Sick and Alone | Mental Illness in Rural Arizona Jails

A Devil Inside Him

Once, a horse kicked Adrian Perez in the head. He was visiting his grandparents on their ranch in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and the horse spooked at something and ran right over Adrian, then a small boy. After his grandmother wiped off the blood, Adrian seemed fine.

Adrian’s brother Richy, only a year older than Adrian, took it harder than anyone. Richy felt obligated as the big brother in his Mexican-American family to take care of Adrian.

The boys’ father, Blas, was a Mexican farmworker who settled in eastern Cochise County after obtaining legal permanent residency in the United States. Their mother, Blanca, mostly raised the four kids, Richy, Adrian, Eric and Ana.

Blas bought land in Winchester Heights, a remote farmworker community about 15 miles outside of Willcox. On weekends, the boys mixed cement and carried construction blocks as their father built the family a three-bedroom house. The family moved in after Blanca was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As the eldest, Richy promised his mother he’d always take care of his siblings.

After Blanca’s death, Adrian seemed more withdrawn. When his dad told him to straighten his room or clean the yard or do his homework, Adrian either talked back or broke things.

Looking back on it, Eric says, the family “didn’t understand mental illness very well.”

Richy joined the Army National Guard, but took care of Ana and Eric when his father and Adrian moved briefly to El Paso. In Texas, Adrian was certified as a bilingual electrical assistant, and Blas went to trucking school in hopes of earning more money.

A few months later, in 2004, Blas died in a trucking accident.

Richy quit the National Guard and worked in the fields near the house he had inherited from his father. Richy was 21, old enough, he thought, to take full responsibility for Eric, 14, and Ana, 12. Adrian tried to help but couldn’t hold down a job for long.

Adrian’s mental illness remained undiagnosed for years. None of the siblings remember when, exactly, Adrian started hearing voices. One insulting voice, which Adrian called “Tony,” made home life even more chaotic. Adrian episodically screamed at Tony while batting at the air and throwing things.

Ana thought Adrian had a devil inside him.

Adrian, left, is shown with his brother Richy in this undated photo from their childhood. Photo courtesy Richy Perez

The undiagnosed schizophrenia likely caused Adrian to chase four people up and down a Willcox street in 2006. No one was hurt, but someone called the cops, who tackled Adrian, shackling his legs and cuffing his wrists. In the back seat of the patrol car, Adrian panicked, slamming his head repeatedly against the door and bars in front of the window.The officers turned on the siren and lights and hightailed it to a small county jail annex in Willcox. When they forced Adrian into a restraint chair, he fought even harder, breaking a staffer’s prescription glasses.

Adrian pleaded guilty to criminal damage and resisting arrest, promising to pay $135 for the broken glasses. And he spent three months in jail, in part because he couldn’t pay his $3,000 bail. He didn’t pay his mounting justice court fines, and failed to appear in court to explain why.

When Adrian came home from jail, he often walked 15 miles from the house in Winchester Heights to Willcox. If Adrian didn’t return home, Richy says, he automatically called the Cochise County Jail, figuring his brother was there.

One day in 2008, Adrian walked into a neighbor’s yard, and, right in front of him, drove away in the neighbor’s red Nissan pickup. Sheriff’s deputies arrested Adrian on a felony charge – knowingly taking unauthorized control over a means of transportation – and a misdemeanor, criminal damage.

In a way, it’s the best thing that could have happened, because it led to his schizophrenia diagnosis. Adrian’s public defender requested a so-called “Rule 11” psychiatric examination to see if Adrian was mentally competent to stand trial for the felony charge in Cochise County Superior Court. He wasn’t, a psychiatrist said. He smiled inappropriately and couldn’t communicate in any meaningful way. It was suggestive of psychosis.

A judge sent Adrian to the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix to see if he could be “restored to competency” in order to stand trial for taking the red Nissan. This is a common practice in both federal and state courts. Advocates say it benefits the criminal justice system, not the person with mental illness, who can spend six months being “restored” while not getting appropriate, sustainable mental health care.

Still, Adrian finally had a diagnosis – “Schizophrenia, Undifferentiated Type” – at least three years after he showed symptoms of the illness. Richy, who’d long wondered if the horse kick had caused Adrian’s bizarre behavior, began to realize his brother had a complicated condition likely spurred by genetic and environmental factors.

Adrian understood he had schizophrenia, but he thought the doctors could fix it.

Arizona State Hospital psychiatrists tried different combinations and doses of medication to treat Adrian’s psychosis. Even so, staffers noted Adrian was often “confused and internally preoccupied.” After six months, the doctors could not restore Adrian to competency.

A Cochise County Superior Court judge dropped Adrian’s 2008 felony charge for taking the neighbor’s truck on a joyride.

Comments are closed.