Mentally ill son is gone, but struggle not forgotten

The Oregonian, March 25, 1999. Not available elsewhere online.

It was late on a Thursday night, May 1, two years ago. The 31-year-old man walked into Washington Park carrying two heavy containers of gasoline. He asked a man for his help getting up a hill. The man saw the gasoline containers and said no.

There's a bench remembering Wesley Hewitt in Washington Park, not far from where he died.

There's a bench remembering Wesley Hewitt in Washington Park, not far from where he died.

The young man struggled up to the Lewis & Clark monument, above the park entrance. We have to guess what he did next because nobody saw him until the flames lit up the night. But the medical examiner’s report said the man died of smoke and soot inhalation, drinking gasoline and severe burns. It was ruled a suicide.

The story in the paper was just a few paragraphs long. Nearly as much space was devoted to the tale of a policeman who’d crashed his car on the way to the scene as was given to the man who’d poured gasoline over his body, swallowed more of it, and lit a single match. His name has never been printed in The Oregonian.

His name was Wesley Hewitt.

In May 1997, Lou Ann Hewitt had been lying flat on her back in Baltimore for four months, making phone calls. “I made sometimes five calls a day to Oregon,” she says. She was looking for her son Wesley . Unable to travel to Portland because of back surgery, Lou Ann kept making calls to people and agencies, begging them to help her find her son.

He was mentally ill, she said. He had bipolar disorder. She had reason to believe he was not on his medication. He’d been evicted from his apartment months before, when his behavior had bothered people.

Could you help find my son, she asked the Oregonians she called. Many promised to look. Lou Ann says she later learned almost none did. “One man just told me to wait and pray,” she says. Lou Ann could not lie in her bed in Baltimore and wait for anything. She had to find her son.

He’d been ill for years. The bright young man who’d entered Reed College at the age of 16 had become troubled after he dropped out, although Lou Ann thinks her son’s problems at Reed were early signs of his illness.

After quitting college, Wesley drifted from music to martial arts to religion. In 1995 he disappeared from Portland and turned up in a mental hospital in Washington state. He’d jumped off a train going 70 mph, thinking he was escaping from the belly of a snake. Wesley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

After his release Wesley came home to Baltimore, where Lou Ann saw her son go through manic episodes for the first time. “They were very, very awful things. I learned to love him even more desperately when I saw what he was going through.”

Still, Wesley wanted to return to Portland. “The doctor said to me, ‘You can’t stop him. He’s not a baby,’ ” Lou Ann says. “So I put him on the plane. When I look back, I still see him walking off with his guitar and his suitcase. And that was the end of my son.”

Things did not go well in Portland. Wesley was arrested a number of times, once when he was found in the basement of a house, looking under a rug for “evil spirits.”

“He was hallucinating; he was paranoid,” Lou Ann says. “Every time he called he was manic. It made me crazy. I was calling around, trying to get help for him.” But after Wesley was evicted from his apartment, Lou Ann couldn’t find him, to help him. “The last time my son called me was on Christmas Eve 1996,” Lou Ann says. “He said, ‘Mom, I called to wish you a Merry Christmas.’ . . . He told me he loved me. I never heard from him again.”

Through the next four months, Lou Ann called Oregon every day, looking for Wesley. Then, in the middle of the night on May 2, 1997, her phone rang in Baltimore. “This voice said, ‘Are you Mrs. Hewitt?’ and I knew. I just knew.” It was the medical examiner, asking for dental records. Police knew Wesley well, and suspected he was the charred body.

There was never another story about Wesley Hewitt in the newspaper. No analysis of why he killed himself in such a horrifying, painful way. No public discussion of the mental illness he suffered from, and why he — like so many mentally ill people — had been homeless instead of hospitalized.

Tamara Hancock, president of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, never even heard about his death. “This terrible thing happened in my own back yard, and I had no idea,” she said. So when Lou Ann contacted Tamara and suggested a service to commemorate Wesley ‘s death, and to call attention to the problems faced by Oregon’s mentally ill, Tamara agreed.

On May 1, at the site of Wesley ‘s suicide, they will hold “Wesley ‘s Watch,” a candle-lighting ceremony. Lou Ann is hoping other people who’ve lost someone they love to mental illness or suicide will come, and as they light their candles, “say at least a sentence about their loved one and offer a suggestion about what could be done to make things better in Oregon.” The ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. at the Lewis and Clark memorial, at the top of Southwest Salmon Street. Afterward, a reception will be held.

“This is not just for Wesley , or me,” Lou Ann says. “This is for everyone. We have a problem in our society. I never dreamed this could ever happen to me. And I’m so sorry, but it just may be you tomorrow. There’s a lot of work to be done.” For more information on ” Wesley’s Watch,” call 503-370-7774.