Free to Die Man Falls Through System’s Cracks to His Death

From The Oregonian, December 30, 2002

In the end, all Randy Wike could find to love about life was his 3-year-old son and Ice House beer — he drank a case a day to mute the symptoms of a mental illness that had debilitated him since he was a teenager.

By age 30, it no longer mattered what had come first — the depression or the addiction. Wike had lost his job, home and Shay, the child he adored. The man who had once dreamed of becoming a chef found his meals in trash cans and stole six packs to wash them down.

Wike’s joyless existence passed mostly unnoticed until last summer, when he was twice subdued by police officers while attempting to jump off the Fremont Bridge in downtown Portland. On his second suicide attempt, a photographer for The Oregonian snapped photos of a police officer nearly plunging to his own death trying to save Wike, photos that were later published on the front page of the newspaper.

Multnomah County mental health workers examined Wike after both incidents and concluded that he was only suicidal when drunk and did not require their intervention. After he sobered up, they sent him back to the streets, where he returned to the bottle. On July 20, Wike again climbed atop the bridge. Again police officers tried to talk him down. This time, he wobbled for a moment and then fell off the span, plunging 205 feet to his death.

The mental health agencies in Oregon’s 36 counties treat about 66,000 patients a year. The state estimates that more than 12,000 additional mentally ill Oregonians need treatment. Some are turned away. Others are unable to navigate a system whose rules are opaque even to those who administer them. Advocates believe the number of untreated Oregonians is significantly higher.

Dr. Peter Davidson, the head of Multnomah County’s mental health department, acknowledged that Wike’s two suicide attempts should have prompted officials to treat him. Wike, he said, needed psychiatric therapy and help getting back on his feet.

Instead, Davidson said, “we didn’t maintain any contact with him at all.”

All of Wike’s dealings with the county, he said, arose from “his own cries for help. Not by anybody following through with him saying, ‘You don’t have to live like this. Let me help get you an apartment. Let me stay with you for a while.’

“My opinion why he’s dead is he was left to take care of himself,” Davidson said. “He was left to access the system after already showing that he couldn’t.”

Years of depression

Wike’s depression dated to his childhood, said his mother, Lynn Andre. When Wike was a boy, he would sleep all day, unable to drag himself to school. His first suicide attempt came shortly after he dropped out of high school in Hawaii his freshman year. Wike drank antifreeze and spent a couple of weeks in a Portland psychiatric hospital, his friends and family remember.

Years passed. Wike sought treatment several times but never had the money to stick with it.

In 1999, Angie Walton, the mother of Wike’s child, kicked him out of their Portland apartment, even though she said she still loved him. Until he straightened up, went to counseling and stopped drinking, she remembers telling him, he couldn’t be around their son.

Wike was mostly homeless after that, and his family was in no position to help. Both his mother and his sister were living in their cars.

By his 30th birthday in January, Wike had notched four drunken driving arrests, two relationships ending in restraining orders and a felony warrant in another state.

Wike took to the roads, traveling the country in search of work as a landscaper. He lived on a friend’s couch in Seattle and tried to become a music promoter, taping together fliers for a group called The Loungefly Band. In May, he hitchhiked to North Carolina to apply for a job with a circus. When he didn’t get it, records show, he was briefly hospitalized for depression and put on the antidepressant Prozac.

But Wike had lost his identification, so he couldn’t apply for public medical benefits to stay on the medication.

By June of this year, he was back in Portland. He slept in the woods. Panhandled for change. Ate out of garbage cans. Stole beer. Got drunk. Day after day.

On June 23, Wike was picked up in Northwest Portland by CHIERS social workers, drivers of the sobriety van familiar to people downtown, and taken to the Hooper Detoxification center in Northeast Portland.

Records show he was kicked out less than two hours later with $1.60 in his pocket “for being uncooperative with staff.” Hours after that, police were called to the top deck of the Fremont Bridge, where a tearful, drunken Wike said he was depressed, hadn’t seen his son and hadn’t taken his medication in two weeks. Officers talked him down and took him to the hospital where he was held temporarily while officials weighed whether to force him to stay for additional treatment.

Under state law, a county investigator is supposed to recommend a hearing before a judge if a person likely has a mental disorder and is dangerous to himself, others or is unable to care for his basic personal needs.

“He does have risk factors, but at this time does not meet commitment criteria,” a Multnomah County investigator wrote after determining that Wike was probably mentally ill. By law, a patient is released if he is willing to get treatment. Wike agreed to stay in the hospital for six days.

He was released on July 2 with a short supply of medications, records show.

Within four days, the cycle started over.

On July 6, police arrested Wike for trespassing when he crawled onto a Portland Fire Bureau boat to sleep. When police asked him what he was doing, Wike said in slurred speech, “I’m sorry, sir.” He was cited for trespassing and attempted theft: He’d taken a tarp off another boat to use as a blanket.

Police hauled Wike back to detox. He was discharged 4-1/2 hours later to what records called “the streets” with $4.96 and a bus pass. Less than two hours later, he was back up on the bridge.

This time, an officer nearly tumbled off the bridge trying to save Wike, a terrifying image captured by the photographer for The Oregonian.

Wike was taken to a hospital and again held for evaluation of his illness. A different county investigator, aware that this was Wike’s second time on the bridge in as many weeks, noted in her report that he smelled bad, but she did not try to call his family and friends, or read available police reports, despite agency rules requiring her to. Without that crucial information, the investigator determined that he was neither mentally ill nor an “imminent danger” to himself.

The hospital offered Wike voluntary admission anyway, but he declined. He couldn’t afford it. Wike had only $22, including $20 given to him by the police officer who had pulled him off the bridge.

The hospital and the county investigator jointly worked out a plan for Wike’s release. It consisted of directions to a social service agency where he could apply for a new identification card. They also gave him separate directions and a bus pass so he could travel to a mental health agency for counseling and free samples of one of the antidepressants they knew he was taking. Only one of those medications, Prozac, was available for free.

Wike never made it to either agency. His friends say he was too busy trying to survive.

Beers and goodbyes

The mother of his child spent her rent money to cremate Wike.

In August, his family and a half-dozen friends gathered at a Portland park to mourn his death.

They didn’t have enough money for a funeral, but they wanted to do something Wike would have appreciated.

They tossed a Frisbee, grilled burgers and blasted Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” Someone cracked open a bottle of Ice House beer and stuck the top in the ground “for Randy.”

His sister cried. His buddies let 30 white balloons swirl into the sky, one for every year Wike lived. And a 3-year-old noticed a photo, propped up on a picnic table and surrounded with plastic flowers.

“That’s my daddy!” Shay said, too young to understand his father was dead. “That’s him! That’s him!”