A man in Arizona murdered his wife by beheading her. Afterwards, he he told his neighbor that God would forgive him and asked for a drag from his cigarette. Kenneth Wakefield, 43, is being held in police custody after he, to quote local Phoenix news, “allegedly beheaded his wife, mutilated two dogs, cut off part of his own arm, pulled out his own eye and stabbed himself multiple times in the chest.” His wife Trina Heisch’s death was horrifically violent, a nightmare. It is also instructive as a case study in how America treats the mentally ill.
Wakefield and Heisch met, according to reports, at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH), originally named the Insane Asylum of Arizona in 1884. It is Arizona’s only facility dedicated to serving the severely mentally ill and has been more or less in operation ever since, although in recent years it has weathered multiple scandals: eight years ago, in 2008, the East Valley Tribune reported that four “of the 10 forensic buildings are so badly deteriorated and contaminated with asbestos that they’re unusable. The remaining units, state health officials say, pose a security risk to both staff and other patients because of their design and condition.”
In 2013, Phoenix’s local ABC channel published an expose documenting violent assaults carried out by patients at ASH, noting that there were so few security guards that those there were too scared to intervene in the violence. The investigation noted that between June 2012 and June 2013, “patients committed 855 assaults – either patients assaulting patients or patients assaulting staff.” For context, the hospital holds approximately 200 patients. Earlier this year, ABC 15 reported that the hospital “has failed to protect vulnerable patients from sex abuse and dangerous sexual activity” including rape.
Wakefield had entered ASH in 2003 already a violent man, having been found guilty of stabbing his mother. Presumably, ten years in a crumbling and violent facility did not cure him. The same can be said of his Heisch, who had also entered ASH with a violent history (an attempted stabbing). One neighbor, George Loney, noted that it seemed to him she was “often the aggressor” in their frequent fights. Another neighbor noted that in the three months the couple had lived there, they had called the police so frequently on the couple for domestic violence that a Phoenix police officer had told them “to stop calling.” Sgt. Trent Crump, the Phoenix Police Department’s Media Relations officer, noted that the PPD had been out to the apartment five times in the past, which presumably the PPD had thought was enough.
I spoke briefly with Sgt. Crump earlier this year over email in April, regarding a story I was working on for The Membrane at the time about the death of a Phoenix woman, Michelle Cusseaux (the story would later end up on Gawker). I had stumbled upon Cusseaux’s story—a hospital calling in her for a mandatory evaluation, ending up dead when the police there to escort her shot her—by accident, and was astonished at how little press it had received at a moment where the media seemed focused on police abuse against black Americans. I had spent seven months reporting on the story, worried each day that a national media organization would break the story. Never happened.
Trina Heisch’s death was an unusual one. It was also a white death. It was also a death perpetrated by the mentally ill, as opposed to where a mentally ill person was the solely the victim. Her death quickly spread across the country and internationally, making it to the tabloid pages of the New York Daily News, the Daily Mail, as well as The Mirror. On the more legitimate side of things, NBCNews.com picked the story up for multiple days, and there was a terrifically reported piece in The Daily Beast. Reports of his “moaning howl” in court gave the story legs and extended the story nationally. It’s easy for me to recall the struggle Cusseaux’s family and local activists in Phoenix had in getting publicity at all, it wasn’t until the day before my story ran that her mother, Frances Garrett, was able get an interview in a nationally syndicated Democracy Now radio program.
If discrepancies in the media reporting on each story were as far as it went, it might be possible to point towards Wakefield’s brutality as the sole source of attention, the type of viral news that writer Teju Cole once described as a “firefly” glowing in the darkness. But it quickly extended out of the media and into the political. Five days after Heisch’s murder, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery used a press conference to announce that “his office will work with state legislators to reform the process for mentally ill criminals.” “Shouldn’t we have options other than arrest and booking for someone who might commit a criminal offense but really it’s just a manifestation of their mental illness?”, he asked.
It’s an important question to ask. Montgomery had no questions wondering where Michelle Cusseaux’s justice was, where her help was, saying that her death was justified in March.
Although the press has widely reported her name as “Trina Heisch”, her Facebook page lists her name is “Trina Taylor-Heisch”. She was 49 and mainly posted Christian memes, thanking God for helping her with her problems. Her mother noted that she “was a loving person who was always trying to help others, particularly the homeless”. Heisch was a fan of religious motivational speaker Trent Shelton, posting his videos offering relationship advice with nodding approval. Family members say that her struggle with mental illness began when she was fifteen, and that she had wanted to leave Wakefield for some time. In December of last year, she posted a note an image speaking on Mental Health Awareness Week: “Depression, anxiety, and panic attacks are NOT a sign of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for too long. Did you know 1 in 3 of us go through this at some point in our lives?”
What was the difference between Heisch’s death and Cusseaux’s? Heisch’s death has become spectacle, outweighed by the insanity of her murderer. Cusseaux’s death was nothing at all. You can see the difference in the photos released of both of their killers. Wakefield’s mug shot is unruly and terrifying: he is clearly unadjusted to his missing eye, unshaven and his hair is unkempt, as if he was stuck in a wind tunnel. Sgt. Percy Dupra, who killed Michelle Cusseaux, doesn’t have a mugshot. The photos provided to media show a calm buzz cut, with the slightest of wry smiles emanating from his cheeks. He is in control. And One is crazy and drowns out his victim. The other is expected, and nothing happens to him at all.
Photos: Facebook, Arizona 12 News, Gawker