The parents of Blaec Lammers knew their 20-year-old son struggled with mental-health problems. He was on antipsychotic medications, when he wasn't refusing to take them. Several times his parents had rushed him to the hospital for an involuntary, 96-hour psychiatric detention. It felt like a cycle without answer or end. "Every conversation was, 'What do we do about Blaec?' '' his father, Bill Lammers, said from the family's home in Bolivar, Missouri.
Then, in November 2012, Blaec Lammers' mother found a receipt for an AR-15 rifle in his blue jeans. Alarmed, she called police. Officers took him in for questioning. Blaec Lammers admitted to having homicidal thoughts and to buying two rifles with plans to shoot up a local movie theater and Walmart.
His parents were hailed as heroes. But today, as their son serves a 15-year prison sentence for his plot instead of getting the help they believe he needs, they are filled with doubt about their decision.
Now, Blaec Lammers' parents look at the rampage Friday in Isla Vista, Calif. — in which Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six people despite a series of mental-health red flags in recent months — and wonder whether their son had been heading down that same tragic path. Last month, deputies in California visited Rodger for a wellness check after his mother found disturbing videos that he had posted on YouTube, but authorities found no cause to intervene.
"The million-dollar question: Had we not done anything, would Blaec have done that?" Bill Lammers said.
The elder Lammers sees this latest mass murder — perpetrated by another young killer with hints of mental illness — as a further sign of a broken mental-health-care system and the often private struggle of families dealing with mentally ill children. An estimated 20 percent of U.S. teenagers have some mental-health irregularity, including 10 percent who have some behavior or conduct disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"You don't want to think your son, your own blood, is going to be a shooter, a mass murderer," Bill Lammers said. "But you've got to face the reality that he might've been."
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Bill Lammers, who works as a health-care software consultant, was in New York City on a business trip when his wife, Tricia, called him on Nov. 15, 2012. It was a Thursday afternoon. She had just found the receipt from Walmart. Their first thought was that their son was going to kill himself. Then, they worried that he might hurt others. They agreed she should call law enforcement authorities in their rural, southwestern part of Missouri.
The Lammers family knew the sheriff well. Deputies had been enlisted before to help with their son. A couple of years earlier, Blaec had stormed out of the house after an argument with his parents. They tried coaxing him back, but he ran off across a field. They warned the sheriff that Blaec was off his medication.
Two hours later, the sheriff pulled up to the Lammers home and dropped off their son. The sheriff and Bill Lammers stood in the yard talking. Lammers was shocked that the sheriff wasn't going to detain his son, at least until he calmed down. But the sheriff explained that he couldn't arrest someone until he had done something to justify that action. "Then it's too late," Lammers told the sheriff. "We're trying to prevent something."
Bill Lammers recalled that conversation as he watched coverage of the Isla Vista killings. A sheriff in California was explaining that Rodger did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold. Rodger had not done anything, either.
"The mental-health system is totally broken," Lammers said. "Calling the police is the only option."
Lammers, 53, owns guns. He keeps them locked in a safe. He never let his son near them. He knew that Blaec should not be around firearms. So he was shocked when he learned that Blaec had bought two rifles from Walmart.
He bought them legally. There was nothing in the standard background check to stop him. But, as Bill Lammers pointed out, this was the same Walmart where his son filled prescriptions for his antipsychotic and antidepressant pills. It was also the same store where, in 2009, Blaec was found wandering the aisles carrying a butcher knife and wearing a Halloween clown mask. Deputies escorted him out that time.
Bill Lammers said he does not support laws limiting the size of ammunition clips or restricting ownership of certain firearms. But he would like to see stricter laws to prevent someone with a history of serious mental illness from buying guns.
Even after police arrested Blaec Lammers, his father never expected him to face serious prison time. Blaec, Lammers said, "was for the most part a peaceful, easy-going person." In March 2014, a judge sentenced Blaec Lammers to 15 years.
Lammers said his wife has struggled with their decision to notify authorities in 2012. She expected her son to get a wellness check. He ended up giving a confession. She feels that she ruined her son's life, Lammers said. He struggles with their decision, too. "But isn't that better than him killing 20 or 30 people?"
"We still have trouble accepting it," he added. "It's just like the parents out there in California."