Finding the light beyond the storm


Sharing her family’s experience ... Joan Becker, mother of Mark Becker, convicted murderer of legendary Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas, addressed a crowd of nearly 200 people at the Waukon High School Auditorium Friday, April 6. Becker told of her family’s experience and struggles with getting her son the assistance he needed with his mental health issues and offered resources to help others who may be facing the same struggles. Photo by Lissa Blake.

Bringing her here to share her message ... Veterans Memorial Hospital and its Nursing Council was responsible for bringing Joan Becker to Waukon to address area residents on her family’s experience and struggles with her son’s mental health issues that ultimately led to the fatal shooting of legendary Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas. Pictured above, left to right, are Veterans Memorial Hospital Public Relations Director Erin Berns, Veterans Memorial Hospital Nursing Council members Corinne Cook, R.N. and Bailey Benson, R.N. and featured speaker Joan Becker. Photo by Lissa Blake.

Becker discusses son’s mental illness that led to shooting of family friend

by Lissa Blake

Don’t be afraid of someone who has an illness in their brain.

That was just one of the many lessons speaker Joan Becker has shared since the fateful day when her son, Mark, took the life of beloved family friend and Parkersburg town hero, Ed Thomas.

Becker, author of the book “Sentenced to Life,” spoke to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Waukon High School Auditorium Friday night, April 6 as part of a program sponsored by Veterans Memorial Hospital (VMH) and the VMH Nursing Council.

Becker discussed the years of struggle her family endured trying to get her son help before he walked into his high school’s weight room the morning of June 24, 2009 and shot  legendary Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas.

“Every one of us encounters storms in our life that come our way, whether they are environmental, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, natural disaster or childhood rebellion. I understand your community has faced quite a few storms lately,” she said, adding, “How do you move forward?”

BLINDSIDED
Becker explained that although she and her husband, Dave, knew their son had problems, what happened that day shocked them all.

“Our family did not see this storm coming,” she said.

Joan Becker shared the story of her family, which began with Ed Thomas introducing her to her husband when they were in high school. “He was the kind of guy who didn’t want new students to feel left out,” she remembered.

The Beckers married after high school and had three sons. They were active in their local church, worshiping and teaching Sunday School with the Thomases.

“You never know how those life lessons and those connections you make will come back and give you strength… We don’t know where we would be without them, and we have great peace in knowing he would have been one of the first people at our door (after the shooting) to offer support. He would have been one of the first people to offer Mark support,” she said.

MISSING THE SIGNS
Joan described her son, Mark, as someone with an “energy and enthusiasm for life” who was well-respected by his peers.

“He was involved in youth group at church and an all-around good kid people loved to have around,” said Joan.

Mark worked hard as a boy, sometimes holding a job at a local grocery store or helping to bale hay. “His dad instilled a good work ethic in our boys,” said Joan.

It wasn’t until the summer Mark turned 16 that his parents got the first hint of trouble. “He came to us and told us he’d been caught with marijuana. Dave and I were appalled. We had always told him you do not want to touch anything that’s going to poison your mind,” said Joan.

But looking back, Joan now feels like they should have done something different.“He went to a regular six-to eight-week outpatient treatment program, and we kept waiting for us, as parents, to be invited. Surely part of the treatment would involve the whole family,” she said, adding that never happened.

Joan said she should have dug deeper. “I should have gotten the family set up with a professional to get to the bottom of why (he was using drugs).”

Joan said she knows today, all these years later, that Mark had been hearing voices since he was a very small child. “He asked if we remembered how he always wanted to sleep with us. He said, ‘Ever since I remember existing, I have heard the voices and they frightened me,” said Joan.

Looking back, the Thomases remember times when their son was found hiding in a kitchen cupboard, running around as if something imaginary was chasing him or having full conversations when no one else was in the room.

“We had no idea he was trying to hide from the voices… from his fear,” she said.

LONG OVERDUE
Joan shared her saga of many years spent trying to get her son help before the June 2008 fateful incident. Between 2004 and 2008, Mark started and dropped out of college three times, had 11 different jobs and moved 12 different times. Through it all, Joan and Dave, Mark’s two brothers and their extended family tried to support Mark in any way they could.

GROWING CONCERNS
“I knew he was a good worker, but he would go through this cycle. I kept attributing it to depression, or the buzz word of the day: ‘a chemical imbalance,’” said Joan.

It was Joan’s twin sister, during Mark’s stay with her, who first posed the question.

“She called and asked if I had ever stopped to think that Mark might have paranoid schizophrenia,” she said.

Joan remembers at the time, she wasn’t able to hear her sister’s concerns. “I kept thinking mind over matter. I kept thinking ‘Mark, you can overcome this. Just buck up and do it.’ But my sister was dead on,” said Joan.

Joan said she regrets being so stubborn about accepting the possibility her sister was right.

“That would have meant there was something broken or wrong with my son’s brain. I also knew it wasn’t something I could kiss and make better,” she said.

Joan said although Mark had been in and out of counseling for years, his family had been growing increasingly concerned with his behavior. For a time, he was living with his brother, Brad, in South Dakota. Brad called one day and told his parents he wasn’t sure what to do about Mark.

“He said sometimes when he’d come home from work, he wasn’t sure if it was his brother or a stranger standing before him,” said Joan.

His brother also admitted being afraid enough of Mark to lock the bedroom door while he slept.

BACK HOME
In keeping with Mark’s pattern, he again moved home in the spring of 2008, and his parents did their best to support him, yet set strict rules against drug use, etc.

“That was when he first told us he could tell we were trying to get into his mind,” said Joan.

Following the historic EF5 tornado that hit Parkersburg at the end of May in 2008, Joan was busy helping clean-up from the disaster, when she had a strange call from Mark.

“He called and said he knew we were busy and we didn’t have to worry about controlling his mind,” she said.

Joan said Mark began to withdraw more and become quieter and quieter. They even had him tested for drugs a couple of times, and both times he tested clean.

BREAKING POINT
Joan said one of the lessons she has learned about those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia is they often get to a breaking point where they can no longer discern reality from what she called ‘unreality.’

“Something triggers them, crossing into insanity. For Mark, it happened around tornado time. He could no longer discern and differentiate,” she said.

In September 2008, about four months after the tornado, the Beckers witnessed the first of Mark’s psychotic episodes. “It was the only episode in which Mark ever used Ed Thomas’ name,” she said.

She said Mark believed Coach Thomas, his parents and others in the community were in a conspiracy to try to hurt him. “We prayed and we cried. You don’t know what to do or who to call. There is nothing more lonely than going through times like this,” she said.

After calling the sheriff for help, Mark was taken to a mental health unit.

“The sheriff said he was sorry to have to tell us this would not be the last time we would have to call him for help. Hearing words like that from someone who knew what they were talking about was really hard. And when Mark begged his daddy, ‘Don’t let them take me away,’ it breaks your heart, your mind, your soul,” she said, adding although Mark had been committed, he didn’t receive effective treatment while he was there.

STILL STRUGGLING
After Mark’s release, life went on for the Beckers and, despite additional counseling, Mark was still troubled. One psychotic episode resulted in a high-speed car chase after he had gone to a gentleman’s home to confront him because he believed he was using a teddy bear to control his mind.

THAT TERRIBLE DAY
It wasn’t long after that brush with the law that Mark became convinced his parents and Coach Thomas were poisoning the minds of Parkersburg’s children by teaching them things in Sunday School. The morning of June 24, after his parents had gone to work, he proceeded to fatally shoot Coach Ed Thomas in the local high school weight room. Had authorities not apprehended him immediately, he had plans to kill his parents as well.

COMMUNITY RALLIES
And although it is still difficult for Joan to talk about the day that resulted in a beloved friend losing his life and her son being sentenced to life in prison, she is still in awe of the amazing way the community rallied around them.

“When we talked to Jan, Ed’s wife, she said, ‘I want you to know that we are separating what Mark did today from the rest of your family.’ What wife has the energy to offer that?” said Joan.

In addition, when Ed Thomas’ son, Aaron, was working on a press release about the shooting, he asked his mother if there was anything she wanted him to say.

“She said, ‘You remember to tell the people to pray for the Becker family,’” recounted Joan.

“Those words gave our community the permission to reach out to both families. I can’t imagine how ripped apart they must have felt. But I really believe God set the tone that night,” she said.

GOING FORWARD
Today, Mark is serving a life sentence at the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville. He receives treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia and his parents are in frequent contact with everyone who treats him.

“Today, he knows the voices are not real and he is learning to cope with it… And I have promised my son I will be his advocate until the day that I die,” said Joan.

It is that role as an advocate that inspired Joan to write her book about her family’s experience and what inspires her to speak to groups to share her story. She has several pieces of advice to offer anyone faced with a friend or family member who is struggling with mental illness.

“1. If you remember one thing tonight, would you please remember NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). They have family educational programs. People need to know they have a place to go to learn more about illnesses in the brain… It’s the loneliest walk for any family to go through.

2. If you are trying to get your loved one help, don’t email, don’t call. Go to the office and pound the door down if you aren’t being listened to. It is a battle every one of us faces. Don’t take no for an answer.

3. Don’t be afraid of someone who has an illness in their brain. Less than five percent of people with mental illness turn to violence.

4. Talk to your family members. Until this happened, I didn’t know my first cousin’s son had paranoid schizophrenia or that my niece was bipolar or that my dad’s cousin regularly went to Independence for support. Families need to communicate. Of course you want to respect your loved ones’ privacy, but you need to communicate with your family.

5. Talk to your legislators. Educate yourselves. The only way to change the stigma surrounding mental illness is for everyone to use our voice.”

LOCAL RESOURCES
Veterans Memorial Hospital and the VMH Nursing Council have a number of local resources available, including caregiver support groups, grief support groups and more. For more information about support in the local area, call VMH at 563-568-3411. For more information about the National Alliance on Mental Illness, visit nami.org or see information about a NAMI Family Support Group on Page 8A of the April 11 edition of The Standard.

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