Monday, November 30, 2009

Willows, California: Man jailed for abuse and neglect in connection with the death of his brother, Walter Knox Hildebrand Jr.

By GREG WELTER-Staff Writer
Posted: 08/04/2010 10:50:42 AM PDT

WILLOWS — A Willows man has been arrested following a lengthy investigation for possibly contributing to the death of his 20-year-old brother in November 2009, in Elk Creek.

Stuart Allen Hildebrand, 22, was booked into the Glenn County Jail in Willows Monday on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and causing pain, suffering or injury to an elder or dependent adult. Hildebrand's brother, Walter Knox Hildebrand Jr., suffered from autism. Walter Hildebrand was found dead on the floor of a bedroom inside a mobile home on County Road 306. Investigators said his body had numerous scratches, cuts and facial bruising. His death was reported by his brother.

An autopsy revealed that the man died of apparent seizure activity due to a known disorder. Although the cause of death is natural, Sheriff Larry Jones said the potential for criminal negligence and physical abuse was present.

The autopsy further revealed that autism and malnutrition were contributing factors in the young man's death.

After several interviews with family members, friends and the suspect, a complaint was issued with the Glenn County District Attorney's office and an arrest warrant issued. Hildebrand is being held on bail of $35,000.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ocala, Florida: Details on autistic boy, Bernard Latimore, 10, who drowned in neighbor's pool

Bernard Latimore, age 10

By Austin L. Miller
Staff writer
Published: Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 6:05 p.m.

The woman who was taken to a hospital Friday afternoon after her 10-year-old autistic son drowned in a murky swimming pool has been released and is feeling much better, according to a Marion County Sheriff’s official.

Katese Richardson was overcome with grief when she saw her son’s body before it was taken away by the Medical Examiner’s Office. She was released from the hospital Friday night, but no one was at her home Saturday afternoon.

Bernard Latimore, an autistic child who could not speak, had wandered away from his Northwest 57th Court home and could not be found despite the search efforts of sheriff’s deputies, canines and neighbors. His body eventually was found in a nearby neighbor’s pool.

Additional details became available Saturday from a Sheriff’s Office report.

Richardson left her home around 8 a.m. for work, leaving her 16-year-old son, Bernard, and her two other children at the home. One of the children, the woman told deputies, saw Bernard leave the home and walk south on Northwest 57th Court. The child tried to stop her brother from leaving, but he kept walking.

The girl, officials say, then woke up her 16-year-old brother, and they went outside looking for Bernard. Sheriff’s officials said Richardson called them at 10:12 a.m.

During the search, officials came upon a neighbor who said he had been sleeping when he heard someone knocking on the door. The man said he looked outside and saw someone carrying a pink pillow case. Thinking it was a salesman, the man ignored the knock.

About 11:30 a.m., two deputies went to a nearby residence that had a pool. They did not see anything, and the doors were locked. The pool, officials say, had algae and no one could see the bottom.

The woman who lives there told the Star-Banner on Saturday that she and her mother came home sometime after 1 p.m. and noticed a pillow floating in the pool. They called officials, who in turn saw a pink pillow floating on the south side of the pool.

An autopsy was not performed on the child on Saturday, according to officials.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Edmonton, Ontario: Killer dad 'couldn't cope'

Family experienced severe behavioural problems with autistic son
Last Updated: September 30, 2009 3:16am

It was a "loving, caring" father who killed his 11-year-old autistic son before killing himself, according to family.

That message was passed through a social worker who tried helping the family cope with struggles that bring many parents to the edge.

"I wasn't surprised. It was a feeling of dread, like oh my god, it happened," said Karen Phillips, program director for the Autism Society of Edmonton Area, who worked directly with the suffering family.

"(The mother) said (the father) just couldn't handle it anymore. He couldn't cope. He was worried his son wasn't going to get what he needed.

"Something had to give here."

She broke down, saying, "the bottom line here is that I do worry. There are other families that I worry about. There's intense stress over the long term. It puts people at very high risk, so no, I wasn't very surprised."

The 39-year-old father locked himself in the basement of the family's home at 8403 138 Ave. and, somehow, committed the acts.

The causes of their deaths have not been released, at the request of the surviving mother to protect her remaining young son, said Patrycia Thenu, police spokesman.

However, cops are dubbing it a homicide-suicide.

The bodies were found by family just before 1 p.m. Sunday.

The 11-year-old threw thrashing fits and slept poorly, said Phillips.

In the spring of 2008, he had such a tantrum that his family took him to Royal Alexandra hospital.

"The family gets to the point of becoming unglued. They don't know what to do," said Phillips.

Royal Alex staff originally said it was the wrong place to take him, she said.

She notes that there are no emergency services for autistic people when parents lose control. Also, parents never really know if their child is freaking out because something is medically wrong with them.

The 11-year-old spent 20 hours strapped to a hospital bed, screaming, said Phillips.

It was the breaking point. After 10 years of home care, the family sought to have their son sent out for care.

"They were wondering what they were going to do now with his severe behavioural problems," said Phillips.

It took some time to find a placement.

Meanwhile, the family was stressed. The stress didn't break, even as a group home took the 11-year-old on weekdays.

"Mom has said it's kind of been an accumulation of stress that's built up over time," said Phillips.

Phillips urged that the government and community must step forward to offer parents of autistic children more support, especially for emergency relief.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mississauga, Ontario: Autistic-murder case: Mother upset by husband's plans to institutionalize their son, Tony Khor

Tony Khor, age 15

By Catherine McDonald, Global News, and Matthew Coutts, National Post

The Mississauga mother charged with murdering her autistic teenager was distraught in the days before the death because her husband was considering moving him to a care home, neighbours said yesterday.

Peter Varanelli, a long time friend and neighbour of the family, said Boon Khor wanted to move his son to a specialized care facility, but the mother could not bear the idea.

“Her son was her life. Period,” Mr. Varanelli said. “Maybe she should have just accepted that he needed to go to an institution. But she just couldn’t see it that way.”

Tony Khor, 15 (pictured at top), was found dead in a Mississauga hotel on Sunday. He was a low-functioning autistic unable to speak, often making noises in an attempt to communicate. He was found dead after a call from a room alerted police to his whereabouts.

Sources told Global News the boy had been strangled.

His mother, Seow Cheng Sin, 51, appeared in a Brampton court yesterday to face charged of first-degree murder. She is reportedly on suicide watch.

Police said Ms. Sin left the family home with Tony after an argument with Mr. Khor on Saturday.

Mr. Khor, pictured, broke down in tears after leaving his wife’s court appearance yesterday. He told reporters he and his wife had argued before she left and she threatened to divorce him.

“I said ‘I would never bring up a divorce, why would you bring it up? If you want a divorce, go ahead,’” said Mr. Khor, 51. ‘‘I never saw the signs coming .... She said if you divorce me I will kill myself. I should have known.”

Mr. Khor said the couple would often argue, but Ms. Sin would always return home after a cooling-off period. He said she was depressed, but ‘‘dedicated’’ to their son and should not have been charged with first-degree murder.

Neighbours in the family’s close-knit Mississauga neighbourhood described them as caring, seemingly able to manage the stresses of raising an autistic child.

The boy’s autism was so bad he could not speak, often spooking people who were not familiar with his condition, Mr. Varanelli said.

He said the boy relied on routine and would grow agitated around visitors no matter how often they came to visit.

The boy, Mr. Varanelli said, was getting big. He estimated the teenager was nearly six feet tall, and still growing. He already towered over his diminutive mother, leading the family to question how much longer she could care for him.

“He was getting big ... in a few years they were going to have to think about it.

A silver haired woman who lived up the street from the family had spoken to Ms. Sin on Friday about the possibility of moving her son to a home.

“From her point of view — never,” the woman said, declining to give her name. “But the husband thought they would have to at some point. He was worried that she might not be able to handle it for much longer.”

The woman said she had offered to help the woman in any way she could. She said they had moved Tony to a new school in September for more hands-on assistance. He was agitated by the move at first, but she said Ms. Sin felt he was settling in.

Students at St. Marcellinus School said they were told a classmate died in an accident over the weekend. The school’s flag was at half-staff.

Sunil Kapoor and his wife, whose yard is adjacent to the couple’s, were shocked to hear the news, describing them as an open, loving family.

The couple and their 15-year-old son were staples in the community, and often took long walks through the neighbourhood.

Mr. Khor works in the IT sector during the day, leaving much of the child-rearing to his wife, Seow Cheng Sin.

Mr. Kapoor said Ms. Sin lived for her son, picking him up from the bus stop and playing badminton with him on the family’s lawn, weather permitting.

“They would play badminton on the grass and go for walks. Usually the two of them, but sometimes the father too,” he said.

“And she loved him so much. Sure, he had issues, but she would take care of him. He never hurt anyone. He just had episodes.”

The family had lived in their Clansman Trail home for more than 20 years, neighbours said.

Tears welled in the eyes of a Chinese couple living in the neighbourhood as they heard the news yesterday.

Another young man walking his dog past said he had gone to elementary school with Tony. He was too stunned over his death to speak.

“He was a good kid,” he said.

Ms. Sin returns to court on Friday.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: CFHS student, Trevor Varinecz, killed suffered from Autism

Trevor Varinecz , age 16

NewsChannel is learning more about the shooting that left a 16-year-old student dead at Carolina Forest High School Friday morning.

Horry County Coroner Robert Edge tells us that Trevor Varinecz was shot five times by School Resource Officer Marcus Rhodes.

One of those gunshot wounds was through the chest and that proved to be fatal.

Police say Varinecz stabbed Officer Rhodes in Rhodes' office at the school Friday morning. The officer responded by shooting Varinecz, who died about an hour later at Conway Medical Center.

Officer Rhodes was treated for stab wounds and released from the hospital around 12:30pm.

NewsChannel 15 did speak with Varinecz's mother, Karen, Saturday.

She told us about her son, saying, "he was a wonderful boy. We can't understand what happened... He was not violent, he was never violent. We just don't know what he was thinking."

She did confirm that her son suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism that can effect a person's emotional and social skills.

Asperger's Syndrome is often considered a high functioning form of autism.

People with this syndrome have difficulty interacting socially, repeat behaviors, and often are clumsy. Motor milestones may be delayed. The main symptom is severe trouble with social situations.

Karen Varinecz noted how Trevor found it challenging to make friends.

Trevor's former cognitive behavioral therapist described to us how Asperger's Syndrome can effect a school-aged child.

James Garvey, high-functioning Autism specialist, noted how young children and teens "try to interact but it's just that they fail to interact appropriately. By the time -- when they get to middle school where the social demands are really heightened to be socially involved, they fail even more. So, they get picked on, they become victims and scapegoats and bullied."

State Education Department spokesman Jim Foster says Friday's incident was the first time a school police officer has killed a student on campus in South Carolina.

Solicitor releases school shooting video, SLED report

December 14, 2009
CONWAY -- The 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office released surveillance video and photos from the morning of the Carolina Forest High School shooting-stabbing incident that left one student dead.

Carolina Forest High student Trevor Varinecz, 16, died Oct. 16 after an altercation with Horry County Police Lance Cpl. Marcus Rhodes, the school resource officer.

Surveillance video shows Varinecz wandering through the school's hallways before he met Rhodes and Assistant Principal Frances Gaye Driggers.

According to a voluntary statement given by Rhodes to SLED, Varinecz asked to speak to Rhodes in his office.

Rhodes told SLED Varinecz asked him to close the office door for privacy, then the boy said he was paranoid.

He told Rhodes there was a spider in a corner of the office and asked Rhodes “to take care of it.”

When Rhodes complied and turned his attention to the office corner, he says Varinecz lunged at him with what appeared to be a large knife.

Rhodes said he shouted at Varinecz to drop the knife and yelled to Driggers for help.

Rhodes says he pushed Varinecz into a corner, tried to pull the knife away and began wrestling with Varinecz.

According to the report, both Varinecz and Rhodes had their hands wrapped around the knife. Varinecz then told Rhodes to give him his gun and said "I have no reason to live. Just shoot me."

Rhodes says he told Varinecz he would help him, but the boy seemed determined to kill himself.

Driggers and a few other faculty members by then were at the office door but Rhodes told them not to open the door, since he did not want Varinecz to get out of the room with the knife, according to the investigation.

Rhodes says he was surprised at how strong the boy was and how determined he was to continue the attack so he tried to “short circuit his pattern of thought” and he shot Varinecz in the leg. The investigation shows Varinecz was shot three times in the leg.

Rhodes said at that point, Varinecz became even more difficult to contain and said, "just shoot me."

After Varinecz got one arm free, Rhodes says he felt like he was losing control of the incident and he tried shooting Varinecz in the arm, but then remembered Varinecz stabbing him in the back. The investigation later shows Rhodes was stabbed at least seven times.

Rhodes said he knew Varinecz would have access to his gun, so in order to stop the attack on him or others, he decided he had to shoot Varinecz to end the attack.

According to the investigation, Rhodes shot Varinecz in the chest, pushed him away and the boy fell forward against a storage cabinet.

Rhodes says Varinecz slid down the wall to the floor. At that point a few school employees entered the office and Varinecz said "Thank you sir. Thank you," before losing consciousness

Rhodes says he tried administering CPR before he was relieved by another officer.

The investigation shows there were a total of 10 shots fired by Rhodes.

Five shots hit Varinecz and five missed.

The autospy showed Varinecz died from a single shot to the chest.

The report also said when the autopsy was done, a note was found inside Varincez's pants that read "Check Trevor’s folder on my PC for my last words."

That last word's document was not included in the report given by the solicitor's office.

Photos released by the solicitor's office also show evidence from the shooting-stabbing incident.

Rhodes was cleared of any wrongdoing in the incident by the State Law Enforcement Division and Solicitor Greg Hembree last week.

Stay tuned to News 13 and to see surveillance video from the incident and more on the investigation reports, once those materials become available.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Seattle, Washington: Devine Farrier, 11, killed crossing a busy roadway


SEATTLE – State Route 99 is a busy roadway, with cars flying by. Eleven-year-old Devine Farrier was trying to cross it Saturday when he was hit by a one ton flatbed pick-up truck.

He died Sunday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

His family had reported the autistic boy had disappeared from his Sea-Tac home just 15 minutes earlier, and in that time he had wandered through the woods and onto the freeway without any shoes.

You may be wondering why an 11-year-old child was walking on State Route 99 all alone, but for parents of children with autism it’s something they worry about all the time. In fact, the National Autism Association found in a recent study that 92 percent of parents with children with autism consider those children at risk for wandering away.

Autism is a complex disorder that affects social interaction and communication. Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah educates and helps families and their children cope with the disorder.

It doesn’t surprise them that Devine walked away from home and onto a highway.

“It can be a common problem for most any of these kids,” said Dan Stachelski, Ex. Dir. Lakeside Center For Autism. “Part of the reason is they don’t have the internal motivation or internal feeling about being safe, about being protected by family members, about being connected to their parents to know that it’s not safe to leave their side.”

Protecting a child with autism can be difficult and expensive, from locks on doors to GPS systems, but the community can help as well.

“That’s what they need, they need help and this is an epidemic that’s not going anywhere,” said Stachelski.

Just a few days ago the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that one in every 91 children has a form of autism, and they believe that rate could continue to rise.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

South Bar, Nova Scotia: James Delorey, 7, dies of exposure after two nights in the frozen wilderness

James Delorey, age 7

By: Michael MacDonald and Alison Auld
Posted: 9/12/2009 1:00 AM

HALIFAX -- James Delorey, the Cape Breton boy who died in hospital after miraculously surviving two nights lost in the frozen wilderness, was remembered Tuesday as a calm and quiet child whose big brown eyes did most of the talking.

The seven-year-old succumbed to severe hypothermia less than a day after he was found unconscious in a densely wooded area of the island, about a kilometre from his home in South Bar, N.S.

Rescue officials said the little boy, who had followed the family dog into the woods on Saturday afternoon, probably clung to life by seeking shelter in the thick underbrush and huddling with the pet. However, the cold took its toll.

James wasn't wearing a winter coat and his vital signs were weak when he was found Monday lying in the fetal position, covered in a light dusting of snow. It was unclear whether he ever regained consciousness.

Paul MacDonald, the principal at James's school in nearby Sydney, said the boy couldn't speak because he had autism, but that didn't stop him from leaving a big impression on his teachers and fellow students.

"Even though he was non-verbal, he could show his emotions," he said, adding that the boy loved playing with blocks and hanging out in the cafeteria. "He had a nice way about him... he was very calm, like the picture they're showing in the papers. That's the way he was around the school. Just a nice little boy... He seemed content."

MacDonald said James and his older brother arrived at Harbourside Elementary in September when the boys and their mother, Veronica Fraser, moved from Calgary to live with Fraser's parents in South Bar.

When word spread Saturday that James had disappeared in the marshy woods that surround the town, some of his teachers joined in the search, along with hundreds of other volunteers from across the province.

And when he was found alive almost two days later, the community's residents were almost as stunned as they were relieved.

"Yesterday, we were really hoping that things were going to work out -- it seemed like it was going to be a miracle," said MacDonald.

"That's why it's so tough today. The kids and the teachers are having a tough time because of that hope...

"They're pretty devastated."

Melanie Sampson, a resident of South Bar who lives down the road from the Fraser family, said she did not see James outside very often.

"His mother never let him wander," she said. "She could never leave him out of her sight, God love her."

With less than three weeks to go before Christmas, the town is in mourning, Sampson said.

Rescuers followed the dog's tracks directly to James.

The dog, a mixed-breed named Chance, emerged from the forest about two hours before the boy was found.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Haines Falls, New York: Missing autistic teen, Ryan Barrett, found dead

Ryan Barrett, age 14

Posted: Aug 14, 2009 10:07 AM EDT

HAINES FALLS -- Officials in Greene County believe they have found the body of a 14-year-old autistic teen that went missing from a campground Thursday. The teen, Ryan Barrett of Lindenhurst in Long Island, was staying with family at the North South Lake Campground in Haines Falls, ten miles from Hunter Mountain.

Witnesses say the boy was found dead in one of the two lakes nearby. Police suspect no foul play, so it is likely Barrett drowned.

His family reported him missing around 7:30pm, shortly after they arrived at the campground. Less than 24 hours later, his body was found.

With two lakes and dozens of trails, State Police had a lot of terrain to search on foot and by helicopter, but it was State Police Divers who found him in a lake.

Sources tell NEWS10 that Barrett wandered away from his campground, a behavior that is typical of people with autism.

"A lot of autistic children like to wander," said Cindy Hermann with the Autism Society of America, "The child's there one minute happily playing and the next minute you look around and they're gone."

Hermann, herself, has an autistic son and says whether it's a campground or a neighborhood, it takes a community to look after an afflicted child because they often lack fear, especially around busy streets or water.

"They just have a fearlessness about them, which can be scary," Hermann told NEWS10.

Barrett's body is now at Saint Peter's Hospital in Albany, where an autopsy is expected to be performed.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Huntington, West Virginia: Christopher Cline dies after untreated head injury

Father blames Autism Services Center for son's death
12/21/2010 12:55 PM By Kyla Asbury -Cabell Bureau

HUNTINGTON -- A man is suing Autism Services Center after he claims it is responsible for his son's death.

Christopher J. Cline had autism and moderate mental retardation and lived with his parents until his death on July 31, 2009, according to a complaint filed Nov. 22 in Cabell Circuit Court.

On July 31, 2009, Autism Services Center assigned Christopher Cline's day services to its employee Joey Cutler. Cutler picked Christopher Cline up at his home and drove him to the Cabell County Public Library, according to the suit.

Daryl Cline, Christopher Cline's father, claims while Cutler and his son were at the library, his son went to the men's restroom, which meant he was out of Cutler's eyesight when Cutler heard Christopher Cline "fall hard and let out a loud bellow."

Cutler assisted Christopher Cline in getting up from the floor and realized that he was disoriented and took longer than usual to be able to get up from the floor, according to the suit.

Daryl Cline claims immediately following the fall, Cutler decided not to seek medical attention for his son and instead drove him to Barboursville Park in order to walk around the track.

While at Barboursville Park, Christopher Cline and Cutler walked around the track several times until Christopher Cline "fell again and let out another loud bellow," according to the suit. Cutler, again, chose not to seek medical attention and decided to drive Christopher Cline to the Huntington Mall.

Daryl Cline claims while Cutler's car was in route to the mall, Christopher Cline began to vomit profusely for several minutes, so Cutler pulled his car over and helped him change his shirt, but did not seek medical attention.

Upon arriving at the mall, Cutler "described a 'gasping, gurgling sound' from Chris in the back seat, who had then become unresponsive, with eyes closed," according to the suit.

Daryl Cline claims upon arrival of EMS personnel, Cutler was asked if Christopher Cline had any recent injuries and "apparently responded that he was 'not sure of any recent injuries.'"

Christopher Cline's patient care record does not reveal that Cutler "informed the responding EMS personnel of either fall Chris had suffered earlier that morning or that Chris had been profusely vomiting shortly before EMS arrived," according to the suit.

Testing revealed the Christopher Cline had suffered a shallow bleed on both sides of his brain, but because he had then reached the neurological stage of fixed and dilated pupils, simple evacuation of the shallow subdural hematomas had been eliminated as a surgical option, according to the suit.

Daryl Cline is seeking compensatory damages with pre- and post-judgment interest. He is being represented by Chad S. Lovejoy.

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge F. Jane Hustead.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kent: Ohio: Sky Walker 19, kills his mother Trudy Steuernagel, and continues to ask for her from jail

Kent State professor Trudy Steuernagel's fierce protection of her autistic son, Sky Walker, costs her life: Sheltering Sky

By Joanna Connors, The Plain Dealer
December 06, 2009, 8:42AM

"To Whom it May Concern: If this letter has been opened and is being read, it is because I have been seriously injured or killed by my son, Sky Walker."

No one knows for sure when Trudy Steuernagel wrote that letter.

She read it to her ex-husband, Scott Walker, in the spring of 2008, when their autistic son, Sky, had grown so violent she sometimes had to barricade herself in a closet.

By then, Trudy's life had begun to feel a lot like that closet. Small. Dark. Isolated. Her ex-husband was gone, living in Wisconsin with his new wife and stepson. Many of her friends were gone, too, lost to the demands she faced caring for Sky.

Sky remained. But in a way, Sky was gone, too. Over the years, he had slipped away from her, retreating into the shadows of autism. The smart little boy who stole hearts with his smiles and hugs had disappeared. Left behind was a 200-pound teenager who overwhelmed her with his constant needs and his unpredictable, terrible anger.

Trudy spent her days teaching political science at Kent State University, where she was a popular professor. She went home to Sky and long evenings of his ever more rigid routines, girding herself for his next meltdown, and hoping the next medication would bring Sky back.

That spring, as Sky's violence increased, Trudy told Scott she had locked the letter in her home safe, in case the worst happened. Less than a year later, it did.

On Jan. 29, 2009, sheriff's deputies found Trudy on the floor of her kitchen, unconscious and struggling to breathe. They found Sky in the basement, blood on his pajamas and feet.

The next day, Trudy's brother, Bill Steuernagel, found the safe in Trudy's closet. The letter, a single folded page, loose in the pile of papers inside, would have been easy to overlook. Trudy's words were not. Shot through with sorrow and regret, they bore witness to her fierce love for her child.

Trudy Steuernagel died eight days after the beating, at age 60.

Sky, legally an adult at 18 but functionally a child, was charged with her murder and held at Portage County Jail while lawyers, social service agencies and the court tried to figure out what to do with him.

As the months went on, the story of the profoundly disabled son who unintentionally killed his mother unfolded like a Greek tragedy. Sky's life and Trudy's death exposed some of the darkest mysteries of autism - from the puzzle of why a smart, capable woman sacrificed her own safety to keep her son at home to the larger legal and social issues presented by the perplexing, often hidden strain of violence in a neurological disorder that, more than 60 years after it was first described, continues to confound scientists.

"The nursery is finally finished. Today, Nov. 9, 1990, was supposed to be your birthday. Where are you, Sky Abbott Walker? About your name. We both wanted a gender neutral name. Pater loves all things to do with flying and I like nature names. I hope you like it, Sky." - Trudy Steuernagel, in Sky Walker's Baby Book

Sky Abbott Walker was born Nov. 15, 1990. Trudy was 42 and smitten. She had been married just a year to Scott Walker, a former student of hers who was nine years younger.

Scott remembers Trudy showing off her smiling, blue-eyed boy, who flirted with strangers and hit developmental marks ahead of the curve. He walked at 9 months, and at 10 months he spoke individual words, knew the alphabet and could read letters. Before his first birthday, he learned numbers and could add, subtract and count. But then he stopped. At 18 months, he still did not put two words together, and by 24 months, he had stopped acquiring new words. When a doctor told Trudy and Scott that their son might have autism, they disagreed. Didn't autism mean a lack of emotion and a resistance to touching? That was not Sky.

"He loved to hug not only his mom and me but his toddler friends and teachers," Scott Walker remembers. "So we said, 'There's no failure to form attachments, he's doing well.'"

By the time he was 3, they stopped fighting the diagnosis. Sky was still not speaking in phrases or sentences, and he was losing words at a steady pace. His early strides with reading letters and numbers turned out to be hyperlexia -- a red flag for autism.

"Except for the speech delay, you would never have suspected he had autism," Scott says. "It was easier to explain his poor performance on tests by saying he was autistic. We felt he was clearly intelligent. He just had no interest in demonstrating for adults what he knew or could do."

If Trudy grieved or felt frightened for Sky, she did not show it. The Internet was still primitive at the time, but she joined autism mailing lists and searched for resources and services.

She also became more protective. After the diagnosis, Scott noticed that Trudy turned inward with Sky; where she once carried him facing out to the wide world, she now held him facing her heart.

Scott and Trudy enrolled him in Kent's special-needs preschool when he turned 4. At the end of that year, his teacher reported that he showed many of the signs of autism: His play was solitary, his speech delayed, and he avoided eye contact. She also noted that he had a problem with aggression but was learning to handle his frustration. Trudy and Scott worried anew. Was aggression another symptom of autism? Or was it just a symptom of childhood? Why was the sweet boy who once hugged everyone now hitting?

Frustration and aggression

Information on rates of aggressive behavior in people with autism is scarce and inconclusive. A roundup of autism research published last month in the British medical journal The Lancet cited a 2008 study that found "disruptive, irritable or aggressive behavior" in 8 percent to 32 percent of children with autism. It did not explain the wide statistical spread, nor did it offer comparison figures for children without autism.

Doctors and teachers in Cleveland who deal with autism begin discussions of aggression with a caveat: Autism does not automatically lead to aggression. No one wants autistic people to suffer the sort of horror-movie stigma that has plagued the mentally ill for so long. But they do not deny the aggressive tendency exists.

"Aggression has always been part of autism," said Leslie Sinclair, the head of the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner School for Autism. "Not in all [autistic] children, of course."

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist and director of the Rainbow Autism Center at University Hospitals, says there are many reasons for the aggression.

"They might also have anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, mood disorders, cognitive impairment," he says.

Sinclair and others return inexorably to the frustrations that emerge not just from the struggle to speak, but also from overwhelming sensory stimulation and the need to adhere to set rituals and routines. For some children with autism, even a tiny deviation can lead to a violent episode.

"It is never malicious," she says.

Scott Walker tells this story about Sky to describe his frustrations. He was 5 or 6 and playing alone, in another room, when Trudy and Scott heard a big bang, like something had fallen or broken. They found Sky sobbing uncontrollably.

"What happened, Sky?" They asked. "What's wrong?"

Sky sobbed and heaved, struggling to speak. Finally he managed to say:

"I. Don't. Have. Words."

They never did figure out what had made the noise.

Behavior becomes disruptive

As Sky made his way through the elementary years, Trudy and Scott battled the Kent public school system to get the services he needed and to keep him in mainstream classes, where they felt he did better academically and socially. But to remain there, he required a full-time aide.

"It was adversarial," Scott says. "They were professionals. But they were also fully cognizant that we were asking them to dig deep in their budget for our son. There was always a sense of, 'Gosh, what if there were 10 other autistic kids wanting these services, too?'"

Soon enough there were, and more. In 1994-95, just after Sky was diagnosed, Ohio reported fewer than 100 cases of autism out of almost 1.8 million students. Last year, Ohio reported 12,640 cases out of 1.9 million students.

The Kent City Schools superintendent, Joseph Giancola, declined to talk about Sky, citing confidentiality laws. But voluminous school records in the Portage County prosecutor's files include positive reports from elementary school, when he spent part of the day mainstreamed with an aide.
Around the Web

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

Autism Society of America

Autism Society of Ohio

Cure Autism Now,

National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism

University Hospitals Autism Center

In first grade, his teachers wrote: "Sky is very sweet and has a nice sense of humor." In third grade, his special-education teachers wrote: "What a joy it has been to be Sky's teachers for 3 wonderful years!"

As he grew older, and his life at home changed, behavior problems entered the picture.

A move from mainstream

Trudy and Scott separated when Sky was 9. Scott did not want to talk about the reasons for the separation, but he did say Sky was not one of them. "I'm sure our disagreements over him were an added stress, though," he says.

That year, Scott moved to Cleveland to start medical school at Case Western Reserve University. He says he saw Sky three times a week, at home in Kent and when Trudy brought him to Cleveland.

He knew Sky missed him. "To the extent that Sky could choose things to talk about, what he would talk about was the next time he would see me," Scott says.

When Sky was 10, a teacher's assessment found him "severely autistic." He avoided eye contact, followed ritualistic patterns, spoke in stressful situations with meaningless one- or two-word phrases ("tater tots," "top grunge"), splayed his hands close to his face and rocked with exaggerated rhythms.

He also angered easily. "When forced to look or interact, [he] may become agitated, cry or have a temper tantrum," the teacher wrote. "Reaction to pain such as a fall or bump of elbow is extreme anger. Reaction to change [in routine] can be extreme with excessive tantrums."

Sky had tantrums with his parents, too. "They were very few in number, but they were very disruptive and certainly caught our attention," Scott says. "Because he was smaller, we weren't afraid of escalation. We used some physical restraint until we were at a safe place."

Puberty often brings a spike in aggression, particularly with boys, who account for three out of four autism diagnoses. Sky was no different. At the beginning of seventh grade, when he was 13, the school removed him from mainstream classes.

"Sky has continued to make progress in the academic realm," his teacher reported, "but has started to have difficulty with appropriate school behavior."

In October of 2003, his aggression became such a problem that the school decided to send him home two hours early every day. Trudy went on part-time leave from KSU; Sky did not return to school full time until the middle of April.

That school year, Irene Barnett, one of Trudy's closest friends, found out that Sky was hurting his mother.

"Trudy forbade me to say anything," Barnett says. "I knew that if I had not respected her wishes, that would have been the end of our friendship. Her loyalty was 100 percent to Sky."

Trudy told Barnett that Sky was getting good medical care and his doctor was trying new psychoactive medications. Using medication to control aggression in autistic patients is a common practice, says Sinclair of the Cleveland Clinic's autism school.

"Some of our kids can be very obsessive compulsive, which is evidenced in rigid adherence to routines," she says. "And [if] you interrupt that, they can become aggressive. If we can target that behavior with a particular medication that takes the edge off the need to fulfill these routines, then aggression comes down."

Health privacy laws prevent authorities from saying which drugs were ordered for Sky, but photographs in the sheriff's investigative files show medicine cabinets and kitchen shelves in the home laden with bottles of prescription antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and tranquilizers.

"Trudy believed that eventually they would get the right cocktail, and his hormones would stop surging, and it would take care of the aggression," Barnett says. "She did not want him in any institution. She said there was a lot of abuse in institutions, and because Sky was not verbal he could be easily victimized."

At about this time, Scott remembers, he began urging Trudy to consider a residential placement. "That was a real conversation stopper," he says.

Experience led to apprehension

Bill Steuernagel thinks Trudy formed her negative view of institutions working at Ebensburg State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania, an institution for children then diagnosed as "hyperactive mentally retarded [and] trainable." Their father, William Steuernagel, was an administrator, and all three of his children - Marybeth, Trudy and Bill - had summer jobs there as teenagers in the 1960s.

"We took care of the patients, took them out for walks, to the pool," says Bill. "A lot of them were drugged. They were considered mentally retarded, but I'm sure some of those kids were autistic."

Autism was first recognized as a distinct disorder in 1943, but it took decades to emerge as a standard diagnosis. It did not enter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard for psychiatric diagnosis in America, until 1980.

"Back then, if you had a child and you couldn't take care of him, you'd put him in a state home," Bill says, referring to the 1960s and Ebensburg. "My sister cringed at that."
Disney.jpgTrudy Steuernagel wrote about her life with her autistic son, Sky Walker, in several essays and letters. The audio excerpts here were narrated by Plain Dealer Features Editor Debbie Van Tassell.



The truth comes out

In 2004, Scott Walker moved to a small town in Wisconsin for his residency in family medicine. Sky was 14. Two years later, Scott and Trudy divorced.

They maintained joint custody; Sky spent five weeks every summer with Scott and visited some weekends. The rest of the year, Trudy was alone with Sky.

"Trudy was now a single parent of a child with significant needs," Barnett says. "But she was not a complainer. She always used to say, 'You know, you deal with it.'"

Trudy dealt with it by complying with Sky's elaborate system of rituals, which ruled their days from the time she woke up until Sky went to bed. Trudy usually slept for about four hours, then got up to exercise. Sky woke, took the sheets and blankets off both their beds, piled them on the floor, and crawled in to sleep.

He always dressed in the same outfit: blue T-shirt, dark blue shorts, sneakers. Trudy ordered them in multiples from Lands' End. The outfit made him look like a 6-year-old with a man's body, a visual metaphor for the childish tantrums that turned dangerous when he grew to over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.

He loved children's food, too. After school, they always drove 20 miles to the same McDonald's, where Sky ordered a Happy Meal of Chicken McNuggets and fries, followed by a vanilla ice cream cone. Then they crossed the street to Arby's where he ate another meal of chicken and fries. When they got home, he watched "The Price Is Right" over and over again.

Every night, he tore paper into confetti and scattered it around the house. Before he went to bed, he got his medicine and an M&M ice cream cone.

He said certain phrases when he felt agitated, like "Ride the roller coaster" and "Wheels on the bus." Trudy responded by sending him to his safe room in the basement, a small room crammed with unused games, a foosball table and Trudy's exercise bike and mini-trampoline. In the middle of the clutter, Sky would lie on his mattress and calm himself with his comfort foods, barbecue potato chips and Goldfish crackers.

If Trudy caught the signs too late and the agitation escalated, she calmed him with a warm bath and his favorite snack food. When the calming rituals did not work, Sky lost control and sometimes attacked her.

Barnett thinks she was one of the few people who knew just how bad Sky's aggression was. Trudy's friends did not know each other well, and she parceled out her disclosures. A few friends and family members saw the bruises and black eyes, but Trudy always had an explanation. "I hit my head swimming," she told Bill once.

In the spring of 2008, though, Sky's attacks grew much worse, and Trudy decided to reveal - in part - what was going on. She surprised everyone with the way she did it: In a public essay for the student newspaper, The Kent Stater.

In "Just a Conversation," published March 27, 2008, she wrote: "Life with Sky these past few years has been very isolating for the two of us. We can't go out and do the things we used to like to do because Sky gets so overwhelmed. Much of the time, we're here in the house. ... My life was dominated by trying to teach my classes, trying to run a household, trying to fit everything into the few hours he was at school. On bad days, those few hours could turn into a few minutes. I couldn't be a friend to anyone because I physically and emotionally could not be there for them. I had no patience with good and decent colleagues who told me how busy they were. Busy? Try spending an evening sitting in a closet with your back to the door, trying to hold it shut while your child kicks it in."

Her colleagues were stunned. "We had no idea," said Steve Hook, the department chair.

Molly Merriman, a KSU faculty member, tried to convince Trudy she was living with domestic violence, one of Merriman's academic interests. But Trudy still believed Sky would change.

Later that spring of 2008, Sky went into a steep spiral. He had been in special-education classes for five years, and at 16 had begun community work-experience classes, mostly doing custodial work. He especially liked sweeping.

Even with that outlet, his tantrums and violent episodes became more frequent and intense. Records show teachers and aides had to apply physical restraint seven times in April and May, and called Trudy to take Sky home. They requested that she never travel more than 20 minutes away when he was at school.

On May 2, 2008, Sky's violence was bad enough for the school to call the police and EMS. At one point, a Kent police officer reached for his Taser. Sky's aide and Trudy both rushed to stop him. Later, the officer saw Sky hit Trudy in the head from the back seat of her car.

"She was reluctant to admit there are outbursts at home in which she is assaulted, but made reference to a 'safe room' she has in their home," he reported.

The school called Trudy for meeting to discuss an intervention plan. Afterward, she wrote a two-page letter that praised Sky's teacher but objected to much of what the school administrators said. "On many occasions the school's solution when Sky was in meltdown was to call me to transport him home," she wrote. "I have always responded and done so, even while making the argument that this was reinforcing Sky's behavior and getting him what he wanted."

To go home with Momma.

Mother rejects hospitalization

Every summer, when Sky's school was out, Scott took Sky for five weeks while Trudy taught. Their visits always started with a week at Disney World, Sky's favorite place.

In June 2008, Scott took his new wife and his stepson along. Despite this disruption of his routine, Sky did well, Scott says. He liked his stepbrother, who was 10, and enjoyed the long days at the park and long nights at the fireworks. He had no episodes the whole week. Until the final night.

Sky did not want to leave the next morning and became enraged. Scott sent his wife and son from the room to call hotel security. Sky started breaking furniture and mirrors, and then turned on Scott. "It was the first time I got beat up by him," Scott says. "We were all scared."

They ended up at an emergency room, where a dose of the sedative Ativan subdued Sky. The next morning, armed with more Ativan, Scott got on a plane with his son and brought him to University Hospitals' autism unit. He asked them to find a residential placement for Sky. They came up with a facility in the Cleveland area, Scott says, where they had experience dealing with autistic adults with aggression.

"But his mother did not hold the same view as I did," Scott says. "She came and took him out of the hospital, and it didn't happen. She was angry, but that was nothing new."

Scott went back to Wisconsin without Sky. Trudy's brother, Bill, drove up from his home in North Carolina to help with Sky for the remaining three weeks of Scott's custody.

Fear and denial

Sky's senior year started with seven official reports of aggressive episodes and use of physical restraints and police calls. His food obsession, a common factor in autism, had gone out of control.

Trudy told Barnett that she hid food from Sky in the garage. On Thanksgiving Day, Bill heard fear in Trudy's voice for the first time. She told him she had to hide in a closet from Sky, which was news to Bill. He asked her if she was fearful. "I can handle it,"
she said.

But when Christmas approached, Bill sensed she needed help and came to visit. He took Sky to the movies a couple of times and to see the fountain at Tower City. Sky was in great spirits - until Christmas Day.

Trudy gave him an iPod and a digital camera. Bill gave him "The Price Is Right" game for his Wii. It was all too much stimulation and change from his daily routine. "Throughout the day, he had some meltdowns," Bill says.

After dinner, even though it felt awkward to bring it up and Trudy might get angry, Bill again asked about the violence. "Are you safe?" he asked.

"Yes, it's fine," she said, and changed the subject.
sheriffjail.jpgLisa DeJong, The Plain DealerPortage County Sheriff David Doak did not think Sky Walker would be safe with the general population in the county jail, so he kept the autistic teenager in this booking cell for the two months he was incarcerated. He brought in a TV so Sky could watch The Price Is Right, and allowed his family to visit him in the booking area.

A son's disability, a mother's death

Trudy did not make it through the first month of the new year.

On Jan. 29, 2009, just before noon, a KSU administrator called the sheriff's office to report that Trudy did not show up for work. It was the first time in 33 years that she had missed a class without calling. That morning, she missed two. She did not answer her phone.

A dispatcher sent three deputies to Trudy's house in Kent. Inside, they found her on the kitchen floor, her face battered and covered with dried blood, her eyes swollen shut. Her head rested in fresh blood. Blood tracks led from her body toward the basement, where they found Sky huddled on a mattress.

As deputies handcuffed Sky, he screamed and thrashed so hard they had to subdue him with pepper spray. Minutes later, he reared back and kicked a deputy in the head, hard. The other deputies pushed him to the floor and bound his ankles and wrists together behind his back.

"Boo-boo," he said, when a detective asked him what happened to his mother. "Band-Aid." "Tummy hurt." Then he sprayed the detective with spit.

Emergency workers took Trudy, still unconscious, to Akron City Hospital. She had massive trauma to her head, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a damaged eye socket, and bite marks on her face, arms and upper legs.

The deputies took Sky to Portage County Jail, where they locked him in a suicide-watch cell. They wrestled him into orange prisoner's clothes; he tore them off. They tried again; he tore them off again. They gave him a blanket. Sitting in his cell naked, with the blanket around his shoulders like a superhero cape, Sky screamed, a high-pitched wail that sounded like keening grief.

"Hurt Momma," he said. "Sad."

David Doak had been sheriff for less than a month when Sky landed in his jail. That evening, when Sky had calmed down, Doak went to see him. He was asking Sky questions through the food slot when Sky suddenly reached through the small opening, grabbed Doak's trousers and pulled.

"He put me off balance, almost off my feet," Doak says. "I mean, he was big, and he was really strong. When his adrenaline is running, he's a pretty tough guy."

Doak, a man with the laid-back demeanor of a pilot flying through turbulence, had never dealt with a prisoner like Sky before. He'd seen plenty of wild people during his career in law enforcement, people on alcohol and drugs - or, far worse, and increasingly common in police work, mentally ill people who had gone off the medications that kept them stable.

But Sky was different. Doak didn't know much about autism, but he could see that Sky Walker would be a high-maintenance prisoner. He hoped Sky would not be in the Portage County jail very long.

That afternoon Doak's deputies contacted Trudy's family, who drove to Ohio right away. It took longer to find a number for Scott Walker in Wisconsin. They reached him that night.

"I was horrified," Scott says. He couldn't believe Sky was being held in a jail cell. "Of course, my response was to try to find some way to get him alternatively placed pending arrangements for trial."

Scott and Trudy's family had not spoken after the couple divorced, though they had been on good terms when Sky was a child. After the deputy called, Scott exchanged text messages with Trudy's niece, but says he did not speak with any of the family or feel welcome to come to Ohio. He did not visit Sky during the two months he was in the county jail.

"The reason I didn't come out is, one, there was nothing I could do, and I wasn't even going to be allowed to see Sky at that point," he says. "Trudy was in intensive care, and there were a number of her friends and colleagues there with her. And I had responsibilities here."

Attention on a dark secret

Trudy Steuernagel died without regaining consciousness. Her Feb. 13 memorial service at KSU drew hundreds of mourners.

Thousands more read of the tragedy on autism Web sites and blogs, in newspapers and in the pages of People magazine. Trudy's death focused national attention on what her brother, Bill Steuernagel, calls the dark secret of autism: the violence that sometimes emerges with puberty, especially in boys.

Bill wondered why he had not heard much about aggression in autism before Trudy's death. Then he decided the autism community feared stigmatizing the disorder. In some ways, he understood.

But good intentions can have unintended consequences, and in this case the public silence had a tragic one: Many parents who endure violent outbursts from their autistic children feel very much alone.

Trudy's death spurred some to break their silence. Ann Bauer, known for her writing on autism, described the horrific violence her once-sweet son unleashed on her and others in an online essay titled "The Monster Inside My Son." On news Web sites, including The Plain Dealer's, stories about Sky and Trudy brought responses from parents who said they feared the same thing could happen to them.

"My son is 22 and has autism, mental retardation and is non-verbal," wrote one mother. "He has gotten quite violent with me in the past, severely and repeatedly slamming my head into the floor or head butting me until I was able to escape. I have been lucky and I know it. He doesn't mean to hurt me and he attacks without warnings. I am currently looking into residential placement for my son, but it is a heart-wrenching decision."

A case of murder

Two weeks after Trudy died, a Portage County grand jury indicted Sky on two counts of murder. Trudy's family hired Ravenna attorney Errol Can and also brought in Gian De Caris and Mark Stanton, Cleveland defense lawyers who specialize in mental health cases.

De Caris had never had an autistic client and wasn't sure what to expect. "After five minutes, it was clear that he was on the severe end of the spectrum and had no idea what was going on," De Caris says.

The prosecutor's office also recognized this, but an unnatural death had occurred and the law required certain steps.

First, a psychologist had to evaluate Sky to determine competency. Could he understand his legal situation and assist his lawyers in his own defense? His first court appearance, via video from the jail, offered a preliminary answer. Sky, upset by the unfamiliar proceeding, started flailing and spitting, until deputies strapped him into a restraint chair and put a spit mask over his head.

The photo in the next day's local newspaper made Sky look like Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." It brought a new wave of national media and Internet attention. On autism Web sites, writers repeated the same outraged questions. Why did a low-functioning autistic boy have to go through the legal process when he clearly had no idea what he had done? And why was Sheriff Doak holding him in a jail cell?

Doak had the same concerns, but there was nowhere else for Sky to go at that point. "We knew he didn't belong in a jail cell more than anybody," he says.

For the two months Sky remained in the jail, Doak kept him in a cell in the booking area because he didn't think Sky would be safe with the general population. "They wouldn't be too happy with the screaming and spitting," Doak says. "Sky wasn't a bad kid. I liked him. But he was a handful."

Sky's cell was the size of a small office cubicle, with half the space taken up by a toilet. To help keep him calm, Doak and his staff bent many rules. They allowed family to visit Sky outside the normal visitation area and times. They let Sky wear his usual outfit of blue shorts and T-shirts, and parked a TV outside his cell so he could watch DVDs of "The Price Is Right."

They put him on a tight routine to help him feel secure, and used picture cards to show him his schedule. When he grew agitated, they calmed him with barbecue chips and Ativan. They continued his other prescribed medications.

Doak and his staff worked with Bill Steuernagel, who took on the parental role in Scott's absence. Bill brought Sky McDonald's chicken and fries almost every day, and gave the sheriff two lists Trudy had written to explain Sky's rote phrases. She called it "Sky-speak."

"If Sky says the following," she wrote, "it means he is unhappy: Dairy Queen; Ride the Roller Coaster; 'Dr. Seuss's ABC'; DVD on, 'Cat in the Hat' on."

A second list meant he was happy: "Trolley school bus; Short neck giraffe; Sixteen J's; Four whammies, Eric."

At the bottom of the list, Bill added: "If he is unhappy, avoid eye contact and speaking to him. If communication is necessary, speak softly."

The corrections officers in the booking area began to develop a relationship with Sky. Sometimes, though, their precautions failed. The prosecutor's investigative file contains several reports detailing Sky's outbursts. "Sky would try at times to kick or strike officers while taking a shower," one reads. "Sky verbalized, 'No guts, no glory,' [and] spit a few times while [the] officer protected himself with a riot shield. Sky kept yelling and kicking."

Once, he attacked Bill when he took him to the shower and missed several signals that Sky was agitated. "It was the first time I had seen the violence," Bill says. "I thought about my sister, going through that."

Like Bill, Doak and the staff knew Sky didn't mean to hurt anyone. "I have no tolerance and no sympathy for people who murder," Doak says. "But there was no intent there."

Every morning, Doak went into work praying that someone had found a better place for Sky.
v "Everybody searched," says De Caris, Sky's lawyer. "The prosecutor's office, the county MRDD board. I used my local contacts, I did Internet searches, I called directors of facilities."

The search kept turning up empty. Because of the severity of the crime, they needed to find a locked unit in a facility for the developmentally disabled. "There were different places they would find, and it would look good, and then it would turn out they didn't have a lockdown. We're talking two or three beds in the entire state," Doak says.

Finally they found Northwest Ohio Developmental Center in Toledo, one of 10 facilities run by the state. On April 1, the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities sent a bus to the jail. The jail staff stood outside to say goodbye to Sky, some with tears in their eyes. Sky, giddy to be outside and going on a trip, rode happily with his Uncle Bill all the way to Toledo.

Finding a place for all the Skys

The two-month search for a place for Sky mirrored what many parents nationwide face as their severely autistic children become adults. Federally mandated educational services covered by public funding end at age 22.

"All of a sudden, the kids are growing up and the parents are saying, 'Now what do we do?'" says Rainbow Autism Center's Wiznitzer.

"Because autism is a spectrum, there's going to need to be a wide range of options for adult living," says Susan Ratner, assistant director for special projects at Bellefaire JCB in Shaker Heights, which is in the early stages of developing a small adult-residential facility.

When the Bellefaire staff looked for models around the country, however, they could not find many. "What has clearly come out is that there are big gaps in adult services," Ratner says.

The search process is even more complex and sensitive when violence is involved.

In 2001, the Autism Society of America sounded the alarm on what it called a national crisis: a critical shortage of services and facilities for adults with autism. In 2007, when not much had changed, it updated its call for action. Parts of the ASA's report read like an account of Trudy and Sky's lives.

"In a behavioral, out-of-control crisis, individuals with autism can be scary," it says. "Parents are desperate. Aging caretakers (often single mothers, often living alone with their middle-aged child), knowing how difficult it is to adequately care for an adult with autism, are often prisoners in their own homes."

De Caris came to the same conclusion. "This is more common than I ever imagined," he says. "The facilities are just not out there - not at the level that's going to be needed. What's going to happen to all these children as they get older, and their parents who are their primary caregivers disappear? Even at facilities that do exist, the cost is outrageous. If you're making a typical salary, how do you afford that?"

Trudy had known she could not care for Sky forever. She had planned to keep him in school as a full-time student as long as she could, so that her health insurance would cover him. But she wanted to retire within a few years and started to look for a place for Sky. It became clear how difficult that would be.

The only facility Trudy liked was a private one in Charlottesville, Va., near her sister and nieces. It charged an entry fee of almost $58,000, in addition to about $3,000 a month. That was one problem, but another was bigger, she told Bill: Sky's anger had to be under control before they would take him.

In the meantime, Trudy had also been planning for Sky's life beyond school. A caseworker with the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities had told her Sky could do well at their sheltered workshop, Portage Industries, perhaps doing the custodial work he enjoyed. They planned to ease Sky into it with a slow, three-year transition from school.

Trudy did not ask for help with finding Sky a residential placement, however.

The caseworker, George Paroz, says Medicaid and the county offer financial assistance for both in-home help and residential placement. These programs have waiting lists, some of them long, but if safety becomes an issue, families are moved to the top for an emergency placement.

"If she had said, 'He can't live here anymore, he's a danger to me,' that would have been an emergency placement," Paroz says. "And if it needs to be done, it gets done, and we find the money."

But Trudy had never said it. "Trudy was of the belief that she could handle him best," Paroz says.

The judge decides

Two psychologists reported to the court that Sky was not competent to stand trial and would never be restored to that level of competence. Both confirmed that Sky was autistic, and added a new diagnosis, that he was mentally retarded.

"Trudy would never have accepted that Sky was retarded," Bill says. "Eighty percent of the time, when he's in a good mood, the kid is very smart."

On Sept. 14, after listening to evidence that included a DNA match of Trudy's blood to the blood found on Sky's feet, Portage County Common Pleas Judge John Enlow ruled that Sky murdered his mother.

But, since Sky was not competent for trial, Enlow dismissed the charges and ordered him to remain at the Northwest Ohio Developmental Center. The commitment was, in essence, a life sentence, because it is unlikely the court will ever release him.

Medicaid pays $460 a day to shelter him at Northwest, a campus with spacious lawns, outdoor play equipment and nine cottages that can accommodate 162 residents. Sky occupies the one locked facility, sometimes sharing it with other residents. He has two aides on duty at all times. He continues to have violent episodes.

He also has occasional visitors. His father says he has visited several times. His cousins and aunt have been to see him. His uncle, Bill, has visited several times, bringing him his favorite McDonald's foods. When the judge allowed Sky outside the cottage, Bill began taking him for walks in the gym on campus.

The visits do n't last long. Bill usually watches Sky play his "Price Is Right" game. "He'll acknowledge you, he might like the chicken and fries," Bill says. "But there really is no communication."

Sometimes, Bill wonders if Sky knows what happened to his mom, or understands why she is no longer part of his life. The aides tell Bill that Sky has said, "Momma dead," several times, but no one knows where he heard those words.

Scott believes Sky understands what happened. On three visits, he says, Sky has said, "Don't hit Momma," or "Sky sorry hit Momma," each time in response to Scott's questions about his new rooms.

"And he's almost crying as he says these things," Scott says.

Scott is not sure Sky understands death, however. "The closest he came was when the family dog died," Scott says. "His summation of it was, well, she was with her puppies. I have no idea why he thought the puppies were synonymous with heaven, but he did, and there was an air of finality in the way he made that pronouncement."

On one visit, Sky said to Scott, "Want Momma." "And of course I told him, 'Momma loves you very much.'"

Friday, January 2, 2009

Naussau, Bahamas: John Travolta's son, Jett Travolta, dies after a seizure

Jett Travolta, age 16

NASSAU (Reuters) – The teenage son of actor John Travolta died suddenly on Friday during a family vacation in the Bahamas, according to the family's lawyer.

Jett Travolta, 16, suffered a seizure at his family's vacation home at the Old Bahama Bay Hotel on Grand Bahama Island, attorney Michael Ossi said.

Attempts were made to revive him, but he died at the scene, Ossi said.

Jett, who had a history of seizures, was the eldest child of Travolta and his wife, actress Kelly Preston. They also have a daughter, Ella Blue, who was born in 2000.