Longform

The Other American Sniper

Page 5 of 5

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."

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