TAMPA — He told his parents that people were out to get him. When his mom gave him soup, he banged on the bowl with a spoon for an hour. He kept repeating, "Big Bird's okay," "Not dead yet" and "No one's going to get hurt."
The parents of Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic dumped from a wheelchair at the Orient Road Jail in January, say their son changed last fall from an accomplished intellectual and champion of rights for the disabled to a man who could not care for himself, according to court records released Thursday.
Sterner, 32, of Riverview is in court battling to prove that he is competent amid questions raised by attorney John Trevena and by Sterner's parents. His competency could also prove important in a criminal abuse case against detention Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones, according to the woman's attorney.
Sterner drew national attention when a video showed Marshall-Jones ejecting him from his wheelchair. The incident sparked other allegations of abuse at the jail and prompted a public apology by Sheriff David Gee.
A time line from Sterner's parents, included in court records, notes that he has been involuntarily committed four times since October for mental health concerns. Investigators have been called to his home at least a dozen times since September.
"His actions, behavior and mental state since this past October have been clearly out of character with everything else in his life thus far," his parents wrote. "Not only have we experienced this dramatic difference but so have his neighbors, his friends, his family, his doctors, his therapists, and even his casual acquaintances. If anything, his behavior is becoming increasingly aberrant, and more frequently so."
Sterner's parents, who live in Maryland, said they first noticed a change in their son's behavior at the end of September. On Sept. 28, he called to say he believed he would be promoted to general manager at work.
On Sept. 30, he called again.
"Don't worry, I'm not suicidal," he told his father, according to the time line. He was crying. He told his parents that people were out to get him. Later that day, he called again. He said he had called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to his workplace to be sure he was safe.
The next day, he made more paranoid statements, his parents wrote. That night, he called 911. He said he feared someone was outside his house trying to "get him." He was taken to the hospital, where he wrote on a wall with his excrement, his parents wrote.
On Oct. 2, he was held under the Baker Act, which allows police and medical authorities to take people into custody who might otherwise harm themselves. His parents, concerned for his well-being, flew to Tampa.
On Oct. 5, they brought him home.
By Oct. 24, he had been in and out of the hospital two more times. His parents drove to Vero Beach, leaving him "some room to work things out," they wrote.
The next day, police stopped him in Ybor City, the traffic stop that led to his arrest. Police took him to St. Joseph's Hospital. He was so disruptive that emergency workers sent him home in a taxi, his parents wrote.
About 11:30 p.m., Sterner's neighbor called Sterner's parents. Sterner did not have his wheelchair when he was sent home. He was rolling around in the yard, and his neighbor feared he would roll into the street.
Sterner's parents looked into becoming his legal guardians, they wrote. A magistrate ordered a 90-day involuntary committal for Sterner.
The time line ends with a plea to a judge: "We, his parents, Terry W. Sterner and Jean Marie Sterner, respectfully request the court to ensure that Brian's condition be thoroughly examined in a professional fashion and, if necessary, treated by whatever means necessary to give him balance and personal safety in his life."
Attorney Trevena also included observations about Sterner in the court documents.
In a meeting with prosecutors, Sterner demanded a "pile of cash" and a helicopter ride to a spinal center, Trevena wrote.
Before Thursday's hearing, Sterner was stopped by police in downtown Tampa. He failed to yield to oncoming traffic as he turned left from Twiggs Street onto Pierce Street, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.
Police issued Sterner two citations: failure to yield right of way while making a left turn and driving with a suspended license with knowledge, a misdemeanor, McElroy said. Sterner was released with a notice to appear in court, McElroy said.
Sterner came to court at 11 a.m. in a windbreaker, jeans and sandals smeared with what looked to be yellow paint. He told the judge he is represented by attorney Michael Maddux. Maddux said in court that Sterner had recently been evaluated by a doctor and was found competent. Sterner, after a hearing Tuesday, said that he is competent.
In court Thursday, Maddux argued that Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster should seal the records pertaining to Sterner's competency. An attorney for the St. Petersburg Times opposed that. Foster made them public.
Maddux did not return a call for comment. Sterner could not be reached for comment.
Norman Cannella, attorney for Marshall-Jones, said he had not yet read the documents in the competency matter. After hearing the contents, he said he believed they could affect the case against the deputy.
"That already tells me that something like that should have — and probably will have — a substantial affect on the state's case," he said.
Sterner's decision to drive to the hearing without a license also shakes his credibility, Cannella said.
"All of these things encourage me," Cannella said.
Times photographer Chris Zuppa contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3373.