Earlier this month a Flagler County School Board member, a top district administrator and the executive director of Flagler Cares, a coalition of local health agencies, appeared before several local governments to plead for their involvement in a campaign to bring more awareness of mental health and a rethinking of how the county addresses mental health issues, including suicide. The group wants more discussions and openness about what it sees as a continuing and possibly problem with scarce outlets or resources.
Two spikes in attempted or actual suicides and Baker Acts in Palm Coast and the rest of the county illustrate the issue. The first such spike took place immediately after Christmas and around New Year’s. It was not a surprise to health care professionals, who see such spikes not during the year-end holidays, but often right afterward.
The second spike took place Between Saturday and Monday. Its most visible instance was the five-hour standoff between Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies and Kathryn Hunter on Point of Woods Drive Monday, which also involved Flagler County Fire Flight, the closing of a road, alerts to neighbors to stay indoors because Hunter was armed, and the involvement of members of the sheriff’s SWAT and crisis-negotiating teams.
Hunter less than two weeks ago lost her boyfriend to suicide. On Monday she texted a friend: “It’s all over, it’s happening now please take care of my animals,” and also texted an image of the shotgun with which she had armed herself, saying she had already test-fired it in preparation, according to an incident report released Tuesday.
SWAT team members eventually forced entry into Hunter’s house, finding her unresponsive on the floor of her bedroom closet and curled up with the shotgun. The house was in severe disarray because of the presence of dogs and a potbelly pig all living inside, to the point of raising health issues, according to deputies. She was taken to Florida Hospital Flagler and Baker Acted. The animals were turned over to family members. Animal Control took custody of several birds.
Sheriff Rick Staly was himself concerned by the situation, noting that Hunter had been Baker Acted previously and worrying about the outcome of her treatment, if she were to be released and still be in possession of weapons: the Sheriff’s Office would have no authority to keep hold of her weapons. In 2015 deputies dealt with a similar situation, Baker Acting a woman after a stand-off, when she had threatened them with what turned out to be a BB gun, but in a clear suicide-by-cop attempt. She was treated, released. Fourteen months ago, she shot and killed herself on Halloween night.
The stand-off with Hunter overshadowed several other, no less grave incidents, several of them on the same day, others within a day or two.
Terry van Steenbergen, 67, had lived at 27 Christopher Court in Palm Coast since 2009. He’d speak by phone with his brother in Kentucky two or three times a week. But by last Saturday, his brother hadn’t heard from him in five days. He asked Flagler County sheriff’s deputies to check on him.
Deputies went to the house on Saturday morning (Jan. 20). They found the front door unlocked. They walked in, called out, got no response. They found Steenbergen in the master bedroom’s bathroom, with a gunshot wound to the chin and a small caliber pistol and one shell casing near him.
Unlike most suicides in the area, Steenbergen had carefully planned his exit down to preparing a suit for his funeral, according to the investigation that followed. He left notes around the house with instructions on what to do. Three notes were left on a table to the right of the entrance doorway, the first one a “Do Not Resuscitate” order signed by Steenbergen. The second note provided a list of funeral homes, instructions on which to choose, and contact information for the executor of Steenbergen’s will. The last note, handwritten on an index card, noted that a neighbor across the canal had a key to the house.
A suit hanging in the master bedroom’s closet had a small note attached to it. It read: “Bring to Clymer’s funeral home.” He had also left a key for others’ use.
The medical examiner removed the body, and the sheriff’s office concluded its investigation.
Sunday night (Jan. 21), Flagler County’s 911 dispatch center got a call from a person reporting that a 38-year-old woman had attempted suicide by taking some 50 pills after being depressed “because she can’t support her son,” according to 911 notes. Authorities located the woman near a trail off Old Kings Road, near State Road 100, barely alert, placed in a Fire Rescue ambulance and taken to Florida Hospital Flagler. She was subsequently Baker Acted.
That evening, deputies responded to 115 Prince Eric Lane in Palm Coast, where Chantal Bertin, 46, was found dead of an apparent suicide in her bedroom, with a shotgun wound to the chest. Her 70-year-old mother and her mother’s 63-year-old husband had discovered Bertin after noticing that she’d been in her bedroom too long without a sound. Her mother saw her through a window on the floor.
Betrin had left a note on her bedroom door, saying she was sleeping and did not want to be disturbed. She had also tacked a “Do Not Resuscitate” note on the wall above where her body was found, and another note, left on her dresser, asking her parents to locate her cat, and to adopt it.
Her parents that day had left the house around noon, telling Bertin they were going to see a movie. They returned three hours later and noticed the note on her door, so they honored it, but got worried after 6 p.m. They told deputies that she’d had a long history of mental health problems starting with a suicide attempt at age 14, and what they described as her leading a secret life. She’d also had medical issues that caused long and severe pain every day, causing depression.
The shotgun she used, they told deputies, according to an incident report, “is always located in their master bedroom closet with a gunlock in the trigger. The ammunition is stored next to it in the same location.” The victim’s mother said “the key is located in a pouch in side her dresser drawer and was unaware [Bertin] knew where the key was located.”
What followed was the grim routine of those scenes: the transformation of the house into a crime scene (not because a crime had occurred, but because law enforcement must follow the protocol of a death investigation as if it had, until a crime is ruled out), the arrival of a Crime Scene Investigation unit, detectives, the medical examiner.
Monday (Jan. 22) proved to be an equally trying day for deputies, whose duties have been increasingly diverted by Baker Acts and other mental health issues.
The first such crisis of the day began to unfold at a construction site south of Blair Road off Colbert Lane in Palm Coast, where workers told authorities one of their colleagues, a 22-year-old, was trying to kill himself. They couldn’t tell why. One of his co-workers had witnessed the 22-year-old trying to harm himself. He was sitting in his truck (with the co-worker who’d seen him try to harm himself). As far as his co-workers could tell, he did not have a weapon. His supervisor had taken tools away from him as a precaution.
When deputies made contact with the man, he repeated that he wanted to harm himself. He was taken to Bunnell for a Baker Act and transport to Daytona Beach.
Around noon, deputies responded to a house on Palm Leaf Lane, where a 47-year-old veteran had attempted suicide.
The man’s wife told deputies he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been taking more medication than usual of late. While he was in the shower he texted his wife not to come in because he’d made a mess. His wife was able to open the door with a card. She found her husband on the floor, bleeding, with a 3-inch pocket knife nearby. He’d cut his chest, his wrist and his neck.
His wife immediately picked the knife up and put it away then provided first aid. The man was conscious and speaking when a deputy arrived. “He advised me that he was a failure and that he didn’t want to go on,” the deputy reported. (A 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that every day in the United States, some 22 veterans take their own life, though people over 50 account for nearly 70 percent of the suicides. The rate is substantially higher than for the general population.)
Flagler County Fire Rescue and Palm Coast Fire Department paramedics at the scene determined the man’s injuries were serious but not life-threatening, though still requiring a trauma evacuation by air to Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach. The man’s young adult son and a younger daughter were in the house at the time.
Around the same time, deputies had to Baker Act a 15-year-old boy who had, according to his father in notes relayed to the 911 center, been kicked out of school for cursing and yelling at teachers. (Students are not thrown out of school in any circumstances, but are usually referred either to counselors or administrators or, when the situation becomes more difficult, to a school resource deputy. An expulsion involves an elaborate disciplinary procedure, and is very rare, though it is possible for students to leave campus on their own, though in this case the boy’s father appears to have taken custody of his son at school.)
The boy’s father told deputies that he was seeking to take his son to a behavioral facility to be assessed, but his son repeatedly tried to jump out of the car—and did just that when the car stopped at a light, on Belle Terre and Central Avenue. The parent then called 911. When a deputy located the boy, the boy told her not to touch him, but was eventually placed in handcuffs and Baker Acted.