The Other American Sniper
BY MICHAEL BARAJAS
Maria Esparza awoke to what she thought was the sound of her husband cooking -- the hiss and pop of fresh vegetables dropped into a pan of hot oil. Reality set in when Roy Esparza told her to keep her head down as bullets cracked and whizzed through their two-story home in the Texas Hill Country.
"There's something going on," he told her. "I think it's your son."
Roy dialed 911 and reached a Comal County dispatcher just before 4 a.m. on May 27, 2011. Somebody had just sprayed the house with bullets, he told the dispatcher, who told him to stay put inside. The dispatcher asked if anyone had recently threatened them. "Yes, our son," Roy said before hesitating.
"I don't know...I don't want to say it was him. He's paranoid schizophrenic. He's been diagnosed. He came from Iraq."
Roy handed the phone to his wife, who gave the dispatcher a stripped-down version of Adan Castañeda's steep mental decline since he'd returned from war three years earlier. Sounding more exhausted than frightened, Maria told the officer her 25-year-old son had been in and out of psychiatric treatment. He's mentally ill, she said. She told the dispatcher about the bizarre text messages she'd received from Castañeda that had only grown more violent and disturbing in recent weeks.
He's been to the local U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital -- many times, she stressed -- but they won't keep him.
Deputies quickly found Castañeda wandering a dark stretch of road less than a mile from the house. His gait was sluggish. Playback of the police dash-cam video looks as if it's in slow motion.
One deputy muttered "Oh, shit" into his radio when Castañeda reached his right hand into his waistband, pulling out a .45 caliber Glock pistol. Holding it at his side, Castañeda sounded confused during the standoff.
First he told deputies he was just wielding a paintball gun, then a BB gun. "I'm not going to hurt anyone," he said in a low monotone, before grabbing the gun by the barrel with the palm of his hand, throwing it overhand into the nearby trees. Officers eventually discovered the gun some 25 yards away.
The deputies remembered Castañeda. Nearly two years before, some of them had been called out to a standoff inside his parents' home. Castañeda tore through the house, ripping out cabinets, shattering windows and smashing television screens. All because his parents took away his gun after he threatened to kill himself.
After that July 2009 blowup, Castañeda was sent to his first commitment at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital's psychiatric ward in San Antonio, beginning what would become a revolving door of treatment and release. Castañeda would be committed to the psych ward at least two more times. He tried to check himself in on another occasion. Weeks before he peppered his parents' house with bullets, his mother tried to get doctors to commit him once more; they said they couldn't take him.
While it remains unclear exactly why the VA was either unable or unwilling to offer Castañeda and his family more help (a VA spokesperson's only response to questions from the Houston Press was, "We are not conducting interviews at this time"), his case bears an uneasy resemblance to that of another troubled veteran whose violent breakdown dominated national headlines last month. On February 24, an Erath County jury sentenced Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh to life in prison for brutally killing famed Navy SEAL "American Sniper" Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield. By all accounts, both Castañeda's and Routh's families sought help through their local VA hospitals -- Castañeda in San Antonio, Routh in Dallas -- but were turned away days before their psychotic delusions reached their ultimate, violent breaking points.
The cases are dramatic examples of how war, mental illness and an overwhelmed VA can intersect with the criminal justice system. It's unclear how many veterans are currently incarcerated, but the most recent survey, done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, found that nearly one in every ten inmates in American jails had prior military service. Those veterans, the survey found, were more likely than nonvets to have been treated for mental health problems before their run-ins with the law.
Last month, on the same week and in the same state, attorneys for Castañeda and Routh argued their clients were insane when they committed their crimes and were therefore better candidates for treatment than for prison. Only Castañeda prevailed. In court, he grew visibly agitated, wanting desperately to take the stand, to persuade a judge he was simply defending himself against evils that existed only in his head.
The night Castañeda sent bullets flying through his parents' house, the responding deputies sound rattled on the radio call log. "I'm almost to the point where I'm second-guessing, why didn't I shoot?" one says.
He looks like that Marine we've seen before, one of the deputies says as Castañeda's taken into custody. "He won't talk...He's got like a freaking blank stare."
After high school, Castañeda joined the U.S. Marine Corps and in 2007 deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Scout Sniper Platoon.
Photo courtesy of Maria Esparza
Adan Castañeda was born in the South Texas city of Edinburg, less than 20 miles from the Mexico border. Back then, his mother, Maria Esparza, was married to someone she calls "an abusive man, a pedophile" who sexually assaulted Castañeda.
When he was about four years old, Castañeda's mother fled with her children to the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. By the time Castañeda was eight years old, his mother had married Roy Esparza, her current husband. Things were relatively calm until Castañeda's brother, Alonzo Garza, who was three years his junior, entered middle school. Teachers caught Alonzo bringing pot to school. He once stole a golf cart from a local store, taking it for a joyride in the woods. Maria got worried when school officials began to wonder whether Castañeda, too, was a problem child.
The summer before his senior year, Maria sent Castañeda to a summer camp at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen; she thought he'd enjoy the pilot lessons. Castañeda returned, finished out his senior year living with his sister in San Antonio and, with no other plans for his future, decided to join the military. He was dead set on joining the U.S. Marine Corps. "Real men join the Marines," Maria recalls him saying.
Castañeda insisted on becoming an infantryman. He hated the idea of being stuck in a dull desk job. After he finished basic training, he relished the missions that took him to Guam, Thailand and the Philippines. He started collecting canisters of dirt from the places he'd visited.
Castañeda eventually became a scout sniper, joining the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Scout Sniper Platoon before deploying to Iraq in March 2007 as part of a surge of U.S. troops onto the battlefield.
The details of Castañeda's deployment became part of a letter he later sent the VA contesting his disability rating. In it, Castañeda gave a scattered recollection of firefights, explosions and carnage that's at points difficult to follow. There are, however, a couple of unifying themes in what he wrote. Whatever Castañeda saw clearly weighed on him, and the overwhelming feeling of imminent danger and helplessness never really dissipated.
"I was repulsed by what I saw...I felt that death was so close, and that I would soon die, but it didn't happen."
Castañeda and his mother spoke regularly before and during his deployment. But after he returned to California's Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in September 2007, he rarely called home. Then, in February 2008, Maria got an unusual phone call from her son.
Claiming he'd been in a training accident, Castañeda wanted to make sure his mother still had him listed on her health insurance. Later that night, Maria got a call from a doctor at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. Castañeda had been put in a psych ward. "Is he always this paranoid?" she recalls the doctor asking her.
In his letter to the VA, Castañeda wrote he'd been drinking heavily the night before, passed out, woke up and then, in a daze, decided to take his own life. He claimed he'd attempted suicide at least twice before. He'd slashed his arm with a razor, but then had second thoughts, he wrote. He patched his wrist with a T-shirt and duct tape before asking a friend to drive him to the hospital.
Doctors at the California hospital wrote that Castañeda suffered from paranoia and suicidal ideation. Records indicate the hospital told base officials about the episode. In his letter to the VA, Castañeda wrote, "Nobody ever talked to me about having been in the psych ward." Castañeda says that higher-ups did, however, remove all sharp objects from his living quarters.
In the months that followed, Castañeda emailed lengthy paranoia-fueled screeds to Alonzo. "Mom, we've got to get him out of the service," Maria remembers Alonzo telling her. "He's losing it."
Castañeda was honorably discharged in December 2008; none of his discharge paperwork makes any mention of mental illness or his suicide attempt. He drove straight through the night from California to Texas, and moved into an apartment with Alonzo and his two young nieces. Castañeda was, by all accounts, a doting uncle.
Family, however, began to notice that Castañeda's mood had shifted radically since before his deployment. In February 2009, on Castañeda's birthday, Maria brought a cake to his apartment. He was sitting in the dark, sipping from a gallon jug of water. "I don't celebrate birthdays," he told her. He threw the cake in the trash.
Castañeda became obsessed with security. He bought his brother a gun, insisting he needed it for protection. Weeks later, on March 9, 2009, Brendon Ashley Griffin, 24, shot and killed Alonzo Garza in the apartment while Castañeda slept upstairs -- a police report states that upon finding his brother's body, Castañeda grabbed his gun and fired a bullet into his bedroom- door before punching holes in the walls of the apartment. (In 2010, Griffin, who unsuccessfully tried to raise his own insanity defense, pleaded guilty to murder and aggravated assault in -exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.)
Castañeda disappeared after his brother's death. He didn't go to the funeral. Weeks later, he called his mother from the Bexar County jail. Blackout drunk, he'd totaled his car, smashing it into a guardrail. Maria remembers he wasn't wearing shoes when she bailed him out. Castañeda's face was bruised. He'd been in a fight he couldn't remember.
Less than a month before Castañeda fired on her house, Maria Esparza filed an emergency application to commit her son to a VA psych ward in San Antonio. Doctors there wouldn't take him.
Photo by Josh Huskin
Castañeda moved back in with his parents. He floundered for weeks, unable to keep a job or sleep through the night. A doctor prescribed him Valium; when his parents later found him in a daze, he said he couldn't remember why the bottle was empty. He started drinking large amounts of cough syrup. One night, the cops called Maria saying they had found Castañeda wandering around an H-E-B parking lot, fumbling and attempting to get into cars.
Castañeda routinely kept a pistol by his side. His temper was getting worse. In the middle of the night, he'd bang on the door to Maria's room, demanding the keys to her car. Maria wondered whether the local VA could help. She had a cousin who worked there, so Maria called to ask for advice. She was both confused and unnerved by what her cousin told her: Keep calling, don't give up, don't let them say no to you.
One night, Maria asked Castañeda why he couldn't shake his diet of cough syrup, Valium and Red Bull. He grabbed his pistol and pointed it at his face. "It's what keeps me from doing this," he told her. Maria ran into the garage, and, after she managed to stop crying, called the VA crisis hotline. Someone at the other end of the phone told her she should consider taking the guns out of the house, so the next day, while Castañeda was out on an errand, that's what she and his stepfather did.
When Castañeda returned to find his guns were gone, he went on a rampage through the house, smashing everything in sight. He frantically called 911, saying he needed protection; one report says he used "extreme profanity" with a dispatcher. The outburst was so intense it triggered a standoff with a SWAT team outside. "I'm thankful he wasn't shot," Maria says. One responding deputy wrote in his report that "Castañeda's mental state was very unstable."
Castañeda was arrested and -- after many, many phone calls to veterans' groups and local politicians, Maria claims -- was committed to a VA psych ward in San Antonio. Doctors kept him there for nearly two months, prescribing him antipsychotics such as Zyprexa and lithium, along with mood stabilizers to calm him at night. "He reported that he thought his mother was trying to kill and poison him," according to hospital records.
But once he was declared stable, Maria didn't really know what to do with her son. She certainly didn't think he was ready to be out on his own. He refused to live with his parents, and the VA wouldn't put him in counseling, she claims.
Maria found Castañeda an apartment near the VA hospital so he could easily take the bus there at a moment's notice. But public transportation proved too confusing. Late one day, Castañeda called his mother, saying he'd missed his stop on the way to the hospital. He was too anxious to talk to the driver. He'd been riding around the city for most of a day.
Castañeda struggled to stick to the treatment doctors had outlined for him. Sometimes he'd take none of his medication. Or he'd take too much and throw up; Maria regularly had to bring a carpet cleaner to his apartment to handle the vomit. "He couldn't regulate himself," she says.
By July 2010, a year after his first VA commitment, Castañeda began to isolate himself further. He told his mother he no longer felt safe around her. He sent her delusional text messages in all caps. One day, maintenance workers at Castañeda's San Antonio apartment complex called Maria. They'd noticed the apartment was leaking and knocked on the door. When Castañeda opened up, they saw that parts of the apartment had flooded with water, the treadmill was running full speed and the refrigerator door was open with no food inside. Castañeda was disheveled and dazed. He kicked them out and wouldn't let them back in.
Maria filed for a mental health warrant, and San Antonio cops dragged Castañeda out of the apartment when he started to furiously punch holes in the walls. He was again taken to the VA psych ward; it's unclear how long they kept him that time.
In October 2010, Castañeda started texting his mother that government officials were planting dead bodies all over his apartment. She drove to the apartment where he was staying and found him sitting in the dark in an almost catatonic state. He could hardly speak, so she took him back to the VA hospital. Records indicate he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Two days after he was committed, according to hospital records, Castañeda tried to escape. Maria says he punched through a window and ran to a nearby gas station, but when he looked down and saw his badly mangled hand, Castañeda turned back around and sought medical attention at the hospital he'd just escaped.
Despite three escape attempts, doctors kept him there for less than three weeks. Maria says Castañeda never seemed to stabilize. In the winter of 2010, he even tried to admit himself to the VA psych ward, saying he didn't feel safe at home; Maria told him she was proud of him. One time, he took a taxi from his San Antonio apartment to his parents' Hill Country home, saying he didn't feel safe alone.
"I don't know how to change this," he told her.
By the end of April 2011, Castañeda's mind had descended into something beyond recognition. The text messages he sent to his mother grew increasingly dark. He talked about having sex with dead bodies, about eating his own feces and drinking his own urine.
On April 29, 2011, Maria filed for a warrant to commit Castañeda again to the VA psych ward. She wrote that while Castañeda hadn't yet tried to seriously harm anybody else, "I am afraid he will harm himself...by killing himself."
The VA hospital, however, wouldn't take him. Records indicate Castañeda "knew how to answer their (doctors') questions so that he would not be committed." Maria got a sympathetic text from one of Castañeda's doctors at the VA: "I am so sorry."
Castañeda's text messages to his mother got even more disturbing after that, taking on a twisted, violent and sexual tone. One night, Maria sent Castañeda a message saying she loved him. "Lets all get together and shoot ourselves in the head," he replied. On May 5, 2011, he texted her, "Stop contacting me or ill take a taxi tn ur house and kill u and roy and just go to jail."
Maria showed those text messages to investigators on that morning of May 27, 2011, after Castañeda took a taxi 30 miles north of San Antonio to her Spring Branch home, stood in the driveway, raised his pistol, emptied a clip into the house, reloaded and fired again.
When Comal County sheriff's detective Steve Morris visited Castañeda in jail shortly after the shooting, Castañeda was eager to talk.
Doctors would later guess that Castañeda's delusions were, at least in part, caused by "exposure to trauma during military service." In his mind, past abuse and serious mental illness, perhaps exacerbated or triggered by the paranoia that accompanies post-traumatic stress, had morphed into a strange conspiracy.
In his interview with Morris, Castañeda says his mother wouldn't stop "sexually harassing me," that Maria and her husband were violently and sexually abusive to their nieces. He urges the detective to investigate; he'd seen his parents beat, choke and molest the girls before leaving them to die in the middle of the highway, he insists. He'd seen it all happen, he claims, but couldn't stop it -- "I was sedated and couldn't think of what to do...I'm just going to call the cops every day when I get out of here until they do something."
In the interview, Castañeda tells the detective that Maria and his stepfather were plotting against him. He claims Roy told him "he's going to kill me with my own gun and make it look like a suicide." His mother, he says, "tells me to kill myself." He tells Morris he heard voices telling him to shoot them.
Castañeda tries to convince Morris the bullets he fired at the house were warning shots -- none of the rounds hit the northwest-corner room where Maria and Roy slept, a deliberate choice, according to Castañeda. By the time he talks to Morris, he's not only unrepentant but wondering whether he should've taken things even further.
It was a mistake not killing them, he says. "Now I know that 30 years in prison is worth two murders. I'll do 60 years in prison."
Castañeda sat in solitary confinement at the Comal County jail for more than six months, even though a judge declared him incompetent to stand trial and ordered him into treatment at the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon -- what some pejoratively call "competency camp." After hearing about the case and how a mentally ill veteran had languished in an isolation cell for months, attorney Keith Hampton fought to get Castañeda a bed in the overwhelmed, backlogged state hospital system in late December 2011. Hampton became Castañeda's attorney soon afterward.
The case dragged on for more than three years. Following his arrest, Castañeda was initially booked on two charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of deadly conduct. Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp, however, added two charges of attempted murder. She also added a tampering-with-evidence charge because Castañeda had tossed his gun into the woods that night.
Hampton says he couldn't come to any agreement with prosecutors over an insanity plea; he wanted Castañeda put in indefinite treatment somewhere; they wanted him in prison. Hampton says he scrambled to look for other options that might appease the DA's office. He called veterans' courts in the surrounding counties to see if he could transfer the case; none would take Castañeda. Someone at the VA in San Antonio suggested Hampton try to get Castañeda into an inpatient treatment program for veterans with serious mental illness at the Waco VA. That didn't work, either.
"I came up zero on everything, and I worked for months," Hampton says. "The problem is this: Everybody runs their own little narrow program, and if you don't fit perfectly within their criteria, then you're left out." Both before and after his arrest, Hampton says, Castañeda fell through the cracks -- either because he simply didn't fit any program or because his family couldn't adequately navigate the red tape to find him long-term inpatient treatment. The recent scheduling scandals at VA hospitals across the country only further point to a rigid bureaucracy that can barely keep service at current levels, let alone expand it, Hampton says.
Two days before Castañeda's trial, prosecutors agreed to allow a judge to decide the verdict in the case; Hampton had gone to a movie theater that Friday to watch American Sniper in preparation for a jury trial.
In court, prosecutors argued that Castañeda knew right from wrong when he fired on his parents' house. He'd proven he wouldn't willingly take any medication he was prescribed for long, they argued -- Castañeda told one doctor who evaluated him that he was allergic to "all psychotropic medications."
At trial, assistant district attorney Chari Kelly insisted, "Being mentally ill is not the same as being mentally insane."
It's an argument Erath County prosecutors made during last month's trial of Eddie Ray Routh.
By most accounts, Routh struggled after his discharge from the Marine Corps in 2010. However, unlike Castañeda, Routh never received a Combat Action Ribbon, and, according to a Washington Post analysis of his service record, it doesn't appear Routh ever engaged in direct combat during his six-month deployment to Iraq. Still, Routh's attorneys have claimed he suffers from PTSD and paranoid delusions (in a 2013 New Yorker story, Routh's father recalled his son ranting about "off-the-wall shit" like Dracula and werewolves). He flew into a rage when his parents suggested he sell his guns. He bounced between commitments at a private hospital and a Dallas VA psych ward. In late January 2013, Routh's mother begged VA doctors to recommit him; she says they wouldn't.
Days later, Kyle and Littlefield picked up Routh to take him shooting at a gun range near Glen Rose. "this dude is straight up nuts," Kyle texted Littlefield, who responded, "Watch my 6" -- watch my back, in military parlance. At the range, Routh shot Kyle five times in the back and once in the side of the head; four bullets struck Littlefield in the back, one in the face and another at the top of his head. Routh stood over their bleeding bodies, reloaded Kyle's 9mm handgun and fled in Kyle's truck.
Last month, the doctor who treated Routh at the Terrell State Hospital testified in court that Routh was clearly psychotic, suffering from multiple delusions: He thought his cop neighbor was a member of the Mexican Mafia; he thought co-workers were cannibals who wanted to eat him; in the days before he killed Kyle and Littlefield, he thought a race of pig-human hybrids was taking over the earth.
Erath County prosecutors, however, called two expert witnesses who claimed that, despite multiple hospitalizations for mental illness, Routh was faking it. A jury took less than three hours to find him guilty on both murder counts, sentencing Routh to life in prison (Routh's lawyers filed an appeal in the case earlier this month).
During Castañeda's first stint at "competency camp," doctors wrote that delusional beliefs permeated any discussion they had with him about his shooting. Castañeda urgently asked the doctors to investigate his claims that his mother, stepfather and the government were conspiring against him.
All three forensic psychiatrists who interviewed Castañeda wrote that he suffered from serious delusions brought on by mental illness. Two wrote that he was, in all likelihood, insane at the time of the shooting. It appears the state's expert, Dr. Gregory Paul, disagreed with that finding on a technicality (Hampton calls it "hairsplitting"). Castañeda, Paul wrote, didn't think his nieces were in "imminent danger" when he fired a barrage of bullets at his parents' house. (Castañeda didn't think his parents were actively abusing the girls at that very moment, but did think that they'd done so in the past and would continue to do so, Paul wrote.) When asked whether he feared for his life the moment he shot at the house, Castañeda told Paul he was "not sure."
Still, Paul wrote in his report: "Although I do not believe that the defendant meets the criteria for criminal insanity" as defined by Texas law, "it is clear that this shooting was the product of severe mental illness, poor insight, and non compliance with treatment."
Castañeda, Paul wrote, was not faking it.
Castañeda's case sat in limbo for so long that he cycled back into "competency camp" at the North Texas State Hospital when a judge declared him incompetent to stand trial for a second time. Bouncing between jail and a psych ward, he sent a judge overseeing his case long, paranoid letters.
"I pray you that you can understand why I was compelled to resort to such measures," he says of the shooting. "I reacted to a valid threat on my life in self-defense." He assures the judge he still believes in following the military rules of engagement. "Once a Marine, always a Marine."
When deputies led Castañeda out to the defense table at his trial on February 17, it was the first time his mother had seen him in months. She audibly gasped at the sight of him. His face was almost skeletal, with bony cheeks and deep, sunken eyes.
Castañeda gave his mother a sheepish wave before turning to face the judge. He stared down at his feet while a prosecutor read the charges against him. Afterward, with slurred speech, he stood and said, "Not guilty to those charges, Your Honor."
After the first day of trial, Hampton, his attorney, said, "He's barely keeping it together." Castañeda desperately wanted to testify in his own defense. He didn't particularly want to argue insanity; at times, he still thinks the shooting was justified.
Castañeda became increasingly agitated the second and final day of trial. He kept telling Hampton that he felt he needed to explain some things to the judge. "It was, of course, all nonsense," Hampton says.
In his closing arguments, Hampton put a PowerPoint presentation up on the screen inside the courtroom. Castañeda grew angry as Hampton made his final push to convince the judge that his client was insane. Castañeda groaned loudly, saying something inaudible. Hampton calmed him down, and silently clicked through the rest of the presentation, staying on each slide long enough for the judge to read its contents.
On the capital murder and tampering-with-evidence charges, State District Court Judge Dib Waldrip* declared Castañeda not guilty. Castañeda was declared not guilty by reason of insanity on charges of aggravated assault, deadly conduct and criminal mischief.
Sometime this month, Castañeda will be transferred from the Comal County jail to the North Texas State Hospital for treatment; it's unclear how long he'll remain there. Six days after Castañeda's verdict, a jury ruled that Eddie Ray Routh knew right from wrong when he killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield.
The two Texas men are in some ways mirror images of each other. Each was hospitalized numerous times for mental illness after returning from war. On February 17, in courtrooms on opposite ends of the state, both mothers testified how the VA discharged their sons in the days preceding their violent breakdowns and how they unsuccessfully urged doctors to recommit the men.
The cases diverge in other important ways. Routh killed two men; Castañeda's two victims are his greatest advocates. A jury sent one Marine to prison for life. A judge sent the other to a mental institution.
Against that backdrop, friends and supporters have made sure to congratulate Maria on the outcome of her son's case -- treatment over prison. It's an odd sentiment that's hard to process, she says. "It's sort of hard to hear...He's mentally ill, he doesn't want to be mentally ill and we've just wanted him to get proper treatment for all of these years."
Most nights, Maria speaks to Castañeda over the phone as he sits inside the jail. Castañeda is still delusional, she says. He's now convinced doctors are trying to kill him and views what has happened to him as a government conspiracy instead of the product of mental illness.
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