Slain woman desperate to help her mentally ill brother

Joseph Rockwood

Joseph Rockwood

From the Oregonian, November 11 2008

Days before Theresa A. Rockwood was stabbed to death in her brother’s apartment, she wrote a long e-mail to her aunt in Illinois, describing Joseph Rockwood’s declining mental health.

He was getting more delusional and carried a bat. He wasn’t taking his medication or paying his rent and faced eviction. She said she was trying to get him help and had talked to his caseworkers but was frustrated that he hadn’t been placed in a secure group home.

In the Oct. 27 e-mail, she described her plea to her brother’s mental health team: “I put a call into them, and begged them to do something because of his state of mind and all that he is doing. … He’s out of control, needs to be in a nursing home with other people like him so staff can oversee his care. … I do not know what to do.”

On Monday, Rockwood’s brother, Joseph F. Rockwood, 54, was wheeled into a Multnomah County courthouse to face a single count of murder in the fatal stabbing of his sister Theresa, 52. She was found on the bathroom floor of his Southeast Portland apartment Friday with multiple wounds to her stomach. Police suspect her body had been there for more than one week.

Pleas for help and understanding

10/27/2008 11:51:09 A.M. Central Standard Time

“Joe is spending all his money on fast foods And pizza. And crazy things like books he will never read and thousand of vitimins, etc.. i tried to talk to him about his finances and offered to help him get help, he has refused.

“His mental health team was there to see him on thurs of last week.I put a call into them and begged them to do something because of his state of mind and all that he is doing. he put on a great show that all was well with him and that he was not in need of there help and he asked them to leave. they called me back we talked for over an hour on his case, said they cannot do anything with Joe because of the fact he can put on a good face when they bring the mental health department in to evaluate, Joe can snap out of it when they show up.

“They had to close his case after all this time, Joe has refused all treatments and will not allow them to work with him this past year. They do know he is not well, but said they have the law they have to go by. Joe has refused any and all treatments medications, assistance and including consuling by the mental health.

“When i was at his place he told me to go and get pizza and other food stuff, he said he bounces checks all the time and the bank just keeps paying them and sending him a bill, so that is another way he owes so much bounces multi checks per week.

“He is out of control, needs to be in a nursing home with other people like him so staff can over see his care. ILL has tighter rules for the mentally ill, if he was in IL he would be in a facility, Oregon has more activist that put laws in place that they can do whatever and live whereever as long as they do not harm themselves or another. They can be totally crazy and live on their own here. I do not know what to do.

“I do think he has gotten himself into this mess to end up in IL near the family. But i have tried to tell him, It is very different now, that everyone is busy with their lives and it is not all fun and parties. He is very mad at me for telling him that. he said i am dead to him, and that i am trying to break the family apart.

“I will talk to the mental health social worker again today. as far as needing a truck… i would say if he goes to IL it would have to be by train and all his stuff can go by train, he has used furniture, junk, he would just need his clothing and a few of his other things. One can take the train with 3 boxes at 50 pounds each and then 2 carry ons of the same weight. Tom came to Oregon that way and come to think of it that is how Joe came out here, and if he goes to IL where is he going? none of the sisters will take him, that is why he is calling on you and aunt Marylou. I would say maybe our couisn Cathy rockwood, but then again he is unsatabe and i do not feel comfortable one on one with him. he carries a bat with him. he is mentally unsatble to live with someone or even alone.

“call me tonight after 9 pm if you can, my mins are free then.”


Date: Sun, 26 Oct 2008 14:57:34 -0400

“Hi Theresa, Would like to talk to you later today re: Joe……………did he get kicked out of his apt? He mentions (in a voice mail), that he needs me to get a truck and come there to help him move back to Illinois……….Said his check bounced and he was tossed out of his apt………….

“Is the Dept of Mental Health still involved with him? He’s really in need of them.

“Will call you today (or call me)”

Aunt Barb

“She was the best advocate for him,” said Theresa’s close friend, Kari Hillebrecht. “She had such a love in her heart for him. She just wanted to help him. Nobody else would; the state wouldn’t.”

Friends of Joseph Rockwood, who suffers from schizophrenia, also said they were increasingly concerned about his behavior. They feared he wasn’t taking his medication in recent months, so they sought help from his caseworkers, doctor and pastor.

They say his downward spiral could have been prevented, and some blamed Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, where he had a caseworker and a physician.

“I really feel if they were doing their job, then none of this would have happened,” said Kim Reinecker, a friend of Rockwood’s who worked as his housekeeper. She said she’s also a client of Cascadia. “How far does a mentally ill person have to go before the mental health system will listen?”

Amy Baker, director of outpatient services for Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare Inc., said she couldn’t talk about Rockwood’s case, citing federal privacy laws. But Baker said her organization must balance the needs of its clients with their civil rights and has to show that clients are a danger to themselves or others in order to put an involuntary hold on them.

“For the thousands of people we serve, there are people we work with who really want these services, and some people who really don’t want these services,” Baker said. “We have to honor people’s civil rights when we work with them. ”

Hillebrecht said Theresa Rockwood spoke at length about her brother’s troubles during their last lunch together, on Oct. 28, just hours before Theresa went to visit him. Hillebrecht and Rockwood met 15 years ago when Rockwood, who was a nurse, cared for Hillebrecht’s seriously ill infant daughter.

Hillebrecht said Theresa Rockwood told her she wanted to visit Joseph before returning home to Hood River, where she recently bought a home. Hillebrecht urged her not to go. The siblings’ last contact, during the summer, took a dangerous turn. Theresa had locked herself in a room at her brother’s apartment and called 9-1-1 because he was acting in a threatening manner.

“She knew he was getting worse and worse. She said she’d keep her space, never would get close enough to him,” Hillebrecht said. “She knew to be careful. I think she went back for one last try because she knew he was being evicted, and he would be on the street.”

When Hillebrecht hadn’t heard from her friend in the days that followed, and learned Friday that she had left her beloved collie, Lacey, alone at home, she panicked and drove straight to Joseph Rockwood’s Southeast Portland apartment. She found Theresa’s car in the parking lot.

“When I found her car, I knew something was wrong,” Hillebrecht said.

Police were called to the apartment complex at 11614 S.E. Division St. at 11:39 a.m. After repeated knocks went unanswered, police entered the third-floor unit and found Joseph Rockwood. He denied anyone else was in the one-bedroom apartment. Officer Robert Slyter discovered Theresa’s body on the bathroom floor.

At the discovery, according to an affidavit filed in court, Joseph Rockwood blurted out to officers, “Just my dead sister, with the Holy Moses picture on the wall beside her.”

He added, “I didn’t mean to hide anything.”

The officer found a blood-stained knife with a broken blade on the kitchen counter.

Reinecker said she used to clean his house about two days a week, but in recent months her husband was afraid to let her visit Joseph alone.

“I know he was off his meds. I’d go over to his house, and there would be cockroaches, and mice and stuff. It smelled like feces and urine,” she said. On Oct. 12, she and her husband wrote a letter to his Cascadia caseworker and doctor, telling them of the unsanitary conditions in his home, his three blaring TVs kept on to reportedly block out the voices in his head, and his increased weight. Rockwood weighed 450 pounds when booked at the jail.

In her last e-mail to her Illinois aunt, Theresa Rockwood wrote of her frustrations. Her brother refused all treatment and would not allow his caseworkers to work with him in the past year. When they’d visit, he’d “snap out of it” and convince them that he was OK. She said she was no longer comfortable one-on-one with him.

Hillebrecht says she’s more upset with the state mental health system than she is with Joseph Rockwood.

“I think if the state would have heard Theresa’s cry for help and would have done something,” she said, overcome with tears. “His sister was the one who truly, literally laid her life down for him.”

The judge will say Joseph Rockwood is guilty but insane. That verdict will try to shut the door on the pathetic and predictable death of his sister. But Theresa Rockwood’s death will haunt those dependent on Oregon’s broken mental health service delivery system.

For people dependent on services from agencies such as Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare that door remains wide open.


Is Joe Rockwood guilty? Yes and no. Is he accountable? He will assuredly spend the rest of his life locked up, and ironically receiving the medical treatment he sorely missed.

But will judging Joseph make amends for his crime? No.

So who bears responsibility for the death of Theresa Rockwood?

The Oregon State Legislature.

That our ‘system’ is broken is undeniable. It’s been broken for decades. That our ‘system’ attempts to provide direct and essential services for thousands is a fact. That tens of thousands of family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues, depend on capable and competent services being available. Our courts, our hospitals, our primary care clinics, our police, and our city and county managers also depend on these services.

The financial cost of not providing capable and competent services FAR OUTWEIGH the cost of providing services.

But the political cost of doing little and less is negligible.

For decades the Oregon State Legislature has evaded responsibility to fund these services. They’ve cut budgets in good times and bad. They’ve ignored fair warnings from impartial observers. They’ve plead and proven ignorance and disdained education.

Local governments share in the responsibility here, but our state legislators need to be held directly accountable for pathetic and predictable tragedies like the death of Theresa Rockwood.