A Family’s Nightmare `We Tried So Hard to Get Him Help’

The Record/August 9, 1992

By Neil Reisner
After Isobel McKeown finally learned her son John had been found dead in Florida, she drove from her Montvale apartment to Ridgewood, where John had spent his childhood years.
She passed the home on Pershing Street, where the family first moved from New York, the one with the picket fence installed “inside out,” cross braces to the front to discourage the toddler from scaling its heights. She passed the high school, where John had been on the wrestling team.
She parked at Graydon Pool, the village swimming hole, gazed out at the water, and remembered John’s yearly ritual dashing to the pool early on opening day so he could be first to plunge off the high dive.
She remembered the boy, not the adult trapped by paranoia. She tried to erase the image of John’s last moments: homeless, at the mercy of backwoods killers, swinging from a rope looped high over an oak tree deep in the brush-filled forest. It was nearly a year before two hunters found his remains, a piece of his spine still dangling.
“We tried so hard to get him help,” his mother said.
John Fairchild McKeown was 34 when he died, sometime between August 1989 and January 1990. The following November his remains were discovered in the remote Withla coochee State Forest, about 40 miles northeast of Tampa.
It took another nine months, until Aug. 5, 1991, for Smithsonian Institution anthropologists to put a name to the weathered skull, letting police bring the news to McKeown’s family.
Just 18 days later, a grand jury released Tommy Lamar Rogers, Stanley Howell Johnson, and Johnny Alfred Snipes, who authorities say killed McKeown after he stumbled onto their marijuana plantation in swampy Pasco County, some 30 miles to the south. The grand jurors apparently did not believe testimony from three prison inmates who said they knew about the killing. But Florida prosecutors still hope to make the case stick.
That doesn’t satisfy McKeown’s family: his long-divorced parents Isobel, a teacher, and Jack, an insurance adjuster; and his sisters, Corinne, Donna, and Laurie. How, they ask, could this happen to the son and brother they loved? And what, they want to know, is the use of a legal and social-service system that could not force John McKeown to accept the help that could have made him well?
“The system just cannot recognize that a sick person needs help,” said Jack McKeown.
John McKeown’s story begins in 1957, when the McKeown family moved from the Bronx to Ridgewood, then as now a wealthy suburb. John was 2, the family’s first child, active and curious.
A popular boy, McKeown spent much of his time fishing in the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook and the Saddle River, skating at the Montvale Roller Rink, and putting on puppet shows for local youngsters. He made an annual rite of the village’s July Fourth parade, bringing up the rear with a gang of local boys.
“We got a phone call once in the middle of the night. `Come get John,’ ” recalled Isobel. “Some man had John and his friend on the porch with a shotgun. The two of them sneaked out of the house in the middle of the night and went over to this man’s property because it was next-door to the house of a little girl they had a crush on. He was very young, 8 or 9.”
School proved difficult and both John’s teachers and his parents sensed that he did not achieve all he could. The learning disabilities contributing to the problem did not become apparent until junior high school, where he got extra help and did better. His wise-guy charm made up for manifold sins.
Once, Jack McKeown recalled, John brought a large turtle to class at St. Joseph’s High School in Montvale, where he attended school before transferring to Ridgewood High School in the 11th grade.
“The brother teaching the class had a fit and ordered John to take the turtle outside,” recalled Jack McKeown. “John came waltzing back an hour and a half later. He said, `Brother, I couldn’t get the turtle to walk any faster.”
There was another side to John. He smoked some pot in his third-floor bedroom, and those who knew him noting a family history of alcohol problems said that drugs may have exacerbated his later difficulties.
John graduated from Ridgewood High School in 1974, and it was around then that hints of things to come began to show.
“He would just kind of turn his back on some of his friends,” recalled his sister, Donna. “He was starting to get very paranoid. . . . I had the feeling that he wasn’t very well-liked toward the end of high school.”
McKeown spent the next four years at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island, earning two associate degrees in liberal arts and business. His charm again served him well.
“He was the deejay at the cafeteria,” said Corinne, who visited John at college in those years, remembering the little business he developed shooting films of campus life, then charging admission to fellow students who came to see themselves on screen. “He really seemed to belong.”
But John didn’t complete a four-year degree. Instead he went into sales and then managed a Passaic County rock club. As Atlantic City began to boom in the early 1980s, he went to casino school in Fort Lee. He worked as a croupier, dealt blackjack, and spun the roulette wheel in three different casinos, had a girlfriend, and seemed on the brink of success.
“He did very well in Atlantic City,” said Jack McKeown, who visited his son during business trips to the shore and remembered proudly how John would ask for special permission to let his dad play at his table. “Then suddenly things went awry.”
It started small. Mood swings. Relationship problems. Then more bizarre behavior, like jaunts on the third-floor roof of the boardinghouse where he lived, breaking or hiding mirrors because the demons inside were after him, fears that the VCR was bugged. He conceded he was smoking marijuana heavily but family members suspected more.
In July 1987, John checked himself into the Philadelphia Psychiatric Clinic for 10 days. The diagnosis: manic-depressive disorder with paranoid psychosis. He was given medication, which helped, and was referred to Dr. Gary M. Glass, a psychiatrist with offices in Philadelphia and South Jersey. But John showed up only once. He soon began refusing to take the pills, which he called salt tablets and claimed did no good.
Glass, who specializes in legal issues affecting mental patients, recalled a young man who was quite disturbed but not dangerous. He said John probably was schizophrenic, an ailment which often leads “to the individual resisting intervention, seeing the intervention as something malignant rather than something that is helpful.”
Then came brushes with the law.
In September 1987, John was picked up in Ocean County after a confrontation at a convenience store; he was charged with breaking and entering, theft, and criminal mischief. Police took him to a nearby mental hospital for evaluation. Officers waited with him in the emergency room for eight hours, until well after midnight, only to hear a counselor say the obviously disturbed McKeown was not dangerous and could not be committed against his will.
Jack McKeown retells the story with a sense of resignation, pulling documents from a 2-inch thick folder labeled “John’s Dossier. ” Scribbled notes and countless letters tell a tale of frustration.
The elder McKeown pleaded with Ocean County Prosecutor James W. Hozapfel to press charges. In jail, at least, his son would have to take his medication. Or, the elder McKeown suggested in a letter, give John an ultimatum: “Either he voluntarily readmits himself to Philadelphia Psychiatric or he faces the full wrath of the court.”
Terrence P. Farley, first assistant prosecutor in Ocean County, suggested by return mail that Jack McKeown, “another member of the family, or perhaps his girlfriend impress upon him the fact that these are very serious charges and unless he takes care of his psychiatric situation they would have dire consequences.”
But, Farley wrote, “there is nothing we can do to force your son into any voluntary or even involuntary psychiatric program.”
The Ocean County charges eventually were dropped. John dropped out of sight and, two weeks after filing a missing-person report, the family learned he had been arrested Sept. 26, 1987, this time for attempting to drive his car onto the runways at Philadelphia International Airport.
Again, the McKeown family saw an opportunity to force John to accept treatment. He was placed in the Delaware County Jail medical unit, where he was given anti-psychotic drugs. But officials did not consult with the Philadelphia Psychiatric Clinic to learn his diagnosis or find out what had been prescribed there. The family begged judges and lawyers to contact the clinic, put John on the proper medication, and see that he received some sort of help. His parents say they got no response.
Finally, just before Christmas, the family could stand no more and bailed John out. He briefly went home, then dropped from sight, emerging only occasionally when he needed help. Family members gave him what they could money, fresh clothes, and love but they could not force him to get help.
Corinne McKeown remembered one of the last visits, in the spring of 1988.
“I made him a bed on the couch and he stayed the night. I felt very protective of him,” she said. “To my knowledge, he was living nowhere.”
The next morning, John asked Corinne for a lift to Route 17.
“I stuck a little book of prayers in his blanket, which I rolled up and tied,” she said. “We got out of the car and I put my arms around him . . . and I watched him walk away.”
Three years later, on July 25, 1991, two Hackensack police detectives visited Jack McKeown in his office. They wanted John’s dental records.
In the early days of last August, John’s identity was confirmed, and in September, the family buried him.
Now the McKeown family hopes only that John’s killers will be brought to justice and that his life and death can be a lesson. People need to understand that the homeless on the street have families who love them, they say. And, they add, laws that prevent family members from getting help for their loved ones should be changed.
Isobel McKeown has one more hope.
“Sometime in the future, I will go down there and I will have the spot where John died blessed,” she said. “That is where most of him is. And as I had his grave site blessed, I will do it there. ”

SIDEBAR: Debating Rights Of Mentally Ill Homeless People
One lesson to be learned from the tale of John McKeown is that the mentally ill homeless people on the street often have families who love them and who have struggled to get them help.
Another is that gaps in the mental-health and legal systems sometimes make that help unobtainable. Just ask the McKeown family.
“If the hospital did its job, none of this would have happened,” said Jack McKeown, John’s father. “They could only admit him if he did it voluntarily. He was a sick person. He didn’t know he needed help.”
Although recent changes in the law were aimed at making it easier to help the John McKeowns of the world, lack of money renders the new laws ineffective. And restrictions aimed at guarding sick people from abuse and well people from wrongful commitment still can hurt those who could be helped by hospitalization.
“The system favors the freedom of the mentally ill person, often to their detriment,” said Dr. Gary M. Glass, a psychiatrist who briefly treated John McKeown and who teaches forensic psychiatry at Villanova University’s School of Law. “You die with your rights on.”
Until the 1970s, it was relatively easy to commit a patient involuntarily. Sometimes it took only two physicians willing to sign a form.
The standard changed after disclosures that some patients had spent years needlessly locked away in mental institutions. Activists won laws permitting involuntary commitment only for people who were both mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others. That typically applies to people who are violent, self-destructive, or incapable of caring for day-to-day needs.
McKeown did not meet that standard. In 1987, recognizing that some people who were not dangerous still needed treatment, New Jersey made involuntary commitment easier. Under a law that took affect in 1989, months after it could have helped McKeown, individuals who are clearly on the verge of a downward slide that could endanger them can be confined involuntarily.
The new law set up county screening centers, staffed by psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists who could authorize commitments of up to 72 hours. Longer commitments require further screening and a court order.
Short-term commitments can help. Psychiatrists say patients may realize they need help after they take anti-psychotic medication for a few days.
The law still leans toward keeping the mentally ill out of hospitals. “Our goal is to put forth their side of the story,” said Patrick D. Reilly, deputy director of the Division of Mental Health Advocacy, which represents mentally ill people in commitment hearings. “If they don’t want to stay, we would try to show they aren’t mentally ill or aren’t dangerous.”
Although 25,254 people were hospitalized through the screening centers last year, mental health activists say there has never been enough money to help mentally ill people who pose no immediate threat. The $14.6 billion state budget allocates about $211.5 million to mental health this fiscal year 5.7 percent more than a year ago.
“Because of the lack of resources in the community for mental health, the way they have to run the centers is on the `dangerous to self or others standard,” said Carolyn Beauchamp, executive director of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. “If there were more alternatives to hospitalization that screeners could use . . . it could be done differently. “