Since holding a psychiatrist hostage in 1977, Roger Stockham has kidnapped his young son, tried to hijack a plane, crashed a plane, set fire to buildings, planted a bomb at an airport and threatened to kill the president.
Despite this remarkable criminal resume, the 63-year-old Vietnam veteran has been freed repeatedly from psychiatric hospitals and prison only to lash out again and end up back in custody.
Last month, police say the California man was at it again: Officers arrested Stockham near a popular Michigan mosque they say he planned to attack. They say he was driving around wearing a ski mask, and they found more than two dozen powerful, illegal fireworks in his car. The arrest has brought renewed attention to Stockham's bizarre criminal odyssey and to the challenges some mentally ill offenders pose to the legal system.
"It's unusual that he got in so much trouble so many times and managed to still keep getting out," said Dr. Michael Cummings, a psychiatrist at California's Patton State Hospital, where Stockham was treated after being deemed legally insane in 1980.
Cummings arrived at Patton years after Stockham passed through, and he never treated Stockham. Speaking generally, though, he said patients like Stockham — who has been diagnosed with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders — function well within the structured environment of mental health facilities but need close supervision once out. For various reasons, many don't get that help, he said.
"Outpatient probation programs, frankly, are not adequately resourced, and having a program on paper doesn't help that much," Cummings said.
Treating criminal offenders at psychiatric hospitals is expensive, and community services designed to help them are often the first to get squeezed when governments cut spending, Cummings said. Furthermore, probation officers shoulder heavy caseloads and are unable to adequately keep track of the direst cases, he said.
"In many cases, no one is following up to provide treatment when (mentally ill people) are in the community. As a result, when people go out of places like Patton, inevitably bad things happen," Cummings said.
David Sultzbaugh, the chief officer in the federal probation office in San Diego, said he couldn't discuss Stockham's case without a court order. He said his office has more than 100 officers, and that each handles an average of about 30 severe cases at a time.
Many of the lawyers, judges and prison officials involved with Stockham's cases declined to discuss them or did not respond to requests for comment. Calls to numbers listed as belonging to a son of Stockham's in California rang unanswered or the numbers were disconnected. And Stockham's attorney, Matthew Evans, said he would pass on a request for an interview.
But court documents, news accounts and interviews with a longtime friend paint a portrait of a man who is intelligent, opinionated and lucid while on his medication, but who struggles when left on his own.
That friend, Mike Hyde, said he met Stockham while stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1975 after Stockham had left the Army. He said they bonded over drinks at a bar near the base, talking about anything and everything.
Over the years, they kept in touch, and Hyde said his friend seemed stressed when they last spoke a few months ago. He said he was saddened, but not surprised, to read in the papers about Stockham's latest arrest.
"I saw Roger's name (and thought), 'Oh, God. He did it again,'" Hyde, 54, of Frisco, Texas, said by phone.
"He's truly a good guy. Is he confused and a little off in the head? Yeah," said Hyde. "He needs serious therapy. He needs somebody who's going to remain committed to him. He needs not to drink. Who's gonna stop that?"
After Stockham left Georgia, he settled in Southern California, where his legal troubles began:
— In 1977, armed with a gun and two bombs, Stockham held a psychiatrist hostage for four hours in a Century City office building, according to a Los Angeles Times account. Stockham pleaded guilty to an explosives charge — an assault charge was dropped — and was sentenced to probation and time served.
— In August 1979, Stockham abducted his 9-year-old son from a foster home, rented a small plane and radioed Los Angeles International Airport to say he was armed and to demand a larger plane he could use to flee the country. After touching down in his small plane on a runway, Stockham took off again and crashed about two miles away. He and his son were found hiding in some bushes, unharmed. He was convicted of kidnapping.
— Later that year, while on bail awaiting trial in the kidnapping case, Stockham set fire to several storage facilities at a Union Oil Co. plant in Lompoc, Calif. He was convicted of arson, deemed legally insane and sent to Patton. He was released on probation in 1982, despite having escaped for four months, and ordered to remain in out-patient treatment at Patton.
— In 1985, Stockham planted a bomb in an airport garbage can in Reno, Nev., then tipped off a newspaper and the FBI. The device was disabled, and bomb experts said it could have killed people. Stockham was convicted of two charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
— In 2002, now living in Vermont, Stockham was charged with threatening to kill the president, George W. Bush, and threatening officials at a Veterans Administration hospital and a veterans' center. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held for three years — first in a Vermont prison, then at a Missouri prison hospital where he was evaluated, before being released on probation. He was allowed to return to California, and eventually settled in Imperial Beach.
One of the terms of Stockham's 2005 release was that he not drink alcohol. But neighbors in California said he frequented a VFW bar and witnesses in Detroit said they saw him drinking hours before his Jan. 24 arrest.
Joe Nahhas, a manager at Detroit bar, said Stockham sipped Scotch at the establishment and boasted about setting off a "big explosion" at a mosque, which he presumed to be the popular Islamic Center of America in nearby Dearborn. He said Stockham told him he had converted to Islam after the Vietnam War, and had joined a group of Indonesian mujahedeen, or Muslim holy warriors. Nahhas said he was so disturbed by Stockham's ramblings that he called 911 and the FBI, who said a public tip led to Stockham's arrest.
Federal probation officials in Vermont have filed a petition seeking Stockham's eventual return, alleging he violated the terms of his 2005 release. But they declined to say which terms they believe he violated, and the document is sealed.
Stockham hasn't commented publicly since his arrest, and a plea of not guilty has been entered on his behalf on charges of making a false report or threat of terrorism and possessing explosives with an unlawful intent.
Michigan prosecutors know Stockham's psychiatric history, but they are approaching his case as if he were "anyone else charged with a 20-year felony," Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney Khalid Najar said.
"There may come a time when our sensitivity to his mental health may be a factor in what we do, but we're not there yet," Najar said.
It may be legal posturing, but Evans, Stockham's attorney, has indicated he doesn't intend to get Stockham deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
He said Stockham didn't intend to attack the mosque with fireworks and felt no enmity toward its members, but was going to spray-paint the words "Crazy Horse 18" on it to protest the government's investigation into the 2007 killing in Iraq of a Reuters photographer and his driver by a U.S. Apache helicopter. The helicopter crew can be heard using the term in leaked video footage of the attack that was posted online by the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks.
Evans declined to explain why Stockham would have wanted to spray-paint it or why he was allegedly driving around wearing a ski mask.
Stockham's first court-appointed attorney, Mark Haidar, asked for a competency hearing for Stockham before Stockham fired him. But Evans said such a hearing was unnecessary because he thinks Stockham's past troubles are behind him.
"He's very eccentric — he's had some strong convictions. He's got some different ideas but he's not that far out," Evans said.
Julie Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writer John Curran in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.