On the afternoon of Oct. 25, Kim Meline said goodbye to the two men in her family, concerned about each of them.
She was leaving for Barcelona, Spain – a bucket list trip with her mother, who had recovered from open-heart surgery. Kim was leaving husband Rob and son Jonathan in their central Tacoma home.
Jonathan, 29, is a troubled young man who’d spent 10 years in and out of jail and mental institutions. He was diagnosed at 19 with schizophrenia.
At one point, the Melines had filed a restraining order against their son. But on Sept. 25, he was living with them.
“Jonathan hugged me. I told him, ‘Take care of Rob,’ and he got this odd little smile and said, ‘Oh, I will,” Kim said.
It had been a difficult summer in the house. Three of the four Meline daughters were uncomfortable around their brother. Rob had begun having nightmares about his son and was sleeping with a baseball bat beside his bed.
Rob and Kim Meline, both teachers, had been together since college. That afternoon, Rob drove his wife and mother-in-law to Sea-Tac airport.
“I told him to be careful, to watch Jonathan closely,” she said.
Kim and her mother, Evy McNeal, flew to Spain. After arriving at their hotel, they were told they had a message: One of Kim’s sisters asked that they call her. Evy called, then screamed. She told Kim to sit down.
“Jonathan has killed Rob,” she told her daughter.
THREATENED FOR YEARS
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist heard about the murder before Kim Meline did.
“My first reaction was to wonder why this obviously mentally ill individual was loose in the community,” Lindquist said. “One of the answers was because this was a ‘gap’ case – another example where the defendant had been found incompetent to stand trial, but was also deemed safe to be released.”
Jonathan Meline had threatened his parents for years. He told Tacoma police in 2008 that Kim and Rob were not his real mom and dad.
“A police officer called us. He said he wanted to make sure we knew that Jonathan was convinced we had killed his real parents,” Kim said. “He said Jonathan told him it would only be fair if he killed us.”
Late in 2010, Jonathan was arrested for robbery, charged with stealing a Jeep from a Tacoma dealership and trying to run down a salesman who attempted to stop him.
Jonathan was declared incompetent to stand trial in April 2011, after six months committed at Western State Hospital.
Dr. Gregg Gagliardi testified at that hearing, and among his conclusions was this: Jonathan, “as a result of a mental disorder, presents a substantial likelihood of repeating similar acts.”
Jonathan was returned to Western State. There, two contrary forces came into play between law-enforcement and mental-health professionals.
“Our function is to see justice is done, but that’s not the doctors’ job,” Phillip Sorensen, a deputy prosecuting attorney, explained in a recent interview. “Their purpose is to make people better. For them, the best-case scenario is to get them healthy enough to be back in the community.”
In August 2011, a judge dismissed the criminal case after being told Jonathan’s competence could not be restored. A month later, he was civilly committed for a period of up to 180 days.
For Kim and Rob Meline and their family, it seemed to mark progress toward having Jonathan permanently committed after a decade dealing with his mental illness.
“We thought he was close to being committed for life, and he was ready,” Kim said. “He told us he was more comfortable in the company of other mentally ill people – that he wasn’t the outlier.”
‘TAKE HIM HOME OR HE’LL BE ON THE STREET’
The year he turned 19, Jonathan Meline dressed all in white – shoes, sweatsuit, cap – and walked down to the Tacoma Narrows and into the water below the bridge. People who saw him go in called the police.
Nearly halfway across, exhausted and chilled, Jonathan climbed aboard a boat, was taken into custody and sent to Puget Sound Hospital, then to Western State.
It was the beginning of an odyssey that today finds Jonathan back in the forensics unit at Western State, being evaluated yet again to determine whether he’s competent to stand trial – this time, for murder.
The last horrific chapter began in January of this year, only about 90 days into Jonathan’s commitment for the incident with the car dealer.
The Meline family got a telephone call from the Lakewood-based hospital.
“They called us and said ‘we’re releasing him. Take him home or he’ll be on the street,’” Kim recalled.
“It was January, it was freezing. We brought him home,” she said. “The girls were against it. Rob had reservations. I thought at least we’d be able to watch him.”
But because of federal privacy laws, the Melines were not told anything about Jonathan’s condition, his treatment or the medications he was supposed to take.
“A counselor who’d worked with him before called and said he wouldn’t work with Jonathan again,” Kim said. “Then he said: ‘You should be terrified of him.’”
For months, there was an uneasy peace in the Meline house. Jonathan had no outbursts of rage but was often uncommunicative, spending hours on the computer in his small upstairs room.
“There was an incident in June when Rob asked ‘Did I really hear him say that?’ because he thought he’d heard Jonathan say he was going to kill him,” Kim said. “He asked Jonathan what he’d said, and he said he’d just been talking to himself.”
From that time on, Kim didn’t sleep well.
“The last few months, Jonathan would wake up every night about 2 a.m. and I’d hear him walking down the hallway, then hear him pause at the top of the stairs, right outside our room,” Kim said. “I’d listen and wait, and then he’d go downstairs.
“The night he killed Rob, it was about 2 a.m. I’ve wondered how many times he stood outside our room thinking, ‘I could do it now ...’”
‘SO LITTLE PROTECTION’
About 2 a.m. on Sept. 26, Kim Meline was over the Atlantic Ocean. According to court documents, Jonathan told police he awakened and walked into his father’s bedroom, began scrounging in a backpack for a hatchet he’d purchased in June – the day after he’d told Rob he was going to kill him.
Delusional, Jonathan had come to believe his father was killing children and his mother was allowing it.
When he began striking his father in the head with the hatchet, one of Jonathan’s sisters, Kristina, awakened in a bedroom directly below. She was the only other person in the house at the time. She told police she heard her brother screaming: “Die! Die!”
Kristina Meline walked with her brother more than a mile so he could surrender to Tacoma Police.
Kim hasn’t seen Jonathan since her husband’s death. She won’t see him again until a competency hearing scheduled for Dec. 28.
“I want my family protected. Our fear is that there could be a slip-up again and Jonathan could be out,” she said. “I don’t think he’s done.”
Sorensen, the deputy prosecutor in charge of the Meline case, said Kim Meline isn’t being paranoid.
“Is it possible he could be released? Yes,” Sorensen said.
“Our position: If they’re healthy enough to be released, we’re presuming they’re competent”
That, however, is not the law.
“If he’s found incompetent to stand trial, we can’t proceed with a trial,” Sorensen said. “There would be a restoration period in effort to make him competent. If between six months and a year he’s found competent, we could proceed.
“If not, by statute, we’re forced by law to drop the case,” he said.
Kim Meline said the system doesn’t do enough to protect those closest to the mentally ill.
“There’s so little protection for families – for anyone in these cases – and you read about more of them all the time,” she said.
With frustration, she notes how the law doesn’t allow family members to commit an adult child to a mental hospital.
“When you have mentally ill people who become time bombs, the mental health system seems to fail families,” she said. “That system leaves it to police and families to deal with, and the police can’t do anything until something happens.”
Prosecutor Lindquist is not only sympathetic, he’s also trying to change the law.
“I agree, the system failed her,” he said. “There are two different standards involved in these cases – one for competency, one for release. The current release standard is when there is no longer a substantial likelihood of repeating similar acts based on mental illness.
Lindquist said he’s working with state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, to broaden the standard. A person could be released if declared “no longer a continuing risk to repeat criminal behavior.”
Citing privacy laws, Western State officials would not answer questions about the Meline case for this column. But when it released Jonathan Meline in January, the hospital was complying with the law. He had no charges pending against him, and it was determined “the patient has progressed to the point where the person is appropriate for treatment in the community,” according to a statement Western State released this week.
But sometimes it takes a high-profile case like the Melines’ to highlight a bad law.
Pedersen expects to introduce legislation in the session that starts next month.
“Some people with mental issues can’t be convicted of crime but cannot be civilly committed, either,” Pedersen said. “We want to shrink that gap between those two standards – have fewer dangerous people released.”
LEFT WITH ANGER
Kim Meline has lost her husband, lost her son, and sold the home where she lost them both.
“Jonathan was in one hospital after another for 10 years, and they always released him,” she said. “The (Tacoma) police knew him by sight and would bring him home – he’d walk into traffic, annoy bystanders, climb trees and yell.
“There are too many families caught up in these tragedies with nowhere to turn. I’m angry, and that’s what I’m angry about,” she said. “I’m angry at Jonathan, too. He told us we weren’t his parents ...”
What would she say to him if they talked again?
“That he’s not my son. That my son could never have done this, crazy or not,” Kim said. “He reads the Bible a lot, but he broke two of the Ten Commandments – ‘Honor thy Father’ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’”
Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638