Morgan Realty in their home.

Matt's life began unraveling in 1985, his senior year. He skipped school, his grades fell and he had to attend summer classes to graduate.

Matt enlisted in the Marine Corps but was medically discharged two months later because he had flat feet.

He drifted from job to job over the next several years, always struggling with distorted perceptions.

"I saw dragons flying through the air. I believed radio DJs and TV characters were talking to me. And I thought everyone was out to get me," he said. "I couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't."

Matt planned to hang himself from a tree along a country road in the winter of 1989. But his car became stuck in snow and he fell asleep. Deputy sheriffs found him and sent him home after determining he wasn't a burglar.

The next year, the Morgans kicked him out after Matt tried to punch his father. He lived with a friend for three days but decided he had to leave, so he began hitch hiking to Key West, Fla.

"I had to be alone. I couldn't control myself," he said.

He slept under bridges, wandered around drunk and went for days without eating. His family didn't know what had happened to him.

"He just disappeared," said his oldest brother, Jay, of Marion.

Treatment and trouble

Two months later, Matt tried to hang himself again, this time from the rafters of an abandoned building in Key West. But he changed his mind and cut himself down, suffering only minor rope burns.

Instead he went to Philadelphia, where he walked into the emergency room at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

"I told them I was having a nervous breakdown," he said.

Doctors said he had "schizophreniform disorder, "which essentially has the same symptoms as schizophrenia but lasts less than six months.

He ultimately was transferred to a respite facility where Dr. Miles Landenheim determined that Matt had developed a paranoid delusional system. It was only a matter of time before he would have full-blown schizophrenia.

During his 12 weeks at the center, Matt received intensive therapy and medication, including the powerful antipsychotic Navane and antidepressant Elavil.

His paranoia decreased, and he started to understand his illness.

Landenheim decided Matt should return to his parents, but only if he continued treatment.

He returned to Ohio on June 22, 1990.

Three weeks later, he went to the FairfieldFamilyCounselingCenter, where Dr. Harold Brown spent 30 minutes evaluating him. A month later, after receiving Matt's records from Pennsylvania and meeting with him for another 15 minutes, Brown began reducing his medication because he thought Matt was faking his symptoms to qualify for Social Security benefits. In October, Brown cut Matt's medication again and told him he would be weaned off it entirely.

Mrs. Morgan begged the center to resume his prescription because she was worried about him. Among other things, Matt pounded telephone poles with baseball bats and cried about an aerial attack on his head.

His parents tried to get him hospitalized through probate court. Mrs. Morgan told the deputy clerk "she hoped this didn't blow up in our faces."

About a week later, Matt pointed his finger at his father's head while they were watching TV and said, "I'm going to blow your brains out."

Frightened, the Morgans sent a letter to a psychologist at Fairfield Family Counseling Center.

"Matt has slipped both mentally and physically, and he refuses medication. . . .

"Can you help us?"

'Oh God, please forgive me'

The day Matt shot his parents, he couldn't stop fidgeting at lunch.

Marla and other relatives noticed he was walking around the house, talking nonsense. He went upstairs into his room, came down agitated and stormed onto the back stoop.

"My father told me, 'Don't do anything to set him off,' " Marla said.

But things seemed to have blown over by 10 p.m. when Marla, Matt and their parents decided to play cards.

At one point, Matt accused his sister of changing the face of the cards, but Marla laughed it off.

About 20 minutes later, Matt excused himself to use the upstairs bathroom. Instead, he pulled a .22-caliber gun from his bedroom.

"My head was spinning," Matt said. "I thought the government had replaced my parents and sister with people who wanted to hurt me."

He said voices told him to kill them.

"It wasn't a matter of knowing right from wrong," he said. "There was only one way to survive, one way to get relief."

No one noticed the gun until he put it to his father's head.

Marla's memory of the event remains fuzzy.

She thought Matt had a cap gun until he told their father: "This is for all the pain you've put me through the past year," or "Now you know the pain I've gone through the last year."

Mr. Morgan, 60, crumpled to the floor in a pool of blood as Marlene, 58, and Marla, then 29, screamed. Matt, then 24, walked around the table and shot his mother, who fell at her husband's feet.

Marla jumped out of her chair and threw her hands in the air, screaming, "Don't shoot." She passed out as Matt pointed the gun at her.

When she came to, she thought she had bumped her head on the table. She pulled herself up the hallway wall as Matt ran out the door. She dialed 911, saying, "I'm just real sick." Her mother stirred, gasping for air.

Firefighters found Marla standing in the front entrance in shock, blood spattered on her white sweat shirt. Marla found out at the hospital that she had been shot.

The next thing Matt remembers is calling 911 from a pay phone. He didn't say who he was or what he had done, only that shots had been fired at their Briarwood Court home. He then walked nearly 3 miles to the police station and turned himself in.

He told officers his head hurt.

"I have so much head pain. I couldn't take it no more, I couldn't take it no more," he said. "I know I gotta be sick, I know I gotta be sick. Oh God, please forgive me."

Mr. Morgan died in the house. Mrs. Morgan died two days later at Grant Medical Center. Marla spent a month in the hospital and underwent months of rehabilitation to regain her balance and coordination. She still has no peripheral vision in her left eye.

"I've worked through my recovery. I'm now trying to help Matt," Marla said. "That's what my parents would have wanted."

Optimism and regret

After the shootings, it wasn't clear whether Matt ever would be free again.

He was charged with murder and admitted to the CentralOhioPsychiatric Hospital, now called Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare, in October 1991 to restore his competency so he could stand trial.

Psychiatrists noted he had a "glued-on smile," showed no emotion while discussing the tragedy and whispered to himself, all signs of his illness.

Eight months later, in June 1992, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity on two counts of aggravated murder and one count each of attempted murder and felonious assault.

The insanity defense is raised in less than 1 percent of felony cases nationwide and succeeds in only a quarter of those cases.

"There's a public perception that lots of people plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but it's the exception," said Doug DeVoe, executive director of Ohio Advocates for Mental Health.

Studies show defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are likely to spend as much, if not more, time confined to a mental hospital and monitored by the courts if released as if they were sentenced to prison. If Matt had been convicted, he could have faced 15 years in prison, with an additional nine years for using a gun.

Matt lived in the maximum-security unit of the hospital for 3 1/2 years before being moved to a less-restrictive, but still-locked ward after proving he was no longer dangerous.

He attended individual and group therapy, continued taking antipsychotic medication and participated in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He kept a journal, learned about his illness and relapse-prevention techniques, and talked about the guilt, loss and loneliness he felt.

"What struck me about Matt was how well he was and his degree of concern that he do what he could to prevent his symptoms from returning," said Dr. Christopher Kovell, a former staff psychiatrist at TwinValley who worked with Matt in his eventual release from the hospital.

Kovell, who now is medical director for the Franklin County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health board, agreed to discuss the case only after Matt signed a consent form.

"We know that schizophrenia is a treatable illness," Kovell said. "Matt is one of those people who has a particularly good response to medication. While not all schizophrenics experience total remission of symptoms, Matt is one of them." While Matt was hospitalized, his family sued Fairfield Family Counseling for $9million. A trial judge ruled in favor of the counseling center, but the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the decision in January 1997, saying Dr. Brown should have monitored Matt for at least six months and reinstated his medication. The case ultimately was settled out of court, and Matt's family is under a gag order not to discuss details.

The Supreme Court's decision led lawmakers to clarify that mental-health professionals must report a patient who could be dangerous. Matt was released from Twin Valley on June 13, 2000,with a long list of conditions. He must take his daily medication, as well as mandatory injections of a long-acting antipsychotic as insurance. He has to check in with his case manager on weekdays and regularly meet with his psychologist and psychiatrist for counseling.

He can't buy a gun and is prohibited from going to Fairfield County, where most of his family still lives, except to visit his parents' graves when accompanied by a caseworker.
Matt is enjoying the freedom, despite the restrictions.

"It was like going from breathing pollution to breathing fresh air again," he said.
He met his girlfriend, Beverly Smith, 43, at a support group for people with mental illness.

(She suffered a fractured brain stem when a drunken driver hit her at age 17.) They moved in together two years ago and live with their cat, Otis, and cockatiels, Denny and Kato.

"Denny has a crippled leg," Beverly said with a laugh. "He's one of us."

Friends describe the couple as caring people.

"You can call Matt and Bev at 4 in the morning and they'll be there, no angry looks, no questions asked," said Claire Higdon, who teaches art for Partners in Active Living through Socialization. Matt worked at the agency before being hired on contract at Twin Valley in

October 2004 to help run the hospital's patient-satisfaction survey.

Matt regrets his past and is optimistic about the future. He hopes people will stop looking at what he did and see who he is.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about my parents and that terrible night," he said.

"My parents died because they loved me. I have to find a way to live because I love them."

Box Story: Insanity plea

Defendants can argue they should not be held criminally liable for breaking the law because they were mentally ill or incompetent at the time of their alleged crime. The insanity defense is raised in less than 1 percent of felony cases nationwide and successful in only a quarter of those cases.

In Ohio, between50 and 70 people are found not guilty by reason of insanity each year on various charges. This year, four people statewide have been acquitted of murder because they were found to be insane.

People found not guilty by reason of insanity are either committed to a psychiatric hospital or released to the community under conditions that are similar to parole but include intensive treatment.

Those committed to a hospital can be required to stay until the expiration of the maximum prison term they could have received, or they can be released earlier by a judge. Statewide, there are 52 people on release who were found not guilty of murder because of their mental illness.

Source: Ohio Department of Mental Health

CORRECTION-DATE: November 28, 2005


Matt Morgan is proud of the certificates he's earned for work he's done on mental-health issues since he was released from a state mental hospital five years ago. A caption on Page A1 of yesterday's Dispatch incorrectly indicated otherwise.

Copyright 2005, Used with permission from The Columbus Dispatch.

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