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A Picture of Tragedy 

The family of Mark Herczog, a father killed by his son, pleads for compassion as a court trial looms

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'DON'T CALL THE POLICE'

After he threw her across the garage that night, Marilyn says that she called her therapist, who told her to call the police.

In California, officers can take mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves or others into temporary custody in what's known as a 5150, or involuntary psychiatric hold.

She called her ex-husband and told him what her therapist had said. "He said, 'No, no, please don't call the police,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'They shoot those kids. Please don't call them. That's my son.'"

Mark's sister and daughter report similar conversations. Both say that when the idea of a 5150 was brought up, Mark insisted that the family refrain from calling the police. McDowell says that in October, her dad told her he'd looked into an involuntary psychiatric hold.

"He said that there had been some cases where parents had done a 5150, and the police have shot and killed their kids," she says.

In Sonoma County, two mentally ill individuals died after their families made distress calls to local law enforcement. During a 2007 psychotic break in which he sat on his little brother clutching a two-inch Leatherman knife, 16-year-old Sebastopol resident Jeremiah Chass was shot 11 times by the sheriff's deputies who answered his mother's distress call. He died in their driveway.

A month later, bipolar 30-year-old Richard Desantis was also shot as he ran out of his house toward the sergeant and two Santa Rosa officers who responded to his wife's call. According to the Desantis family's attorney, he was unarmed when he was shot. He also died in front of his home.

Not long afterward in January 2008, 24-year-old Jesse Hamilton, suffering from schizophrenia and holding a butcher knife, was shot and killed by a Santa Rosa police officer after a staffer at his group home called 911.

While few national statistics on the subject exist, the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center reports that police kill mentally ill people in so-called justifiable homicides four times as often as they kill people who are not mentally ill.

According to McDowell, her father told her in October that he was too unsure about what Houston might do if he called the police, and that he didn't want to lose his son.

INTO THE NIGHT

Several hours before Mark died, Marilyn says that her youngest daughter, 17-year-old Savannah Herczog, called to warn her that the strange, vacant look was coming over Houston again. She recalls thinking that he might come over to her house, safe in the knowledge that she had changed the locks.

The next phone call Marilyn received was after midnight. It was her daughter again, saying that Houston had stabbed their father.

Marilyn says she raced to Rincon Valley, still unaware of the magnitude of the crime. She remembers thinking the attack had probably resulted in some kind of minor injury, like scissor wounds in her ex-husband's arm. But as she approached Mark's Parkhurst Drive home, she saw police cars and paramedics surrounding the yellow house with brown trim. She says that her daughter ran into her arms, crying. She told her that Mark had been taken away, and that he hadn't been moving at all.

The two women were taken into police custody for questioning. Several hours later, still in custody, they learned that Mark was dead.

After she was let out of police custody, Marilyn says that she went back to the house and went inside. The kitchen walls were covered in blood. She saw a denim jacket sitting on the back of a chair that was also covered in splatters of blood. She picked it up and put it on.

According to Mark Herczog's autopsy report, a chop wound on his scalp exposed his skull. His left eyelid was punctured. Most of his right ear dangled from his face. Ten horizontal, overlapping stab wounds surrounded his neck just above his thyroid, where Houston tried to remove his head. His entire body down to the soles of his feet was covered in blood.

McDowell says the condition of Mark's remains meant she wasn't able to say goodbye to her father's body; although she flew to Santa Rosa from North Carolina, she had to say goodbye to his hand. She remembers entering the funeral home, where her dad had been laid out in a body bag with one scratched-up hand poking out. A flesh-colored blanket had been draped over the body bag. She remembers thinking that it looked oddly like a Muppet, and that because her dad had a twisted sense of humor, she felt like he was with her as she had this thought.

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