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Massacre in Moscow

Part II: The wake of mental illness, guns and domestic violence

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The shooting started at 11:22 p.m. on May 19, 2007. By the early morning hours of May 20, a police officer and a church caretaker lay dead. A likable courthouse janitor with a bubbly personality would be found later in the day, killed in her simple brown house on the outskirts of town. A deputy sheriff and an armed University of Idaho student were bleeding in the hospital, but would recover.

And Jason Hamilton, 36, sat at the front of a church, a single self-inflicted bullet hole through his head.

The massacre was a fantasy Jason had rehearsed in his mind. It was a plot he had hinted at to a doctor and detailed for a local tattoo artist. But no one thought he would actually do it. No one thought him capable of doing it.

At least not before he went and did it

—Nathaniel Hoffman

For Part I of this story, see the July 9 edition of Boise Weekly or visit boiseweekly.com.

Roll into Moscow on a Saturday night and pull into a spot near one of the three brightly lit coffee houses along Main Street. There is usually room to park.

Inside, a trio of bearded professors chat in the corner. A table of former grad students/stay-at-home moms tap their knees. Across the room, the carpenter who could have been a college professor nods and a college boy pretends to read Walt Whitman. Perhaps you've found the crunchy coffee shop, with the Birkenstock vibe, or maybe the churchy one, or the one in the middle, with a blatant female energy to it.

Inside the crunchy coffee shop, the One World Cafe, a chipper folk trio wraps up its set on a small stage.

Outside the windows college students wander from bar to bar looking for the party that will never quite materialize.

The coffee shops are on alternating blocks to the bars of Moscow, which are friendly, if a bit dead most nights. At one end of the smoky hall at John's Alley, a table of quiet guys and gals in Carhartts and ball caps sip from pitchers of cheap beer that crowd the table.

Wizened co-eds perch themselves at the bar, smoking with the bartenders—chatty guys now a decade out of school. Some older, ruddy-faced couples stare groggily at the TV.

Everyone in town has a shooting story. People were trapped at John's Alley all night after police put the area on lockdown. Hundreds of residents dialed 911, and many Muscovites knew the people who were killed or shot.

Not quite as many people had made Jason Hamilton's acquaintance.

Jason was last seen at Mingles, another downtown bar, at about 10:30 p.m. on the night of the shooting. He had been at the bar earlier in the afternoon as well, buying shots for his employee who turned 21 that day.

"He was fun as hell," said one of Jason's other employees at American Building Maintenance, a janitorial company.

He recalled one night when they were stripping the floors of a new business in Moscow, an all-night job. A rap song came on the radio and Jason led his crew in a little dance routine in the empty building.

For three months after his 2006 domestic battery conviction, Jason had to knock off work at midnight to head back to the county jail, a small lockup in the basement of the County Courthouse.

His janitorial buddies called him Cinderella.

People at Mingles knew Jason's face, but he was more of a regular at John's Alley on the south end of town. He was thrown out of the Alley occasionally for fighting, and he once beat up a woman who wouldn't dance with him, according to a police report.

Jason often called female friends "bitches" and "stupid whores," which along with his domestic battery conviction and the fight at the Alley lends some credence to the domestic violence theory of the shooting—that it was a domestic dispute writ large.

But many who were close to Jason and his wife Crystal Hamilton disagree.

A plea for help unheard

According to a close friend of Crystal's, a woman who declined repeated requests for an interview, the domestic violence theory is all wrong. The woman, who calls herself "jf," wrote this on an online forum soon after the shooting:

"Jason Hamilton was a victim himself. He attempted many times to get help from the psychiatric community. In the last four months he attempted to voluntarily check himself in at St. Joe's [St. Joseph Regional Medical Center] only to be released less than eight hours later. By a trained doctor. Who knew Jason's history. All of it. And ignored it ... He was a tortured soul who was trying to see his way through the sickness to get help. Yes, he pulled the trigger multiple times. He is responsible for the deaths of an officer; a friend, Paul; a dear friend, Crystal. However, Crystal would be furious that the focus is on domestic violence and not the failings of the psych community. Pay attention to the real issues."

When Second District Judge John Stegner sentenced Jason to 90 days in county jail in June 2006, he also ordered him to see a counselor for a mental health evaluation.

But the judge did not necessarily think Jason had any psychological problems. Neither did his attorney, Chuck Kovis, or juror Elizabeth Brandt, or many who knew Jason.

Jason had a good record at work and a positive review from his boss, not something Stegner is used to seeing. Jason did not appear unstable in court, and there was no sign of mental illness on his official record.

"He looked like the all-American young man," Stegner said.

The jury thought he was violent but had no reason to suspect he was psychopathic. Even Kovis, who spent hours with Jason during more than a year of court appearances, did not know he had a diagnosed mental illness until the night in February 2007 when he was committed to the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.

"I certainly feel bad that I didn't recognize something that should have been addressed," Kovis said over coffee at the One World Cafe.

At 9 a.m. on Feb. 16, four Moscow police officers went to Gritman Medical Center a few blocks south of the police station. Jason had gone into the hospital early that morning after downing an entire bottle of clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug. Jason told the doctor on duty that he thought aliens and "men in black" were after him, according to a police report on the incident.

Dr. Carl Melina asked Jason if he wanted to kill himself, and Jason replied that if he were going to kill himself, he would take a bunch of people with him.

According to the police report: "He said Jason elaborated on that indicating he would blow up a bomb or shoot people. Jason said he had not told anyone that before, not even his psychologist. He said Jason admitted he needed to get help."

Melina also said that Jason and Crystal had been planning another divorce.

Melina told police that Jason ripped the IV out of his arm and started to leave the hospital. He said he was scared that Jason could hurt himself or other people, and based on this opinion, Moscow police obtained a court order to commit Jason to St. Joe's, a larger hospital with psychiatric facilities.

Jason's ex-girlfriend, Jaime Pritchett, said that he had been on and off psych meds for some time. She described Jason as a very paranoid person who thought that everyone was out to get him, a "keep your friends close and your enemies closer," kind of guy.

In late 2004 or early 2005, at Pritchett's urging, he went to a doctor and got some medication.

"He said it was helping him, but he said it took away his hard-on, which was a big thing for him," Pritchett said.

Several people close to Jason said that between the time he overdosed in February and the shooting, he tried to get help two or three more times for what one source called "paranoid antisocial behavior."

Requests for Jason's health information were denied, based on privacy regulations. His mother, who has reviewed some of his records said that he was given tranquilizers and sent home on two occasions, and that by the time of the shooting, he had been diagnosed as a "borderline schizophrenic with antisocial tendencies."

His stepmother, who lives in Northern California, wrote in an online forum that his father and brother also suffer from similar mental illnesses.

One of the first concrete steps that was taken in Latah County in the wake of the shooting was to form a mental health court, a new model of justice in Idaho that is designed to divert people who would benefit from psychological treatment from going straight to jail.

"I think Jason Hamilton was an example of how mental health court might be an appropriate response to certain situations, but I don't even know that Jason Hamilton would have found his way into mental health court had we had one at the time," said Stegner, who has been instrumental in getting the Latah County program started.

Stegner said he was never informed of Jason's involuntary commitment at St. Joe's in February, despite the fact that Hamilton was on probation through his bench.

A week before the shooting, Jason was called back to Stegner's court and asked why he had not completed his mental health evaluation. Kovis told Stegner that Jason had seen a doctor in Pullman, Wash., for an initial visit and would take care of the evaluation shortly. Kovis said that Jason was happy about seeing the doctor, and had called his office to jokingly complain about the $200 fee for the testing. Stegner put off a hearing on Hamilton's probation violation, assuming he would follow through with the evaluation.

"In turn, he goes on a shooting rampage. My goal in dealing with Hamilton was to affect proper punishment for what he had done," Stegner said. "I consider my efforts totally ineffectual."

Kovis, too, in retrospect, wishes he had seen more into Jason's psyche.

"It shocked me but it didn't surprise me," Kovis said.

Gun crazy in a gun crazy town

The mental health evaluation that Hamilton never got was only part of his sentence. Judge Stegner also ordered him to give up his guns, an automatic condition of probation in most cases.

"Had either of those been accomplished, I don't think the events of May 19 would have transpired in the way that they did," Stegner said.

Hamilton, like most of Kovis' male clients, liked his guns. He reportedly kept a picture of his prized AK-47, one of two weapons he used in the May 19 shooting, on his cell phone and showed it to women. Several people remarked that he was constantly cleaning the gun.

One young man who used to work for Hamilton as a floor technician specialist, said his supervisor relaxed before work by cleaning his guns. Hamilton once gave the AK-47 to his tattoo artist, Jeremy Hogan, as collateral.

Pritchett said Jason's guns made her nervous, especially after he pointed them at her on several occasions.

"They were his pride and joy, he loved having them," she said.

The guns were part of the reason he decided against moving to Washington with her; he did not think he could bring his semiautomatic rifle with him.

When police and FBI agents went to Jason and Crystal's house after the shooting, they discovered that Jason's guns had indeed been locked up with individual gunlocks. The keys were in Crystal's room. But all of the locks had been cut off sometime before the shooting, Idaho State Police Lt. Charlie Spencer said.

Stegner, who orders people to relinquish their guns nearly every day, had never considered how this could be accomplished in a state where gun ownership is widespread and meagerly regulated.

Crystal had a 9mm handgun of her own. How is it possible to isolate a convicted criminal from weapons when other members of the household may sleep with them loaded and under their pillows? Was putting trigger locks on eight weapons in line with Stegner's order that Hamilton not possess guns?

"If it could easily be thwarted, I would say it is not in compliance," the judge said.

Ambush at the courthouse

Jason and Crystal lived in a run-down rental house in a small, isolated subdivision five miles east of town on State Highway 8, the road to Troy.

On the night of the shooting, Jason borrowed $20 from Crystal and met up with a friend at Mingles to play pool and drink beer, according to the Idaho State Police, which spent almost a year investigating the shooting.

Jason's buddy, a colleague from work, told investigators that Jason seemed completely normal that night.

After about two hours at the bar, Jason drove home and within an hour, he shot Crystal in the head, killing her, armed himself heavily and launched a premeditated assault on the Sheriff's Office.

"Something happened to set him off," Spencer said.

Jason and Crystal had a physical struggle at the house that evening, but Spencer said the shooting was planned previously.

"He did not have enough time to sit at home and load that many rounds, he had the forethought to take a bottle of water with him, to take two guns. We really believe that he had sat around and gone through this scenario in his head," Spencer said.

Jason drove his work rig back to town and parked behind the First Presbyterian Church, which sits atop of one of Moscow's low hills and directly across Fifth Street from the courthouse and Sheriff's Office. It was one of the buildings that Jason regularly cleaned.

He broke a window, entered the church and walked through to the courthouse side.

According to a police summary of the shooting, at 11:22 p.m., Jason opened fire at the courthouse with his M1A1 7.62 caliber rifle, emptying six clips into the cars parked in the lot and into the building itself. Police said he was attempting to create an ambush.

It worked. Dispatchers working inside the building fled downstairs and called for backup. Several rounds penetrated the building.

Two Moscow police officers headed up the hill from the Moscow Police Department toward the courthouse, first in a patrol car and then on foot. Under cover of darkness, Jason shot and killed Lee Newbill, the first city cop killed in Moscow history.

Jason fired 15 rounds with his M1A1 toward Newbill and his partner, Bill Shields. One round hit Newbill in his calf and another penetrated his vest, killing him. Shields threw down his shotgun and took cover in a nearby garage, calling for backup.

Jason had been shooting for 15 minutes.

Another officer saw Jason stand up, put on a pack and grasp his AK-47 and then heard him say, "Officer down."

Jason left the M1A1 with one round in the chamber and crossed the street to the church.

About the same time, University of Idaho student Peter Husmann, who lived in the area, had heard the shooting and had ridden his bike to the scene armed with a pistol, was approaching the church from the south.

Jason moved through the church, breaking lighted exit signs, and took up a position on the second story. Spotting Husmann, he fired 31 times through a window and hit him four times, near the courthouse parking lot.

Husmann was still able to move and fled back in the direction from which he had come, meeting up with a medical technician, who took him to the hospital.

In interviews with his parents after the shooting, Husmann was portrayed as a hero who was just trying to help anyone who had been injured. Moscow's police chief and the sheriff both remarked that intervening in police matters is not a good idea.

About 20 minutes after the shooting started, Paul Bauer went back inside. Bauer, who opened the church for Narcotics Anonymous meetings, among other community events, was on good terms with many of Moscow's ex-cons and recovering addicts.

He had been spotted smoking outside the church during the shooting and even crossed the street at one point and made it to the steps of the Sheriff's Office. Some officers thought at the time that he may have been a lookout.

At 11:41 p.m., Bauer dialed 911 from a church office. While on the phone with a dispatcher, Jason fired six times through the office window and killed Bauer. He fell to the floor still clutching the phone.

Jason then returned to an elevated shooting position. As a rescue party pulled away with Newbill, a block west and across the street from the church, Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Brannon Jordan fell off the back of the SUV and was left behind. He spotted Shield's shotgun, took cover and checked the weapon.

As Jordan sat up, Jason fired a single round from his AK-47 and hit him in the arm and lower back.

Jason went back downstairs to the sanctuary and smoked.

At 12:59 a.m., on Sunday, after a lull in the shooting, police heard a single gunshot emanate from the church. When the SWAT teams stormed the sprawling grounds later that morning, they found Jason sitting upright on a bench, the AK-47 between his legs.

He had shot himself in the head at the altar.

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