Mark’s mom shares their story
Becker talks of struggles with the mental health system before her son killed coach Ed Thomas
Friday was not a good anniversary for Joan Becker, of Parkersburg.
“Ten years ago today,” she said. “We got a call, we need to get home. A tornado had hit our town. It looked like a war zone.”
Next month, on June 24, she and her family will experience another anniversary.
“About nine years ago,” she said. “We had another storm hit our family.”
That was the day her son, Mark Becker, shot and killed Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas in the school’s weight room.
She spoke about that storm, and the lifetime of struggles trying to get her son help Friday morning at a Mental Health Awareness Day presentation hosted by Trinity Lutheran Church in Webster City. The event was sponsored by the Hamilton County Mental Health Learning Community.
Early in her son’s life, there was little to indicate anything was wrong. He seemed a normal child.
“That little guy was a go-getter,” she said. “In grade school and middle school he was very active and very involved in sports and drama. He liked to be involved. He was on the student council. He was very much a leader among his peers.”
The family noticed something wrong when he turned 16.
“That is when we started to see some serious changes in Mark.” she said.
At that time, he was caught with a small amount of marijuana. As part of that incident, he had to see his coaches and go through a round of counseling. That was when the Beckers first encountered trouble with the mental health care system.
“We weren’t allowed to go and be a part of that.” she said.
In hindsight, she now understands why he turned to street drugs.
“We now know the voices were becoming so prevalent and up front,” she said. “He was trying to quiet them. That is what my son was trying to fix.”
She now looks back and sees other signs that were not noticed at the time.
“He once told me, ‘ever since I remember existing I heard the voices and they frightened me.” she said.
His student artwork, at an early age, showed signs too.
“He did this disturbing artwork,” she said. “We asked about it and they said we see this all the time.”
He eventually was able to see an individual counselor. It helped.
“By graduation,” she said. “He was on cloud nine.”
Following high school, college didn’t go well.
“It was a rough few years,” she said. “He enrolled and dropped out three times.”
His life after that became a succession of moves out of the family home, back into the family home and a string of jobs.
“He moved 12 times,” she said. “He always came home.”
He also began using street drugs more, both in quantity and frequency.
She knew when he was using.
“I could sense a quietness,” she said. “But when the drugs were gone, it was all still there.”
One of the hallmarks of schizophrenia is that the patient often hears voices. To the person suffering with the illness, they are not only real, they are that person’s reality.
This led to many odd conversations.
“He called once,” she said “Mom, I know you and dad are busy with the cleanup, but you can quit putting ideas in my head to control me.’ He was really out of it, he was talking in bizarre thoughts.”
Another conversation went like this.
“Mom, can’t you feel the evil, the evil is everywhere,” she said. “It’s very real to them.”
The episodes eventually led to her son being hospitalized. They realized they had to do something and made a call to law enforcement.
“The sheriff came out,” she said. “He said ‘Dave and Joan, I hate to tell you this but we need to get Mark to a mental health unit.”
They expected their son to be given a diagnosis and medication.
“Well,” she said. “That didn’t happen. We were not allowed to go into the hearing.”
Between September 2008 and June 2009, Becker kept track of the episodes.
“He had eight psychotic episodes, the sheriff was called four times, he went through 15 counselors and he said ‘I’m better off dead,’ three times.” she said.
They were frustrated.
“We had no idea what to do to help him,” she said. “We just loved him through it. That’s all we knew how to do.”
He seemed to be getting better before the shooting. Than his life erupted in chaos.
She said he went to a home nearby and tried to attack the resident with a baseball bat. He fled, which led to a high speed chase.
“He believed this guy was contacting Mark through a teddy bear,” she said. “That was the logic in Mark’s mind. He truly believed that.”
He was committed to a mental health facility after that where he once again did not receive treatment. She said they didn’t medicate him.
“They left him on the floor in a fetal position during a tornado warning,” she said. “We treat dogs and animals better than human beings sometimes.”
He was released.
The family heard about the June 24, 2009, shooting from a phone call.
“It appears Mark is involved.” she said she was told.
Her son’s counselor called her and asked how she was doing.
“How do you think I’m doing?” she said. “This can’t be happening. We tried so hard and no one would help us. We never expected that storm to come that day.”
The Beckers were part of their son’s delusion that day.
“He believed that God wanted him to take Ed’s life,” she said. “Our lives, too. To protect the lives of the children in the community. He truly believed he was doing the right thing.”
The Thomas family and the Becker family have a long history together. The couple met while attending a Bible class taught by Ed Thomas.
The survivors reached out to the Beckers.
“We are separating what Mark did from your family,” she was told. “We know you’re hurting as deeply as we are.”
Her son was finally given an official diagnosis, once he reached prison.
“He was officially diagnosed in jail,” she said.
He’s currently serving his sentence at the Iowa Medical and Classification Facility in Coralville. He’s on medication that controls his disease and he’s involved with the therapy dog training program.
“Now we feel at peace,” she said. “We visit him often.”
Becker, like many who’ve had to deal with the mental health care system on behalf of an ill relative or friend, sees it for what it is, broken.
“What happened,” she said. “It was no one’s person’s fault. It was the system’s fault.”