PARKERSBURG - Joan Becker didn’t know how much family photo albums would mean to her or how much they would help her heal until the past few weeks. In early March, a jury decided her son, Mark, was legally sane when he shot and killed Coach Ed Thomas in June 2009. Wednesday, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for committing first-degree murder.
Flipping through the pages of the albums at her kitchen table one recent night, Joan Becker says the son she knew in the pictures would never have murdered Coach Thomas and caused so much pain in the Aplington-Parkersburg community.
“Our families are hurting terribly. They knew we were having difficulties. They had no idea how severe it was,” says Joan.
Counselors helped Mark deal with depression in high school. His mom says he seemed to be getting better, but things took a turn for the worse when he dropped out of college.
“We knew how he acted if he was using any kind of drugs. What we started to experience shortly after the tornado was something completely different."
Sheriff's deputies made more than one visit to Joan and Dave's house to help control their son during what they call a psychotic episode. Joan says Mark would hear voices and have delusions. He would yell and pound the walls, sometimes with a baseball bat. When he got like this, even his own mother was so scared for her safety that she would leave their home and stay with relatives.
"As a mom, you want to kiss your son and make it all better, and I couldn't do that for him. And it's horrible to have to leave at a moment's notice, and you're driving for hours sometimes and you just sob. And you don't know what to do to help."
Joan acknowledges the obvious question people have, why didn't Mark get help?
"I think a lot of them are like, as parents you should've done something about it. They don't understand the phone calls and the professionals we did go through."
Joan and her husband took Mark to nine different mental health facilities. He was committed three times. They say he was never at one place long enough to get the right diagnosis and the proper medication. Joan says medical privacy laws prevented them from taking full control of Mark's treatment. “There are no excuses here. No pointing fingers at any individual or any individual agency. The system itself as a whole failed.”
The first time the Beckers learned Mark had paranoid schizophrenia was two weeks before the shooting. They were under the impression last June that their son would quickly get the right medicine. "I was told back in June, early June, he was meeting with a psychiatrist to get started on medication. He said well we can't get him in until July 23rd to see a psychiatrist."
June 24th, Mark shot and killed Coach Thomas. Joan says people with paranoid schizophrenia hear voices to attack and hurt those they love and respect the most. "He loved Ed. He had a lot of respect for Ed."
Now that Mark is on four medications in jail, Joan says he is returning to the son they recognize in their family pictures. Joan says Mark knows what happened to his beloved football coach, but he doesn't remember anything about the morning of the murder. "He said mom, I don't remember any of it, and I never would have done those things or said those things. You know it wasn't me mom, it wasn't me."
Mark and his family know he needs to be in a contained environment with people helping him cope with his mental disorder. "He's at peace. He's at peace. There's a responsibility there. Even though he doesn't remember it, and he did not have his mind, he knows there's a responsibility. And it is justice. Justice has to be served. Ed's family deserves that."
Joan says no one will ever completely understand why this tragedy happened, but she hopes sharing stories of her son's struggles will prevent another community from so much heartache. "I just want to publicly say we're sorry for everything the Thomas' have had to go through, our families, their families, and our community. But you know what, we're going to survive. We're going to move forward. God is going to see us through all the way."
Faith, family, and photo albums are what the Beckers rely on as they move forward from a tragedy that changed lives forever.