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A Texas Vet and His Demons

Dec 15th, 2014 | Category: Comal County, Lead Article

By MAURICE CHAMMAH, The Marshall Project

Adan Castañeda’s lawyer is worried what a jury will think of his client. Castañeda, a 28-year-old former marine sniper whose mental illness bloomed after his return from Iraq, goes on trial January 20. “The evidence that’s admissible will leave you frightened,” said his lawyer, Keith Hampton, describing an arrest video in which his client looks ready to shoot a police officer.

Castañeda was arrested three and a half years ago after firing 23 rounds of bullets into his mother’s house near San Antonio. Since then, he has drifted back and forth between a state psychiatric hospital, where he was treated for severe psychosis, and an isolation cell at the county jail, where his symptoms steadily worsened.

Though his life since Iraq has been defined by serious mental illness, Castañeda faces an uphill struggle to have his condition recognized as relevant to his actions. Prosecutors, judges and juries often look at men like this — the history of violence combined with paranoia and delusions — and see not disease but danger. Fear drives harsh sentences, usually served in prisons where their mental illnesses grow worse.

Sitting at the intersection of mental health, veterans’ affairs, and the criminal justice system, Castañeda’s story is an increasingly familiar one as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. He served as a scout sniper for four years and was deployed to Iraq during the surge of U.S. troops in 2007. Shortly after his return, he admitted himself to a private hospital, where he was diagnosed with psychosis and possible suicidal ideation. Doctors have told his lawyer that his mental illness was exacerbated by combat experiences.

After an honorable discharge in late 2008, Castañeda’s mental health steadily worsened, said his mother, Maria Anna Esparza. His coping formula was Red Bull and Valium.

Castañeda moved in with his little brother. One night, while he was asleep, his brother got into a fight with a friend, and ended up killed — shot with a gun Castañeda had purchased for protection. Castañeda disappeared for several days, missing the funeral while spiraling further out of control. He totaled his car in a drunk-driving accident and tried to assault a police officer. He threatened to commit suicide. He was treated several times in veteran hospitals, but once discharged would gradually return to his erratic behavior.

Castañeda’s is an amplified version of a story being replicated around the country. Statistics on the number of incarcerated veterans are out of date, but the latest numbers from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2004, found roughly 700,000 veterans were in prison or jail, and that they were more likely than non-veterans to have been treated for mental health problems before their brushes with the law.

Often their mental illnesses go unnoticed until they have committed a crime, says Christopher Deutsch of the group Justice for Vets, which has worked to create alternative courts for veterans that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation. (One of these courts, in San Antonio, helped Castañeda get his assault charge against a police officer dropped, but there is no such court in Comal County, where he is currently awaiting trial).Castañeda reached a breaking point at 4 am one morning in May 2011. He took a taxi from his apartment in San Antonio to his mother’s house, 30 miles north in the town of Spring Branch. He pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and fired 23 rounds into the house; the bullets shattered several windows and ricocheted around the kitchen and living room. Nobody was injured.The police found Castañeda wandering through the streets and took him to the Comal County jail, where prosecutors charged him with aggravated assault and attempted murder.

According to his lawyer, Castañeda had a delusional belief that his mother and stepfather and her husband were molesting his two young nieces and that he needed to alert the police. “He’s guilty of the conduct. The only issue is what was going on inside this guy’s head,” said Hampton, his lawyer. “He wanted to get the police involved, and thought he would be kind of a hero.”

At the jail, guards put Castañeda in isolation, telling his mother that he was unresponsive to their instructions. She believed he was catatonic. Soon afterwards, a judge ruled Castañeda incompetent to stand trial. District Attorney Jennifer Tharp told the San Antonio Current that her office “didn’t fight” the ruling. Castañeda remained in the jail, waiting for a bed to open at the North Texas State Hospital, where those deemed unfit to stand trial are sent to be rendered fit. He grew increasingly paranoid, insisting that guards were sneaking into his cell as he slept and cutting holes in his clothes.

Once transferred, Castañeda spent almost nine months at the hospital, and Esparza believed her son improved drastically. “He would make eye contact more often,” she said. He was declared competent to stand trial for the house shooting.By May of 2013, now back at the jail, Castañeda appeared to be regressing. He wrote a letter to the judge claiming his crime had been one of self-defense. He was returned to the psychiatric hospital for a couple of months, where he received his latest diagnosis, bipolar schizoaffective disorder. (Earlier diagnoses included schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder). And again he was deemed competent to stand trial, and returned to an isolation cell in the jail in November 2013. He’s still there.

As the trial date nears, Hampton is trying and failing to convince the district attorney to quietly let Castañeda plead insanity and accept indefinite confinement in a psychiatric facility. Tharp, the district attorney, has declined to make public statements about the case. She has met once with Esparza, who in addition to being the defendant’s mother is also the primary victim in the case. Esparza characterized Tharp’s position at the meeting this way: “I know he’s your son, but he’s a dangerous man and he needs to be behind bars.”

Esparza is concerned that her son’s mental state will further deteriorate if he is sent to prison. Although a daily regimen of vitamins and herbal supplements have improved his mental functioning, she said, “there are times he doesn’t remember he was in the service. He doesn’t always remember being a sniper.”

After his stays in the hospital, she recalled, “he’d interact more. Now he says, ‘I feel like a caged animal. Don’t look at me.’”

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Laura Gann
7 years ago

Believe me when I say, I will be praying for Adan and Maria on Jan 20.

Jim Butler
7 years ago

As a Veteran, I am appalled to read such a story about how our Veteran’s with distinct medical issues are being railroaded into a system that not only makes the situation worse and on the other hand does not offer any help at all while incarcerated. This includes of course, medical help.

When a person is jailed, they fall under the care of the physician that is attending that facility and victims are left to suffer because these doctors do not provide the level of care one would get on the outside.

If these doctors were practicing in Afghanistan and overseeing our troops captured during war, if that doctor were to be captured, he would be held for war crimes due to the sadistic nature of treatment that these barbaric uncaring, less than humane practitioner’s provide.

You get what you pay for. These doctors salaries are less than one might expect so a cheap doctor means cheap treatment at best. These poor doctors find it hard to be employed anywhere else, so they choose these mundane Jobs and probably have to work a second job to make ends meet. The attrition rate with these doctors is also staggering.

I just read a story the other day of a man addicted to Alprazolam; a benzodiazepine. Any good doctor knows that abrupt discontinuation of this medication can cause coma or death. Yet this man, even though it had been reported to the jail by him and his family that he was addicted, did nothing to assist him medically. He died!

As a Veteran with medical issues, I can attest first hand that while I was jailed in Montgomery County, Texas, the medical staff did nothing to insure that I was given my proper medications. I too was taking a benzodiazepine at the time and praise God I had some caring young men in my POD that kept a careful eye on me. My blood pressure did get extremely high for about seven days, which medical did check every night at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. Did they see too it that I got my prescribed blood pressure medicines during this time. A loaded question; NO! Yes I could have died but by the Grace of God, I am alive.

I saw countless people come in with a myriad of medical issues that were going untreated. The gentleman that bunked above me did almost the same thing this Veteran did. Instead of shooting up the house, he too a butcher knife and stabbed the wall, ending up cutting his own hand. He had serious mental issues but was never treated while in jail for them. The police report read like he had massacred his whole family and that blood was all over the house and garage. It stated he was trying to kill his mother and brother. After getting acquainted with him over a two month period, and after meeting with him and his parents after his release, I was thoroughly convinced that he was telling the truth and so where his parents. It was great to hear that he got off on grounds of insanity. How did they figure that one out? (sarcasm). From the countless stories I have heard and read, it seems over and over again, people are being railroaded into jail over mental health issues that could easily be solved with the proper medical care.

Just think, if we house these people for say four years at best, with no help. Where are they going when they get out? Back to our town, our city’s, our neighborhoods, our streets, our house. Untreated over a length of years or even months, one might farsightedly think of a horrid time bomb that is ready to blow at any moment. Is this what Texas wants? Almost 150,000 inmates will return home within the next few years with no means of getting a job, housing, and health insurance. What do they turn to for help then? What they learned in prison. Dog eat dog. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be on the receiving end of what prison life has imbedded in their minds. Talk about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; if that is what they went in with in the first place, then what is two times P.T.S.D.? Mayhem!

I certainly do not what an angry Sniper dropped off at the end of my street after a long stay in TDCJ. What I want is for the courts to do what is right and just and get these people the medical care they deserve as human beings. I guess OBAMA CARE does not include the courts or jails. Does one lose every right as a human being when incarcerated? Our for-fathers would roll over in their graves.

I would say further that if drugs and alcohol are only a symptom of the real problem, then a war on drugs in a war on a symptom not a cause. I would like to not just a little logic for the 3% that can still think clearly. A war on drugs sounds great out of the gate but in the end you’re just riding a bucking bull.

We need a war on policies in Texas that clearly ignore the medical facts that may be underlying each case. One could clearly surmise that only a small percentage of those arrested are the worst of the worst and really need to be locked up, but yet, there may be hope for them as well. For the large majority, other lower costing programs such as intensive outpatient care while on probation would suffice and help our society more greatly as a whole over time.

Just like the sick person wants to hide their sickness and cover their pain with mind altering substances, our society as a whole is no better when it wants to hide our mental health issues away behind a cage and clear their minds with other substances no less daunting than the other.

The United States used to have asylums and real hospitals and real health care and then they found an easier softer way and started putting these people in cages instead. They sit back and proudly proclaim what a good job they are doing in recovery no more different than the mentally ill, and yet, like those they incarcerate, these people soon find out the high cost of doing their kind of dope. It’s always us and them; them and us. We used to be a “WE” nation; One Nation under God. Now we are one nation under the influence of something, no matter which side of the line you stand on.

Not to be trite or hyper spiritual but just an observation. As a Pastor, I know a great deal about the Old Testament Law and Grace. I know about truth and Justice and most importantly mercy. The Law in of itself will not save our country from anything. It is when we have the Grace and Mercy to understand that we are truly “ONE” Nation under GOD, and that united we stand and divided we fall that we will all find peace. It is when we finally make the time and put forth the effort to help someone instead of shunning them that we will finally see a real change in our Country. I have to understand as we all should that it’s not “ME” it is “WE”!

If you really want to help yourself, help somebody else first…

God bless this Veteran and thousands more as we keep them in prayer daily. May true justice prevail!