On May 5, 2011, Jonathan Martis was suicidal. The tall, burly man in his late 30s had been diagnosed as bipolar at age 15 and had been on a series of medications since then. He had stopped taking his latest one in April, just days earlier.
He called family members, and to them it sounded like he was saying goodbye. They knew he had been suicidal in the past, and lately he had been in a bad place. His younger brother, Jeff, came over to check on him. Jonathan didn’t want to see him and called Omaha police, telling them someone was trying to break in. “A dispatcher could tell he sounded unstable,” the local newspaper later reported. Two officers responded.
At some point before he confronted police, Jonathan put on what would become the defining detail in a story that briefly made national news _ a full pirate costume that his mother had made him. He reportedly later told a psychologist it was the best outfit he had. He also held a fencing sword, which he had sharpened himself. He says he drank a pint of Jim Beam.
The confrontation with police went badly. Jonathan says they saw his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame in a pirate costume and started laughing. He cursed at them and shouted at them to shoot him. They told him to put down the sword. When he didn’t, they shot him at a distance with a Taser, but it bounced off his thick costume.
Jonathan then used his sword to cut the Taser wires. He advanced toward the officers, backing them down the driveway and into the street, again shouting at them to shoot him. Finally one of them did, two inches from his heart, in the upper left part of his chest near his shoulder. The confrontation was over.
The national website Gawker was one of several media outlets to pick up on the story, under the headline “Sad, sword-waving pirate shot by cops.”
“I’m not faulting the cops,” Jonathan’s mother, Ruth Martis, told the local newspaper the next day. “When he gets better, I hope he goes to a mental hospital and not jail.”
He didn’t. Nearly a year later, in March 2012, Jonathan pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors, who at first had wanted to sentence him to 200 years in prison. They meant it as a warning to others who might try “suicide by cop,” says Jonathan’s significant other, Johanna.
A local newspaper report said his lawyer briefly suggested that Jonathan was not responsible because he was insane at the time, but then didn’t pursue it. It’s not clear why.
Under the deal, Jonathan pleaded guilty to third-degree assault on a police officer and possession of a dangerous weapon by a prohibited person, since he had spent a little over a year in prison a decade earlier for attempted assault in the first degree, a felony.
The local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, wrote a story about his possible sentence with the tone-deaf opening line, “There were elements of the case that held humor, and perhaps still do.” It added, “The pirate-defendant will go to prison for perhaps 15 years.”
For his suicide attempt, Jonathan was sentenced to six to 15 years in prison. He remains at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska, and the website of the state Department of Correctional Services shows his parole eligibility date as May 2015.
Earlier this fall, Jonathan wrote to What Happens Now? to share his story. It was via old-fashioned mail, since he has no Internet access in prison. We also spoke with Johanna, who separated from him shortly before his attempt but is with him again.
“We are not blaming anyone,” she said later in an email. “Jon has taken full responsibilities for his choices & actions. There are consequences to every action. We just didn’t expect nor do we fully understand why the final consequence was so heavy. But it sure is a hell of a lot better than the death wish he was asking for. Jon tells me part of his death wish was granted, he’s alive but he’s dead to the world in prison.”
Jonathan started taking his medication again about a month after his suicide attempt and continues to take it in prison, Johanna said. He’s ready to embrace life differently, she added. “We are hoping and praying that Jon will be granted that opportunity. We have a life together just waiting for us to catch up.”
Jonathan’s story is not unique. A simple Google search brings up several stories from the past few years where someone _ always a man, at least in these cases _ tries “suicide by cop” and ends up in prison. A New Hampshire man, also with a sword, also shot by police but losing his leg, got one to four years in prison last year. An Ohio man, with a socket wrench, shot nine times, got more than two and a half years last month. Both men charged at but did not hurt police. Other cases had a gun. An Iowa man, who pointed a gun at an officer and was shot in the shoulder, got up to five years in prison last year. A Pennsylvania man, who pointed a loaded handgun at an officer, got two to four years in prison in 2009. Another Pennsylvania man, who was found with a shotgun under his chin and then pointed it at police, was shot four times and got five to 23 months in prison. Police later found the gun wasn’t loaded.
These cases reveal a problem with the way we respond to people in crisis.
Omaha, where Jonathan lives, has both non-police mobile crisis teams and close to 200 police officers with crisis intervention training, or CIT. Both approaches have been adopted by cities across the U.S. They’re meant to respond to people in a mental health crisis and help them avoid hospitalization or escalation into violence. But no mobile crisis team was on the scene when Jonathan emerged from his home and saw police.
We spoke to experts to better understand how these approaches actually work _ and why a suicide attempt would bring prison time. But first, here is Jonathan’s letter in full. We fixed some misspelled words, such as “alcohalizum” for alcoholism and “marter” for martyr, that could have been confusing but kept others as is:
9-11-13 Hello, Cara
I have thought about telling my story for a long time now, and as with anything taking the first step is always the hardest.
People always want to blame someone or something as to why there life is screwed up. I can’t say my parents were bad, or I got blank from this person. I’m just one of the many unlucky ones who happen to be bipolar, ADHD, and I suffer from alcoholism.
My dad said I have WWIII going on in my head.
My childhood was filled with termoil, because of my ADHD, and bipolar. I got into a lot of fights, that I lost.
Im not sure what to say, I’ve been loved by many, and hated by even more.
The day I decided to end it all, was because, I couldn’t find no one to talk to. Selfish isn’t it.
I have to back up a little, this wasn’t my first time I tryed to end my life. When I was 15 I took a whole bottle of Lethium, and later on I drank 2 bottles of Jim Beam, and took 3 bottles of sleeping pills.
I woke up with a dozy of a hangover over that one.
Then I tryed a whole bottle of Seriquil. I puked all of that up when I was sleeping.
Well, bummer, I just got the news about my review from the parole board. They laid me down for 7 more months. So in Apr. of 2014, I can go back in front of them, and then I hope to get a finnal hearing for Feb of 2015 (parole).
So I’m very angry right now.
If you haven’t guessed by now my spelling sucks!
I don’t really know what to write about, my mood is pissy. :P
OK, the day I tryed to comitt suicide by cop. I had had enough of being a disapointment to everyone. (Even though I found out later for this not to be true)
I had decided (oh woe is me) to end it all, cops have guns, they are trained to shoot to kill. So, I put on a full captains pirate’s costume, including the hat, walked out my back door sword drawn, and gave them a show, I doubt they will never forget. (Bang) I know I won’t.
I guess since I have nothing better to do, I might as well figure out why Im here. (in prison)
Im sorta upset over how I’ve been “blank” over by the system.
I get it, I scared 2 people in uniform into using deadly force on me. I get it. However, I did NO physical harm to either officer, didn’t even say “Shoot me or else”
I said Shoot Me, Kill Me, so here I sit rotting in prison, because I said Shoot me! I –
Im really having trouble dealing with my sentence 6 to 15 years for class 3rd degree asult on a peace officer x 2 and use of a wepon by a prohibited person.
Yes this is my second time to prison, for assault. Yes that time I deserved it, sorta?!!? but thats a whole nother book!
On a 6 to 15 years I have to sit in here for 3 years before parole and 7 1/2 years to jam.
Jam means you sit your time out all the way, NO PAROLE. In Nebraska, we have good time law that you only have to do 1/2 the time.
So! I’m at a loss of words.
When I decided to end it all, I called or text my younger brother Jeff, and said “You can have ALL my tools.”
If anyone who knows me will tell you I love tools! Not just any tools Craftsman, Sears is my home away from home, next to Westlake Hardware!
So, when my brother asked why and I didn’t respond, he decided to pack the whole family wife, Brenda, and my 4 y old and 10 y old nieces (yep!) they saw the whole thing.
By the time my brother got there I was already dressed in full captains dress, and sword sharpened!
Now, the way the entire day, and the evening unfolded was all Gods handy work!
I called 911, and told the police, My brother is trying to break into my home.
By the time he figured out how to take the door off the hinges, and got in, the police were already there. Did I mention my family are really great mechanics.
So my sister in law Brenda tells the cops “Don’t shoot him” “Its what he wants”
My brother comes in, and said “You want to die a martyr” and lunges for the sword. My sword was a real fencing rapier sharpened by me! Thinking back, why did I do that, I knew I wasn’t going to hurt the officers, God!
My brother grabed the blade, and he found out that it was sharp. So he let go. As, I found out after the fact my brother Jeff (who could have bounced me off the ceiling) he is 6’6 said “I should have tackled you.”
To tell the truth, I wouldn’t be here now! In prison!
So I ran out the back door (the one he opened) and found 2 Omaha police officers LAFING AT ME! Not the reaction I wanted. “Fuck you Shoot me”!
“Put the sword down”!
So between me yelling Shoot me! and them telling me to put the sword down, I got shot with a tazar!
To tell the truth, I wish that would have worked, A friend named Guido said “I use to be a MP,” “I would have pulled my night stick, and said en garde” If the Omaha police had done that, most likely I would be sitting in a nice warm hospital room, instead of an ice cold cell.
The tazar was one of those flying barb kind.
Did I mention I was in a pirate outfit. Well my mother made it. We found a really good deal on upholstery material. And I had a handtooled leather belt accross my chest for the sword. So one barb hit the belt and one hit the coat. No dice.
Now, my brother said I paused for a moment, and then I used my sword to cut the tazar wires.
It was on again, Shoot me! I proceeded to walk strait at them, guns drawn, Shoot me!
The whole time the sword was pointed at the ground.
I chased them all the way down my drive way into the street.
One last try Shoot me Damit! I went to raise the sword.
Now to this day, and probally for the rest of my life, I can hear the loud POP of the 40mm.
From there its a little sketchy but later, I fell against my brother Jeffs truck (yea, the SUV with my nieces in it).
“Dam! That hurt”! It really did hurt. No joke I’ve had OVER 100 stiches from accidents, cuts and such, none of those accidents hurt as bad as that burning bullet in my chest.
I droped the sword, then I fell to the ground face first.
Now people often ask “Were you drunk or drinking.” Yes and no. Drinking yes. Drunk, not yet.
I remember it seemed like I was dieing. So, to turn the sword just a little more I said “You’ve got to take administrative leave now.” Yea, it was naughty but hell I was dieing, right!
They (the ambulance) arrived in what seemed like seconds. Bam, shot, on the ground, then, wam bam, I wake up in an ambulance.
The first words out of my mouth were “Oh my god! Im so sorry.”
Now, I’m a big guy, not as big as brother Jeff 6’6. I’m 6’4, 250 (on a good day, not in jail). So it took a few guys, paramedics, fire fighters etc etc. to pick me up and put me in the ambulance. By the time I hit the ER I was fully awake, and just feeling the pint of Jim Beam, that drank just before Jeff and family arrived at my house.
They cut my left side wide open and put in a vacuum pump into my chest cavity. Well two large hoses to suck out the blood. This was as painfull as the bullet itself. I forgot, the bullet hit me in the chest missing my heart by 2 inches broke two ribs, and was merely a flesh wound!
If I had to do over, I wouldn’t be here now! I would have done it differently but I wouldn’t be here now to talk about it.
We are supposed to learn from our mistakes, right? I learned if you are going to do something right do it yourself.
No, I don’t even want to comitt suicide again. God has a purpose for me here, and in jail. I don’t know why I just got laid down another seven months. I just hope it is revealed to me when the time comes.
So where do I go from here? In seven months I hope to get a finnal hearing, then I can move through the system on to bigger and brighter things.
Sundays suck around here. Not much to do, and no mail.
Im not sure how to end this. Theres no happy ending.
I have plans for the future, and most of it is without a wisky bottle in my hand. I hope I never take a drink again, too many hardships. Not to mention the stuppid things I do when I drink.
I know I’m about one drink away from being here the rest of my life.
Someday I hope to have a small engine shop in Omaha, NE. Maybe Ill move to Wyoming when they let me out.
I hear there is good pay on the oil line?!
I have hope, for a bright new future.
One where I’ll NEVER attempt suicide again.
Take what you can out of this if you need more (or less) let me know.
Sorry my spelling stinks! :P
After conversations with crisis response experts in Omaha and at the national level, some context fell into place:
Mobile crisis teams are limited: Omaha has mobile crisis response teams with mental health workers to help respond to people in crisis, but they come at the request of police, who first make sure the scene is safe and secure.
“People say, why don’t we have a mobile crisis person riding with police? Wouldn’t that help?” said Eric Weaver, a retired police officer and crisis response expert. “Say you respond to a call, you and me arrive together. We get a call for a man with a gun in the attic. We respond. Guess where you’re going to stay? You’re going to stay inside the car until the immediate crisis is resolved. You have no gun, no bulletproof vest. There’s no way I would put you in a position of unsafety. That’s why a mobile crisis team is often called in after a crisis happens.”
Weaver is also the survivor of multiple suicide attempts and speaks openly about his experience through his organization Overcoming the Darkness. “My heart goes out for this guy, the challenges he must have been going through, and my heart goes out to the officers who had to respond to it,” he said. “As a former law enforcement officer who was struggling with the issues of suicide myself, one of my ways of attempting was by putting myself in a position to be shot. I couldn’t do suicide by cop because I was one, but I could do suicide by suspect. So I understand, I very, very much understand his position, too.”
Even CIT-trained police officers are limited: “One of the misnomers sometimes people have is, a CIT officer is not a police officer anymore,” Weaver said. “They still respond as law enforcement. Number one is to save a life, including their own. I don’t know if I would have responded any different because of the position he put officers in. It’s tough. if you have someone coming after you with a weapon, and they already cut the Tasers … The officers tried to use a less lethal use of force. Had he not cut the wires, he probably would not have been shot. Who knows? I can’t second-guess.”
It is not clear whether the two officers who responded to Jonathan Martis’ phone call were CIT-trained, or whether they called for a CIT-trained officer once they saw him or when he cut the Taser wires.
A weapon changes everything: A year ago, another suicidal man in Omaha was shot by police after shooting him with a Taser failed. He had a knife and had advanced on officers. Shortly afterward, the Omaha World-Herald explored the issue. It found that the police department had no specific policy on when to send a CIT-trained officer to an incident, and there was no guarantee that such officers were always available.
The police department’s mental health liaison told the newspaper that everything changes when a weapon is present anyway. “It would become a use-of-force situation,” Lt. Colene Hinchey said. “It’s not even a mental health call _ that’s the issue.”
The report also pointed out that the city of Omaha faced a federal lawsuit over a separate case, where police shot a man with schizophrenia and a knife six times at close range. The lawsuit argued that the use of force was excessive and that the city failed to properly respond to people in mental health crisis. In July, an appeals court sent the case back to the district court.
A suicidal person in crisis might be expected to have a potential weapon at hand for the purpose of a suicide attempt. How to make the scene safe for trained crisis responders to arrive, without violence?
Joel A. Dvoskin, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and former president of the American Psychology-Law Society, was asked about the case of Jonathan Martis.
“If a guy’s waving a sword around, the right thing to do is to stay at a safe distance. If he was advancing and they couldn’t get clear, that changes the equation,” Dvoskin said.
“Generally, time is your friend, and the passage of time increases the chances that the situation will be resolved safely,” he added.
The insanity defense doesn’t always apply: “If the person was psychotic _ for example, if they thought the police officer was a ghost _ in most states they would be found not guilty by reason of insanity,” Dvoskin said. However, “if someone knowingly and purposefully assaults a police officer with lethal means, he should probably go to prison.” The person’s mental health background should be taken into account at sentencing as a mitigating factor, he said.
Dvoskin called the 200-year sentence originally proposed for Jonathan Martis “ridiculous.” “What possible deterrent effect is there going to be on a person where the intention is to die at that moment?” he asked. He pointed out that “suicide by cop” attempts are often impulsive, with psychosis and intoxication factors in some cases. “If a person’s suicidal, virtually no deterrent is likely to work.”
Social media can help avoid crisis escalation: In Toronto, crisis nurse Anne Marie Batten has teamed with a police officer, Scott Mills, for a new project called Real Time Crisis, which responds to people who reach out through social media when in distress. Many large Canadian cities have traditional mobile crisis teams that pair an officer and a nurse, but their safety approach is as Weaver described. “The nurse is only on the front line if the scene is deemed safe,” Batten said.
Real Time Crisis is meant to build relationships and approach crises more upstream. Through social media, “we engage the person, and conduct an assessment during this communication,” Batten said in an email. “We then determine a level of response that is appropriate to the risk level. We have been successful in maintaining safety for both the person in distress and the service providers as well. Through building trusted relationships, the person will then reach out to us when in need of support. This will lead to a much earlier intervention. We have been successful through our interventions in reducing the need for a police response and also reducing the need for persons to be transferred to the Emergency Dept.”
There are no easy answers, for the suicidal person or authorities: In May, the official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police published an article, “Responding to Calls with Suicidal Suspects,” warning that such high-risk, high-liability incidents were increasing. “In many locales, a sagging economy has had a devastating effect on those in need of quality mental health treatment,” and that means more police encounters with the mentally ill, it says. It adds that such encounters can be both dangerous and traumatic for officers, who can feel used and angry.
“Every first responder should be given crisis intervention training,” the article recommends, and training topics could include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to using deadly force. But the weak economy has pinched police department budgets, especially training budgets, as well.
These themes also were part of a national IACP summit in 2009 on police response, with the goal to “reduce trauma, injury or death during mental health crisis calls.” The summit’s final report called jails and state prisons a “dysfunctional system for addressing the needs of persons with mental illness” _ but noted that 24 percent of state prison inmates said they had a recent history of mental illness, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice analysis.
In Nebraska, that rate is higher: 31 percent of state prisoners have a mental health diagnosis, according to a 2008 study by the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center. The study also noted that Douglas County, which includes Omaha, has a diversion program to help keep people with serious mental illnesses out of jail or prison.
Such programs are for nonviolent offenders only. Assault, including the threat of physical force _ as in the case of Jonathan Martis _ is considered a violent offense.
Meanwhile, as of Dec. 12, Jonathan will have served a year and a half of his prison sentence. He continues to take his bipolar medication and checks in with a “psych doctor” at the prison every couple of months or so.
After his arrest, his mother told the local newspaper she had spoken to him about an hour before his confrontation with police.
“He was having a bad day,” she said, “but I told him it was just that, a bad day, and that tomorrow would be better.”
(Photo caption: May 2012, shortly before Jonathan’s sentencing. He set up a video camera to record an approaching steam engine, the Union Pacific 844. “He’s a huge rail fan and adores the 844,” Johanna said.)