Meet Gunner and BJ: Why mental health pros, courts must weigh who’s violent and who’s sick

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Gunner Pettit and Barbara Jean “BJ” Warren in Starkville on November 24, 2017.

Before dawn one night in late June of 2018, Barbara Jean “BJ” Warren, 26, grabbed an X-Acto knife and headed for the small bathroom in a concrete studio behind a country store off Highway MS-371 in Mantachie.

She held the door closed with one hand as her fiancé, Gunner Pettit, 25, started pounding on it, screaming to let him in. When she didn’t, Pettit, who has an impulsive aggression disorder, plunged his fist through the door.

“He’s freaking out because he’s thinking, ‘Oh my God, my woman’s about to kill herself,’” Warren said.

Barbara Jean “BJ” Warren and fiance Gunner Pettit pose for a photo posted to Facebook Sept. 28, 2018.

The couple had been on a two-week methamphetamine bender, intensifying the symptoms of both of their mental illnesses.

In the tussle, Pettit hit Warren in the face, put her in a choke hold, got ahold of the blade and threw it across the room. Warren retrieved the knife and ran out of the building, but Pettit caught up with her, carried her back to the studio and locked the door. Pettit had bruised Warren’s face and busted a blood vessel in her eye.

Today, Pettit sits in jail awaiting trial in September. He faces up to 27 years in prison. On June 21, Pettit rejected an eight-year plea deal for aggravated domestic assault and a prior burglary charge.

Pettit’s aggressive tendencies, combined with his environment — a poor Itawamba County community plagued by drug use that offers few mental health services — have led to at least nine jail stints since 2015.

“Gunner is one of these people, if he would take his meds properly, he could function in the world,” said Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson. “Gunner makes those decision on his own. That puts us in a hard spot. He’s a revolving door and at some point you’ve got to do something.”

In reality, Pettit is often hindered from making good decisions when he can’t afford his medication — he’s uninsured and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, which Mississippi chose not to expand under the Affordable Care Act — or find a ride to the nearest community mental health center 17 miles away.

Pettit has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness causing unusual shifts in mood and which can exacerbate existing issues with aggression.

Gunner Pettit poses for a photo posted to Facebook November 14, 2014.

Nearly half of people in U.S. jails self-reported past experience with mental illness between 2011 and 2012, according to a 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

“They just look at people who have mental issues as a menace to society. Instead of wanting to really look at where the problem lies, they just want to throw them away like a piece of trash,” Warren told Mississippi Today in early June. “That’s not what’s going to help Gunner. That’s not what he needs. He doesn’t deserve to be in there.”

This problem, receiving increased attention in recent years, is emphasized within the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Mississippi over its mental health system, currently at trial.

In the federal courtroom last week, Mississippi Department of Mental Health Executive Director Diana Mikula told prosecuting attorneys that even people who are civilly committed are often left to wait in jail until a hospital bed opens up. “I would like to see that process stopped,” she said.

But Pettit’s circumstances present a complicated conundrum: He’s not incarcerated for a relatively minor offense for which people with mental illness are most commonly arrested. He is accused of a violent crime, and a court may not take into account the part his mental illness factored into it.

“There’s not a simple bright-line in every case,” said psychiatrist Dr. Tom Insel, former National Institute of Mental Health director and California’s mental health czar. “You do have these cases where it’s really not clear whether this behavior is related to the illness or it’s related to something else.”

The medical community does no favors to people with mental illness by pathologizing bad behavior, Insel said, which risks further stigmatizing people with mental illness who, when treated, are no more likely to perpetuate violence than anyone else. On the flip side, many brain disorders are diagnosed specifically by examining a person’s actions.

“I understand if we did do something wrong, we should have to pay up to it,” Pettit said on a June 14 phone call with Mississippi Today from the Tishomingo County Jail, where Itawamba sends its overflow inmates. “But there’s factors that people have to consider with mental health. Now, I don’t believe that mental health is a get out of jail free card, but at the same time, they need to apply the appropriate approach to every little situation.”

***

Since October, Pettit has been detained in county jails where he hasn’t seen a therapist or received any medication. Because he was already out on bond for burglary when he picked up the assault charge, a judge revoked all bond. Pettit is prone to fighting and his record shows a pattern of disobeying orders from guards.

An April 1, 2017 incident report from the Itawamba County Jail shows inmate Gunner Pettit was held in a restraint chair overnight. Jail administrator Vicky Russell told Mississippi Today inmates may be restrained to the chair for up to three days at a time when they are a danger to themselves or others. She said jail policy allows the inmates to get up and stretch every hour they are in the chair.

“I’ve put in numerous, numerous requests to at least talk to somebody,” Pettit said from the jail. “They haven’t sent anybody this whole time … I’m in dire of need of my medication but at the same time there’s a relative stress that stays apparent with all of this because of my situation.”

In lieu of treatment, officers have responded to Petitt’s behavior by strapping him into a chair for days at a time and pepper spraying him in the face while restrained as punishment for cursing, according to Itawamba jail documents.

“Every time I see Gunner’s name pop up on my phone, I have to ask myself, ‘Is this is the day? Is this the phone call where he’s killed himself? Is this the day where he’s acted out and hurt or killed someone else?’” said his mother, Marty Jean Pettit, who also has a mood disorder she said is exacerbated by the stress of her son’s predicament. “The rage that’s in him is nothing short of a rage.”

A June 27, 2018 incident report from the Itawamba County Jail shows inmate Gunner Pettit was sprayed with chemicals for refusing to stop cursing at guards while restrained to a chair.

Pettit’s formerly diagnosed condition, intermittent explosive disorder — which shares an acronym with the weapon of war known as an improvised explosive device, or IED — is a mental disorder marked by episodes of impulsive and uncontrolled aggression.

The disorder has no sympathetic “poster child” among mental health advocates, noted Dr. Emil Coccaro, psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience professor at University of Chicago.

Yet, this kind of “recurrent, problematic, impulsive aggressive behavior” is present in 3 to 4 percent of the population and is twice as prevalent in children, according to Coccaro’s research, which has received little funding priority from national mental health agencies.

Coccaro said aggression is like a “stepchild” in the field of psychiatry.

“People like to think of it as just bad behavior — they need an attitude adjustment. It’s a real, physical, medical condition in the brain. It’s a brain-based problem,” said Coccaro, whose research on intermittent explosive disorder informed revisions in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition. “They’re not necessarily bad people.”

Warren said Pettit hit her once before when they were using drugs. When he’s sober, Warren describes Pettit as “sweet, loving and caring.”

Unlike other illnesses where a person might experience delusions, a person with an aggression disorder typically knows right from wrong. Often, they express remorse after their episodes. And Coccaro said the diagnosis won’t justify an insanity defense during a criminal trial.

“It explains but it doesn’t pardon,” Coccaro said.

Pettit stands to face the consequences of his behavior, determined by the whims of the criminal justice system, like anyone else would, regardless of the likeliness prison time will worsen his condition and further him from becoming a productive member of society, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness.

True mental health care is sparse in Mississippi prisons, where Marty fears her son will be killed during one of his episodes.

“The answer that our system now has for him is to put him in prison, and it’s not addressing the underlying issue,” said Pettit’s attorney, Jeffrey Waldo. “Our system is more concentrated on the punitive than the rehabilitative and we need to be more concentrated on the rehabilitative side.”

Waldo said he has no avenue in the law to use Pettit’s mental illness in his defense.

Through therapy and medication, people with the aggression disorders can learn to identify signs of impending outbursts and use methods to cool down. Pettit has had success with therapy, but he’s backslid due to gaps in care, his tenuous surroundings and his own destructive behavior.

***

Doctors first diagnosed Pettit with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, Marty said, when he was 8 years old. Marty remembers answering a phone call from Houston Elementary School after Pettit had repeatedly banged his head against the classroom wall and threatened to kill himself. Days later, the department of human services, which had opened a case into Pettit’s treatment, required Marty to send him to Parkwood Behavioral Health Systems, a private mental health facility that treats young children in Olive Branch, for two weeks.

The disorder has a genetic component, but Marty partly blames her own parenting and his abusive father. “I knew the terror that he (Pettit) felt hearing me scream or the fighting we done in front of him. All the things like that he was exposed to that no child should have to see,” Marty said.

Later, at different times, he’d be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, Marty said.

Marty Jean Pettit with her son, Gunner Pettit, when he was 9 years old.

In high school, Pettit began using spice, a form of synthetic marijuana that, though now linked to seizures, psychosis and death, was once legal and sold in gas stations across the state. They say it’s like “light marijuana,” Marty said, “but it’s more like rat poison.”

Marty watched EMTs resuscitate a 16-year-old Pettit on the carport of her mother’s house after what she believes was a spice-induced seizure. By 17, “He flipped to another place,” Marty said.

Pettit’s behavior was so violent, Marty sent him back to the hospital, this time to Lakeside Behavioral Health Systems in Memphis. He was receiving health insurance through the federally-funded Children’s Health Insurance Program under Medicaid, but became ineligible for coverage when he turned 18. He left Lakeside on his birthday and hasn’t received inpatient mental health treatment, despite frequent outbursts and arrests, since.

“Here you got this mentally ill person who’s been that way since they were 8 years old and all these years of treatment and trying different things and all of a sudden it’s gone. The medicine’s gone and everything’s gone,” Marty said in 2018 to Clarion Ledger.

Pettit has had difficulty maintaining a job and, along with his mother, became homeless in 2018.

***

When Pettit met Warren in 2017, she was “covered from head to toe in self harm cuts,” Warren said. The mother of five has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia but does not take medications prescribed to her. The couple, now engaged, bonded over their shared childhood traumas.

“He was my light in the darkness,” Warren said. “I think that’s why I get his situation so much, because when I look at him I see me. I have that empathy, that sympathy, that knowing that that’s not the way he wants to be.”

A few days after Pettit stopped Warren from harming herself that June evening, Warren ran away from the family friend’s house where they were staying. Warren said she was experiencing drug-induced psychosis, after which she spent several months in rehab at Friend of God Recovery Center in Amory. She and her mother called police and signed affidavits describing the incident and the county charged Pettit with aggravated domestic assault and kidnapping, the latter of which was later dropped. The charges, based on a statement Warren later altered through a signed affidavit, came with a possible life sentence.

“To me, he doesn’t need to be around human beings. Because he doesn’t know how to be a human being, because he doesn’t want to,” said Warren’s mom, who preferred to be identified by her initials S.H. “They put all these tags on these people: Bipolar, schizophrenic. Schizophrenic I believe in, but this bipolar junk I don’t believe in. Anybody can control how they act, period. Period. And if it’s somebody that they know can’t do it, then they should have never let them out (of the hospital).”

S.H. maintains this attitude despite her own experience with mental health — what she described as a nervous breakdown following the death of her infant son from pneumonia in 1993. After being hospitalized, S.H. used methamphetamines and alcohol to cope in the years following and admitted to hitting Warren once while going through withdrawal.

While S.H. would like to see Pettit imprisoned, her daughter said she wonders if she’d be alive if it weren’t for the scuffle that landed her fiancé in jail.

“I think you have to recognize that this is part of their illness and it needs to be treated as such and simply putting them behind bars and filling them with anti-psychotics is not a compassionate approach to that illness,” Insel said.

Gunner Pettit and Barbara Jean “BJ” Warren

Before the incident, Pettit had received therapy and medication from the Region 3 Community Mental Health Center, called LIFECORE, which serves a seven-county area in northeast Mississippi. Twice a month he scrounged up $25 from mowing lawns or doing other odd jobs to pay the sliding fee scale at the clinic, hitched the 20 minute ride to Tupelo and used a coupon to pay for medication. If any of those fell through, he went without care.

Psychiatrists have prescribed Pettit a number of medications, including Lithium, but he’s been without those or any therapy since arriving in jail.

LIFECORE opened a crisis stabilization unit for short-term inpatient treatment last year, but with only four beds, “I’ve never been able to get anybody in there because they’re full,” said Dickinson, the county sheriff.

This summer, LIFECORE will expand the unit to eight beds. “The downside is when we get them stabilized on medication but when they get out, they can’t afford it. Then they end up right back where they were,” Tupelo Crisis Stabilization Unit director Tina Hooker told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in 2018 when the facility opened.

Meanwhile, Itawamba County is building its new 100-bed jail, an increase of 64 slots, which will open next year. “I’ll just about fill it up the first day,” Dickinson said.

As part of a statewide push to coordinate community mental health services, the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Office has certified officers in crisis intervention so they can properly assess scenarios involving mental illness. Pettit said his mother was one of the first to call the crisis team after its creation.

“There needs to be more hands. There needs to people that are qualified instead of just officers that were already deputized being given a task to carry out,” Pettit said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s solely a broken system, but I will say that it’s one that isn’t really used to the measure or degree that it was set up to be used for.”