This story is a follow-up to MarieClaire.com's special report Women and Guns: The Conflicted, Dangerous, and Empowering Truth. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #WomenAndGuns.
Whenever Joan Becker watches a sheriff's car pass hers on a rural Iowa road, she whispers a prayer for everyone involved, including the perpetrator's family. "That is the first thing I think of now," she says. "It's a lonely, lonely existence for that family of the person who committed the crime."
It's wisdom this mother of three acquired in the hardest way imaginable: On a June morning in 2009, her 24-year-old son, Mark, walked into the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room and fatally shot his former football coach six times.
A town legend lost his life that day. Ed Thomas, 58, led 34 years of football teams to victory, including two state titles. He coached four players who went on to become NFL linemen and was named 2005 NFL High School Football Coach of the Year. In 2008, he led the community in a quest to restore the football field after an EF5 tornado wiped out nearly a third of the homes in Parkersburg, Iowa, population about 2,000. A close friend of the Beckers, Coach Thomas had also prayed often with Joan and her husband, Dave, as they struggled to understand how their middle son had become so lost as a young man.
After the shooting, Ed's wife, Jan, and their two adult sons, Todd and Aaron, built on his legacy, urging everyone who came to console them to also comfort Joan and her husband, Dave. They said Ed would have wanted it that way. "We need to pray for the Beckers, too," Todd told a Sports Illustrated reporter in 2009. "They need just as much support as we do."
In the weeks that followed, cars streamed between the Thomas and Becker homes. "It gave our community permission to respond to us in the way that they wanted to and took away any barriers that made them uncomfortable," recalls Joan. "We were blessed to have people that poured out compassion and kindness." Both refrigerators were filled with casseroles. And on the day of her husband's funeral, Jan arranged for the Becker family to say goodbye to Ed in private, before the doors were opened to the 2,500 people waiting outside to pay their tributes.
By then, Joan and Dave felt like they'd hugged every person in Parkersburg. They had looked into the eyes of teens and parents, of fellow church members and the Thomas family, and said over and over that they were so desperately sorry. They felt like they should say it a million times more.
In March 2010, Mark was convicted of first-degree murder. He would never be paroled. But for Joan, the story wasn't over. She and her husband had spent years visiting doctors, pleading with state mental health services, and trying to get their son help for what was finally diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, just three days before the crime. After struggling with a mental health care system in desperate need of reform, she wondered if sharing their story might help others and bring some good from the tragedy.
It was Ed Thomas who brought Dave and Joan together shortly after her family moved to Parkersburg in 1975, her junior year of high school.
Coach Thomas was new to Parkersburg that year, too—a 25-year-old teacher who taught Joan's first-hour social studies class. That semester, he suggested she might like one of the seniors on his football team, an offensive guard and defensive lineman named Dave Becker.
Dave still shakes his head as he recalls how "Coach" believed in the 24 guys on that team. "It was a 180-degree turn from previous coaches I'd had," he says.
Joan liked the quiet, outdoorsy team captain. The couple laughs now as they recall their early "dates"—checking Dave's traps along the Beaver River, which ran along the south edge of his family farm.
After completing high school and additional education in Des Moines, the two moved back to Parkersburg, married, and started their careers—Dave as a diesel mechanic, Joan in the accounting office for a local engineering firm.
Their family grew to include three boys: Brad, Mark, and Scott. Along the way, the Beckers purchased 40 acres just north of town, with a pond they stocked with catfish and largemouth bass. They felt blessed to have so many good things in place for their kids, and they looked forward to seeing the boys play football for Coach Thomas.
Mark, their middle son, seemed to have inherited his dad's gentle soul. "He was my little right-hand man," Dave recalls. "If you'd tell him to cut a board so long"—he holds up his hands—"it would be exactly right. And he could run anything, Mark could, whether it was a saw or a tractor or...." He pauses, closing his eyes, taking a breath.
Joan grabs his hand. "He was our best lawn mower," she says.
But when Mark hit high school, he began to change. His freshman year, after football season, he went out for wrestling and started hanging out with some upperclassmen on the team. That summer, his parents worried as he became more solitary. "When I'm with the whole gang, it feels like too many people and so much noise," he told his mom. "It's just too loud."
Shortly after his 16th birthday, Mark was arrested for possession of marijuana. He completed a substance abuse program, and with help from Coach Thomas, the Beckers steered him toward a more responsible group of friends, including football teammate Erik Kalkwarf. The two boys played side by side on the offensive line. "I was a tackle and he was a guard," Erik recalls. "You knew what the other person was going to do before he even did it."
Mark seemed to improve. He started college in the fall of 2004 but dropped out after his first semester and moved home, starting courses at the local community college. But that year, he was arrested twice for substance-related offenses.
Dave and Joan arranged for him to move in with her twin sister, Jane, and brother-in-law and work at their grocery store in northwest Iowa, but less than a year later, in late 2005, he moved back to the Parkersburg area to work in landscaping and share an apartment with two friends. One of them was Erik Kalkwarf.
By then, Erik was finishing college and working as a resident counselor with North Iowa Juvenile Detention Services in nearby Waterloo. Erik quickly saw that Mark was different. "He wasn't as sociable," Erik recalls, "and he was having trouble keeping a job."
Over time, Erik realized that Mark was using marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Within four or five months, he called the Beckers and asked them to move Mark out. From there, a cycle of rehabilitation and fresh starts began. Mark tried college again and dropped out. He found a job at a grain elevator and then a grocery store and lost both. He moved in with friends but was again asked to leave when his roommates realized he was using drugs.
Again, Dave and Joan took him home. "He looked so run-down and sick," Joan recalls. "He would do really well, but then all of a sudden draw into himself. He would literally put on a hoodie and lie on his bed, like he was trying to escape something."
Joan took him to the doctor he'd seen since childhood and then to a psychologist. He was given a medication that seemed to help for a time, but Joan and Dave couldn't be sure he was taking it. To Mark, a fresh start always seemed the better answer.
In May of 2007, when Mark was 22, his brother Brad finished college and landed a job in South Dakota. Aware that Mark had been struggling, Brad invited him to come along. Mark got a job in a distribution center there. Joan continued to worry about Mark's dark moods.
She tried to get him to see a counselor there, but he refused. "He would say, 'No, I'm doing better,'" Joan recalls. "He was working and doing well, so I didn't push it, and he was communicating much more openly about how he felt."
But on one visit, she nudged Mark to talk about it. She was shocked when he confided that he hated to go to sleep at night because he heard voices. He said they'd been there for as far back as he could remember. Joan worked to conceal her alarm, and Mark continued. "Mom, remember when I moved back home and would be looking out the window during the night? There are these frightening, dark images, but they slink away from God's angels."
Later, Joan told Dave, and the couple's hearts ached as they recalled a night two decades earlier, when Dave had awoken to sounds in the living room. He'd gone to investigate and found 2-year-old Mark scurrying from chair to chair as if he was trying to hide from someone. At the time, Dave had tucked Mark back into bed, assuming that he'd just been dreaming. Now, Dave and Joan weren't so sure.
In summer 2008, Joan answered a call from Mark. "Mom, I'm OK," he whispered. "Quit worrying about me. I know you are trying to get into my head, but I'm OK."
A few days later, Brad called to describe his brother's sporadic behavior—friendly some nights, combative others. Again, Joan went to get Mark.
Back home, she bought a drug test, but it offered no answers. Mark tested clean.
From the fall of 2008 until the following summer, while Joan traveled often on business, Dave focused on Mark, hoping to help his son stabilize. In the evenings, they played pool and grilled out on the deck, swapping stories from their workday. "Ninety-five percent of the time, he was fine," Dave recalls. But at times, he would appear to talk to someone who wasn't there.
One night that September, Dave and Joan awoke to the sound of Mark shouting in the basement. "Get off me! Get away from me!" Dave made his way downstairs and peered into his son's room. Mark, crouching alone near his bed, turned to Dave. "Don't you see them, Dad?" he cried out. "Please, just help me! They're attacking me from everywhere!"
Joan stood at the top of the stairs, horrified as Mark picked up a baseball bat and began slamming the basement walls, raging about his parents and others in the community. "You're all part of a conspiracy to get into the minds of the children in our town!" he shouted. "Can't you see? Thomas is sending them to attack me."
As he quieted, Joan reached out to him. "F*ck you, get away from me!" he screamed.
Dave and Joan tried to get him into the car to take him to the emergency room, but he resisted, stomping and grabbing at himself.
The next morning, Joan called the sheriff. Mark told the sheriff that he had a metaphysical ESP connection with Coach Thomas, and that the coach was sending him messages that were keeping him up at night. The sheriff went inside and talked with Joan and Dave, recommending a mental health committal for evaluation. Joan drove to the courthouse to fill out the paperwork.
By the time it was completed and the sheriff had returned, Mark seemed himself again. Tears streamed down his face as the sheriff led him out of the kitchen. "Please, don't let them take me away," he begged. Joan and Dave wept as the car drove off. They prayed that the mental health care system would provide their son the help he needed.
What the Beckers didn't know was that they were entering a system that for decades had been described as broken: Starting in the 1950s with the introduction of chlorpromazine, the first effective antipsychotic medication, legislators seemed to have an alternative to crowded, costly, and deteriorating state mental institutions that would also allow mentally ill Americans to live within their communities. Unfortunately, according to psychiatrists, antipsychotic drugs are effective for only about 50% of patients, who also aren't always able to make informed decisions about taking them.
In 1955, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans; by 2005, there was one for every 3,000. As families were unable to find treatment, individuals suffering from mental illness began pouring into the criminal justice system. By 2010, the year after Mark's fatal crime, there were more than three times more seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals.
In the nine months that followed Mark's first psychiatric hospitalization, from September 2008 to June 2009, Dave and Joan witnessed eight severe psychotic episodes and made 15 calls to agencies and counselors. Mark spent 19 days in area hospitals and was given diagnoses of bipolar disorder and psychotic disorder.
Each time, the committals seemed surprisingly short—sometimes a week, sometimes just days. When Mark returned home, Dave and Joan weren't sure how to help. Nervous about triggering an outburst, they hesitated to ask whether he was taking his medications and getting to his follow-up appointments.
But it was clear that Mark's condition was deteriorating. One night, he writhed in pain until his carpet-burned ankles bled. Other nights, he peered out the window. "Don't you see them out there?" he would ask. "They're everywhere, slinky shapes lurking in the trees..."
Again, the Beckers sought support. Cautiously hopeful, they scheduled an appointment with a psychologist. Joan winces when she recalls his advice at the end of the session: "He said, 'It sounds to me like you should get Mark signed up for disability, kick him out of the house, and he will eventually hook up with others like him.'"
For a time, Mark lived at an extended-stay hotel in Cedar Falls, about 20 minutes away. One night, Erik Kalkwarf got a call from Mark, who said he was in jail for criminal mischief. Could Erik come bail him out? Erik had seen Mark when he was using meth, but when he went to pick up his old friend, he witnessed something different and more frightening.
"I was sitting in the car with Mark, and he was saying things underneath his breath and shaking his head," Erik recalls. "And I was like, 'Are you okay?' And he responded, 'Yeah, I'm fine.' But it made me fearful for him."
Since that night, Erik has completed mental health first aid training for his job in juvenile detention. "Looking back that would have been an ideal time that I would have recognized that, hey, this guy's going through a mental health crisis right now, and he needs some help. But I had no idea how to help him at the time," he says.
The Beckers moved Mark home yet again. After another episode, Joan called the agency Mark had been referred to by court order. As she recalls, she was told twice that the agency services coordinator assigned to Marks' case was out but would be given the message. She called a third time. The coordinator was available, but seemed reluctant to discuss Mark's situation, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which shields patient privacy.
"You don't have to say a word," Joan told her. "But you are going to listen to what our family and our son have been going through."
As Joan recalls, the service coordinator said she had not been aware of the psychotic episodes Joan described. "Why would you be?" Joan said. "You're probably only seeing him when he's in a lucid state."
A few weeks later, after another frightening episode, Joan called a county social services coordinator, whose job was helping residents find mental health services. "What is it going to take to get our son the help he so desperately needs?" she asked.
In the silence that followed, she caught her breath. For the first time, she wondered if help might not be available at all.
A few days later, in May 2009, Mark's coordinator arranged treatment through a different social services agency in Waterloo, about 30 minutes from Parkersburg. The new team called Mark to schedule appointments, helped him get a job at a restaurant and assisted him in moving into an apartment in Waterloo.
Again, the Beckers were hopeful.
But on June 20, Mark was arrested again, this time after going to the home of a former classmate's parents and breaking windows with a baseball bat. As he rammed the garage door with his car, the homeowner called 911, and a high-speed chase ensued. Just north of the Beckers' home, Mark's car hit a deer, and law enforcement agents arrested him. Because no mental health beds were available at the Mason City hospital that had previously treated him, he was placed in the psychiatric unit of a Waterloo hospital for evaluation.
Meanwhile, Joan called Mark's service coordinator in Waterloo, who said that because of the animosity Mark had shown toward Joan and Dave, it would be better for them not to have contact with him while he was in the hospital or just after his release.
According to documents filed in the Iowa Court of Appeals and the Iowa Supreme Court, the county sheriff testified that the hospital was told that when Mark was released, he was to be returned to law enforcement.
Court documents also indicate that Mark was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia during that hospitalization, on June 21, and that after his attending physician's confirmation of the diagnosis the following day, he was given medication.
The day after that, on June 23, Mark told a nurse that he felt better and asked to be released. Court documents state that the nurse expressed to Mark's doctor that she felt he was better. After learning that Mark had a service coordinator who could pick him up, the doctor discharged him with prescriptions for medication. For reasons that aren't clear, the doctor was unaware the sheriff had indicated that he would pick Mark up upon discharge. No one notified the sheriff.
At around 9:30 that evening, Mark called Joan and Dave from a Waterloo Burger King, telling them he'd been released from the hospital and was locked out of his apartment.
"Stay put," she said. "We'll find somebody to pick you up."
She dialed the number for Mark's agency and got the answering service, whose call processor told her to call back the next morning at 8:15.
While she and Dave began the drive to Waterloo, Joan called the answering service again. "We have a situation here," she remembers saying. "Mark has been released from the hospital, and his counselor has asked us not to see Mark again until we get the go-ahead from him. We really need to talk to the counselor."
As she recalls, she was told again to call back in the morning. The three of them arrived home at around midnight and went to bed, but Joan and Dave spent most of the night praying and talking about how to handle the day ahead.
Joan was afraid to be alone with Mark, so they decided she would go to the office in Ames to work in the morning. Meanwhile, Dave would go to work to get his mechanics set up for the day. Then, he would check with the sheriff and take Mark back to his apartment.
Joan was up and getting ready for work at 5 the next morning when Mark knocked on the bedroom door, asking how many scoops of coffee it took to make a pot. Dave chatted with him. "How about you spend some time picking up sticks around here?" he said, hoping to keep Mark occupied while he was away. "We got quite a storm the other night, and the yard needs to be picked up before we can mow."
When Joan arrived at work, she called a client. They were chatting when her phone began to buzz with text messages and calls. Just as she ended the call, a co-worker rushed in. "Joan, did you hear? Coach Thomas has been shot."
In the swirl of calls that followed, Joan's fears were confirmed: Mark had been the shooter.
Joan's manager helped her to a private office, where she trembled and sobbed. Her brother arrived to drive her back to Parkersburg. Halfway home, she received word that Coach Thomas had died.
As she wept, she thought about all the years she and Dave had sought help, keeping their struggles from friends and even close family. "What kept going through my mind," she says now, "was, I am not going to stay silent any more. Our story was in the open. I had nothing to lose with sharing it. And people need to know what they should do, and not do, with their loved ones. That was the biggest challenge for our family: Where do we go and ask questions? There were so many closed doors."
When she arrived in Parkersburg, Dave was at the sheriff's office being interviewed by a Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent. Joan and Dave embraced, tears streaking down their faces.
Later, they would learn that Mark had used a deer antler to pry open a locked gun cabinet at home and practiced shooting a .22 caliber revolver at a birdhouse in the yard. He'd reloaded the gun, found a spare set of keys, and driven to town, where he'd asked a few people where he might find Coach Thomas. One of them would later testify that Mark had said he needed to find the coach because he was working with him on a tornado relief project.
A group of 22 high school football and volleyball players in the weight room had witnessed the shooting. Mark's brother Scott, then a senior on the football team, was not present.
In an interview with a DCI agent later that day, Mark said he'd shot Coach Thomas because he needed to protect the kids of the town, The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported. "He's a devil tyrant and he's been suppressing the children around here and my family since I've been a little kid... I couldn't put up with it for another second," Mark told the agent. "He turns us into fish and he turns us into animals and he turns us into dead people, but he won't let us be our true heavenly selves."
"I walked out and...I yelled it at the top of my lungs, 'Be free,'" Mark recounted. "'Everyone, from this day on, be free. He's done. It's done. It's over.'"
Afterwards, Mark had driven toward home, planning to also kill Joan and Dave when they arrived. The local sheriff was already on the property when Mark turned up the gravel drive. The sheriff accelerated, angled his vehicle for cover, and drew his weapon. Mark surrendered, holding his handgun out the window by the trigger guard. At the sheriff's orders, he dropped the gun and stepped out.
"I'm done," he told the sheriff. "I'm done."
Mark's trial began on February 12, 2010. Throughout the proceedings, the Beckers' and Thomases' church provided food to their families at the Butler County courthouse. They also organized a round-the-clock prayer vigil for everyone involved, including the student witnesses called to testify.
Joan and Dave sat behind Mark, along with their youngest son, Scott, his girlfriend, Nikki, and many in their extended family. The Beckers felt that Mark's actions were informed by his disease, which had convinced him that authority figures in the community were dangerous. And, his drug test was clean at the time of the shooting, which a forensic psychiatrist testified indicated he was having a paranoid schizophrenic episode at the time of the shooting. They hoped against hope for the long-term treatment they had been seeking instead of a prison life sentence. That said, they were aware that a defense of insanity rarely wins.
On March 2, 2010, a jury convicted Mark Becker of first-degree murder, rejecting his claim of legal insanity. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and later transferred to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a medium security correctional facility near Iowa City, about two hours away from Parkersburg. (On July 20, 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court dismissed his appeal for a new trial.)
After the trial, there were interviews and award ceremonies to attend with the Thomas family, including promotion events for a book about Ed's life. Joan and Dave also visited and emailed Mark in prison as he finally started receiving consistent treatment for his mental illness.
Finally, in the spring of 2013, she sat down and began to write. "I wanted our family to understand," she says. "And I wanted other families—brothers, sisters, parents, and friends of people with mental illness—to understand. I was tired of mental illness being shoved under the rug and inadequately funded. For us, all the pieces had been there, but nobody had connected the dots."
Months later, Joan showed her manuscript to Mark. "I think he was a little worried about it at first," she says. "But he agreed: If telling our story would help even one family avoid going through the tragic time that our family and the Thomas family had gone through, then it would all be worth it."
With the assistance of psychiatrists and psychologists at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, Mark's condition has stabilized, Joan reports. She and Dave travel to see him about once a month and they email frequently. His illness still causes him to hear voices, but medication has decreased their intensity and counseling has taught him to distinguish them from reality. He has expressed deep remorse for taking the life of Ed Thomas and is studying ways to live purposefully with his disease.
"I'm doing good," Mark said in an email to his mother last November. "After all the mental side effects of schizophrenia, I was starting to regard the people I love most as enemies, not true after all because I know that was delusions playing on my weaknesses...There is brainwashing but I know now that my brain has a disease and that is different, very different."
Identifying causes of schizophrenia, which occurs in one person out of 100, has been a slow process. In one study, head injury—especially a severe head injury or one occurring between ages 11 and 15—appeared to increase the subsequent risk by 65%. Others have indicated that using psychoactive drugs or marijuana could increase the risk of developing or
triggering schizophrenia in people with genetic vulnerability for the disorder. A game-changing recent study identifies versions of a gene that appear to switch on a process that rapidly damages neurological connections in the brains of high-risk teens.
Research of this nature can be crucial to families like the Beckers as they seek to protect future generations. Since Mark's crime, Joan and Dave have learned that others in her extended family have suffered from mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia. They've also asked themselves about possible triggers, including football injuries, Mark's drug use, and even an incident when he was a baby and bounced his infant seat from a kitchen countertop onto a ceramic tile floor.
Joan has spoken publicly about mental illness in front of thousands of people, including state and federal legislators and the governor of Iowa. She has reached countless others through television and newspaper interviews and her book. Her message calls for school-based mental health screenings, legal reform to allow increased family involvement in assessment, long-term hospital committals for diagnosis, and facilities that treat individuals with dignity.
"After this all happened with Mark, the professionals kept telling Dave and me not to blame ourselves," Joan says. "But it has taken a long time to convince ourselves of that."
To find support in dealing with a mental health condition, contact your doctor. For additional resources, consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
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