"James Lee Peters spent his 25th birthday last August behind the walls of the Humboldt County Jail, waiting to be taken to a state mental hospital. He spent his previous birthday much the same way. He wouldn't live to see the next. Instead, 10 days after he turned 25, Peters took the sheet off his bed, tore it into strips, tied them together and hanged himself. He would be on life support for eight days at St. Joseph Hospital before he would die of asphyxiation.
If Peters understood what he was doing when he ended his life, it might have been the only time he fully understood his actions. Complications at birth gave him learning disabilities and a low IQ. Throughout his life he needed mental health counseling but received little. He tended to lash out when he was angry and that repeatedly put him in trouble with the law. What began as small outbursts became increasingly violent, until the criminal justice system could no longer overlook the threat he represented. Instead, as his criminal record piled up, the Humboldt County Superior Court bounced him between a variety of mental health facilities, but only to make him competent enough to stand trial.
But this story doesn't stop with Peters. Because the tragedy is that we fill our jail, and jails across the state and country, with people just like him. There are alternatives, but not in Humboldt County.
"This community treats dogs better then the mentally ill," said District Attorney Paul Gallegos. "My hope is that we [would] treat our mentally ill better than we treat a dog."
What little we know about James Lee Peters plays out through documents obtained under the California Public Records Act. Everyone he interacted with, from teachers, police officers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, probation officers and jail guards refused to speak about him or his particular case for this story. Neither would members of his family, who still grieve over his death and who intend to file suit against any party they can find responsible. As of yet, no lawsuit has been filed.
Here's what we do know. James Lee Peters, nicknamed Hans, was a Yurok Indian from Hoopa who entered the world much the same way he would leave it: gasping for air."
Get the Story:
Nobody's Fault: The anatomy of a suicide in the Humboldt County Jail
(The North Coast Journal 5/15)