Kindred family says suicidal 14-year-old cuffed, threatened after 911 call
By Ryan Johnson / The Forum
KINDRED, N.D. – When Mark and Tammy Erickson noticed their 14-year-old son enter a garage on their farm near here, lock the door and start a car inside, they called 911 to get help.
But they said the situation on Jan. 12, 2011, went from bad to worse when deputies arrived – and allegedly handcuffed their son, put him in the back of a squad car and threatened him with arrest for attempting suicide before he was put under a 72-hour emergency hold that brought him to a Fargo psychiatric hospital.
More than two years later, the Ericksons are speaking out publicly for the first time about what happened to their son, Chase Erickson, who died by suicide seven months later at the age of 15. They are seeking an investigation into how county deputies responded to the call.
Mark Erickson said after the January 2011 incident, everyone in the family came to the same conclusion – “911 was a bad thing” and not an option for Chase if he needed help.
“Chase said ‘I’ll never call 911 again’ because it was a 911 call gone terribly bad,” he said. “He just swore up and down that he was never going to get cuffed and stuffed again.”
Tammy Erickson said on Aug. 1, 2011, Chase killed himself at the farm while the rest of the family was gone for a few hours to bring cattle to the market. But this time, instead of contacting authorities for help, Chase called a friend in Fargo who had no way of arriving in time to stop him.
“I just think for a young boy who was not in a very good emotional spot, maybe talking to him differently would’ve been more helpful so he would’ve felt like he could call them again when he was in trouble instead of knowing that he couldn’t attempt again because that would be a crime and he’d be going to jail,” she said.
In a written statement, Executive Director Susan Rae Helgeland said Mental Health America of North Dakota applauds the “courage” of the Ericksons for coming forward and said it could prevent this from happening again.
“Attempting suicide is not a crime,” she wrote. “It is a symptom of an illness just as, for example, chest pain is a symptom of an illness. To criminalize individuals for being ill is unacceptable.”
A chaotic response
Mark Erickson said he noticed Chase standing near a garage looking toward their house on the evening of Jan. 12, 2011, and then Chase went inside and closed the door.
“When I stepped outside, I heard the car running and kind of figured I’d better go check and see what’s up so I went down there,” he said. “The door was locked and I could hear the car running inside, so that’s when I kicked down the door.”
He said Chase had only been inside the garage for a few seconds and came out as soon as he broke down the door. Still, he said he decided to call 911.
As the Ericksons spoke with their son, they saw that he was physically safe and called law enforcement again to cancel their 911 call. But the dispatcher said deputies were almost on scene and suggested officers should still stop by, and they agreed.
But Mark Erickson said things escalated when Richland County Deputy Dan Wise arrived on the scene minutes after Cass County deputies.
“Once they showed up, we just lost all control and Deputy Wise had all the control,” Mark Erickson said.
He said Wise was angry that they canceled the ambulance that was on its way and warned them it was possible to die of carbon monoxide poisoning hours later. The deputy threatened to charge the parents with child neglect – a serious charge, Mark Erickson said, because his wife runs a day care in Kindred and the accusation could ruin her business.
Tammy Erickson said she asked to speak with Chase, but Wise said he would stay in the back of the squad car because it’s a crime in North Dakota to attempt suicide and he could be charged.
Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said he’s not aware of any current statute in North Dakota that makes it a crime to attempt suicide. But he said if there had been a law on the books, it may have been removed in an overhaul of the state’s criminal laws in the early 1970s.
Despite Wise’s insistence that Chase needed emergency medical attention, Tammy Erickson said, he stayed on the scene for a half-hour or more yelling at the family – even though an ambulance was waiting nearby in Kindred to check the boy’s oxygen levels and take him to a Fargo emergency room.
She said they wanted to take Chase to a doctor anyway, and asked Wise if they could drive him there. But Wise refused, she said, and told them that the boy was under a 72-hour emergency hold and would be brought to Fargo by ambulance – despite their concerns at the cost of what they saw as an unnecessary ambulance ride, especially because they didn’t have health insurance.
Chase was eventually taken to Sanford Medical Center and transferred to Prairie St. John’s in Fargo, where he stayed for a few days.
Tammy Erickson said her son had been diagnosed with depression about six months before the incident, and she said she believes he may have had bipolar disorder. Under the guidance of a psychiatrist, he was taking several medications and going to counseling.
When the Erickson family left their farm for a few hours on the evening of Aug. 1, 2011, Chase asked to stay home because he was tired. He died by suicide that night, she said, leaving the family without their boy who loved hunting, fishing and riding ATVs, tractors and snowmobiles around their farm as well as spending time with his family and friends.
The Ericksons sent a complaint letter last month to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asking that he investigate the Cass County and Richland County sheriff’s departments for their handling of the 911 call. The letter was also sent to both the sheriff’s departments.
Executive Assistant Liz Brocker replied for the attorney general’s office, expressing their condolences in a June 24 letter.
“This office cannot, however, take the action you requested,” Brocker wrote. “Under the law, we do not have jurisdiction or authority over the local law enforcement agencies and therefore we cannot take complaints about officers employed with those agencies.”
Richland County Chief Deputy Gary Ruhl said Friday that the sheriff’s department has discussed the complaint with State’s Attorney Ron McBeth, who has advised them not to comment until they hear from Stenehjem.
“Until we get the letter acknowledging everything, that’s I guess where it’s going to have to stand,” he said.
McBeth was out of town Friday and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Richland County Assistant State’s Attorney Megan Kummer said McBeth and Sheriff Larry Leshovsky have discussed the matter and will wait for a response from Stenehjem because of the possibility of civil action in the case.
Wise, the Richland County deputy who responded to the call, was also named as a defendant, along with Deputy Steve Gjerdevig, in a lawsuit filed last year that seeks unspecified damages from the Richland County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly using excessive force and yelling at three young men during an August 2011 traffic stop.
Sgt. Tara Morris said the Cass County Sheriff’s Office has already completed an investigation it launched after receiving the letter, which was dated June 17. That investigation found no misconduct on the part of the two Cass County deputies who were the first officers to reach the Erickson farm, Morris said.
She said the Cass County internal investigations sergeant interviewed Deputy Joe Hedin and Cpl. Tim Briggeman, who was a deputy at the time, and got their recollections of that night.
Morris said Cass County responded, despite the farm being located just across the border in Richland County, because they often are closer to the scene in this area. When the deputies arrived, they separated Chase from his parents – a common tactic to get the story, she said – but Briggeman did not handcuff the teen.
“That occurred once the Richland County deputy arrived, it sounds like,” she said.
Morris said Hedin gave Chase a card with his phone number, letting him know he could call at any time if there was a problem, and Cass County School Resource Deputy Katie Violet followed up with the teen and his parents over the following months.
“They handled it well,” she said.
Tammy Erickson said her husband wanted to immediately file a complaint in 2011, but she feared retaliation if they did so and didn’t want to stir up trouble.
Once Chase died, she said, she was consumed by grief and took more than a year to start to recover, but still feared what would happen if they went public.
She said she changed her mind after a medical scare last December.
“It wasn’t until I had that stroke and saw that we were so fearful of calling 911 that I really realized it is a severe problem,” she said.
Mark Erickson said his wife, who has fully recovered from the stroke, suffers panic attacks just at the sight of a uniformed officer or the sound of a police siren – and said he believes their run-in with deputies on their farm more than two years ago has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said the family doesn’t have a problem with all law enforcement agencies, and they have several friends who are federal officers.
But Tammy Erickson said it’s important to get their story out and try to get an answer for what happened on their farm that night when they reached out for help on behalf of Chase.
“It shouldn’t be allowed that a system that’s supposed to help us becomes a system that you’re fearful of,” she said.