The phone is what first woke Shirley Harrison the morning of February 1, 1994. It was around 5 o’clock and Shirley was still groggy from sleep when she picked up and heard the voice of her family’s pastor. He asked if Shirley had recently checked on her mother. He then told Shirley that her brother, Millet Harrison, had just called him to deliver an unnerving message: “I just killed the devil.”
When Shirley ran to her mother’s room, she saw her lying in an odd position, perpendicular to the headboard with her feet hanging off the side of the mattress. Shirley called out, but her mother wouldn’t move. When Shirley rushed into the room to shake her awake, she noticed something was off. The body felt light.
Millet Harrison would later tell the police that his 67-year-old mother, Louise Harrison, had been consumed by the devil. After he choked her unconscious, the voices told him to search through his mother’s Beaumont house for a knife, hammer, screwdriver and a large kitchen fork. Harrison told the police he then “meditated” until the voices in his head told him what to do next: First, he decapitated his mother, then he removed her scalp, digging a hole into the back of her skull through which he removed her brain; next he cut out her eyes and carved out her heart; Harrison then cut his mother’s brain and heart into small pieces, later telling the police he had to ensure the body couldn’t be revived.
Not long after Harrison was charged with murder, a Beaumont judge declared him not guilty by reason of insanity. Harrison, who had a two-decade history of treatment for paranoid schizophrenia before the psychotic break that led to his mother’s death, was ultimately sent to a state mental institution where he’s remained ever since. As required by state law, he’s gone back to court every year for a judge to determine whether he should stay there.
For much of the past 20 years, however, doctors treating Harrison have recommended that he be discharged from inpatient care, telling the courts that antipsychotic meds have for years successfully kept Harrison’s psychosis at bay, rendering him harmless.
That’s a finding fiercely disputed by one court-appointed expert who for years has argued that Harrison has a documented history of refusing treatment. And the dispute over whether or not Harrison should be released into the community under a court-ordered treatment plan has forced the courts to confront another underlying question: Does someone like Millet Harrison deserve a second chance, or does the heinousness of his offense — the brutal murder of his mother and mutilation of her corpse — warrant his indefinite removal from society?
At least that was the question facing the courts until late last year, when the state’s Ninth Court of Appeals ruled that the evidence against putting Harrison in outpatient care is “legally and factually insufficient.” And with that, State District Court Judge Larry Gist was essentially forced to do what state hospital doctors have recommended for the better part of 20 years — release Harrison back into the community. Not surprisingly, the decision sparked outrage from some pockets of the community and has led to a petition for Gist to overturn his ruling.
Medical experts and some in Harrison’s family, however, contend his case is emblematic of a system that’s ill-equipped to deal with the most serious cases of mental illness. In Texas, a state that each year is at or near the bottom in the nation in terms of per-capita spending on mental health resources, there are often few options for patients between full-blown psychiatric commitment and freedom to walk the streets and administer their own medication. In such a system, people like Harrison are likely to slip through cracks until irreversible tragedy strikes, they say.
Dr. Edward Gripon, a psychiatrist who has evaluated Harrison on numerous occasions throughout his stay in the state hospital system, says the courts often struggle to figure out what to do with patients like Harrison who have committed monstrous crimes and been declared not guilty by reason of insanity but then become stable through long-term state hospital care.
“I think it boils down to an ethical question,” Gripon told the Houston Press. “It’s one that would be a lot easier for the courts to -answer if there was something between hospitalization and what is essentially cobbled-together supervision in the free world.”
It’s a question that Harrison’s own family still struggles with. Some family members — like Harrison’s niece and brother-in-law — never gave up on him, despite what he did to the family’s matriarch. They’ve participated in Harrison’s treatment, visited him in the state hospital throughout the years and have seen parts of who Harrison was before his mental illness gradually return.
Others, like Harrison’s sister Shirley, are more conflicted. While the two have recently reconnected, via the cell phone that Harrison is afforded at the Rusk State Hospital, Shirley can still hear paranoia in her brother’s voice.
In fact, it’s clear that Harrison at times still descends into what can only be described as convoluted, delusional thinking. In several phone conversations with the Press this month, Harrison expressed deep regret and remorse for what he did to his mother, yet he also described what he considers to be a massive, decades-long conspiracy to destroy him and his family — one that, in his mind, led to his mental illness and ultimately his mother’s death.
Doctors say it’s a lingering symptom of Harrison’s mental illness that, while mostly subtle and benign, will likely never fully subside.
Sometimes in those phone conversations, Shirley hears remnants of her brother June, as family calls him (short for “junior”).
But other times, what she hears on the other end of the phone still worries her.
Millet Harrison’s record of mental illness largely tracks the history of modern psychiatry.
Born in Ville Platte, Louisiana, in 1948, Harrison moved with his family to Beaumont when he was just a toddler. According to family, he was a calm, docile boy. “He was a mamma’s baby,” his sister Shirley recalls.
Unbeknownst to family at the time, Harrison’s first symptoms of mental illness cropped up when he was in his early twenties while studying chemistry at New Mexico Tech. Harrison had begun to suspect his college roommate was an ex-FBI agent. Some mornings Harrison would slip in and out of a trancelike state, feeling as if he’d been hypnotized or drugged — he suspected it was his roommate’s doing.
After college, Harrison went to work for Dow Chemical at the company’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan. Shortly after he arrived, there was a labor strike. Harrison, who wasn’t union, didn’t participate in the strike, and soon began to suspect union members were slipping drugs into his coffee to mess with his head (the episode led to a lifelong aversion to dark-colored liquids). Shirley says Harrison began to sound increasingly paranoid each time he called home.
Harrison eventually quit his job at Dow and drove the 1,300-mile trip from Michigan to Beaumont. “By the time he got to us, he sure was sick,” Shirley recalls. “He started talking about the world coming to an end, how Satan was gonna do this and do that.” The family knew virtually nothing about mental illness at the time. Shirley says nobody could understand why their beloved June would transform suddenly. Shirley could eventually tell when it was going to happen; Harrison would begin to sweat and rub his forehead with his hands.
Diane Randle-Guidry, Shirley’s daughter and Harrison’s niece, remembers how strange it was to live with her uncle when he first came back to Texas. She was about ten years old, Shirley had just gotten divorced from Diane’s father and the family was staying with Shirley’s mother when Harrison returned to the house. Harrison woke everyone up each day around 5 a.m., insisting they all hold hands and pray; he claimed the family was in danger.
“This happened every morning,” Diane says. “Sometimes it would go for as long as two hours.” Diane’s mother urged everyone to play along. “Be quiet, be patient; just let him do this,” she’d say. “June will be all right if you just let him do this.”
Gradually, however, Harrison became volatile. Shirley remembers one time her mother was driving her and her brother to the doctor’s office. When the car stopped, Harrison grew angry, grabbed his mother’s purse and dumped its contents into a rain-soaked ditch. “I’d tell him, ‘You stop that shit, June,’” Shirley says. “You’re not like that. Look at what you’re doing to Mamma. You’re making her nervous. She’s scared.”
Court records indicate Harrison was first hospitalized in 1975 at what was then the Beaumont Neurological Center, where over the course of two months, he was given electroshock treatments and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The experience left him reluctant to go back to the hospital whenever his delusions surfaced. “I became scared to go back there,” he told the Press. “I didn’t want any more of those awful shock treatments.”
It appears Harrison struggled for the next four years and was hospitalized twice. He began to suspect that someone was spraying poisonous gas into his bedroom. He experienced headaches so intense that family took him to the emergency room. He’d become so preoccupied with religion that he would constantly preach to his mother, according to hospital records. Eventually his paranoia grew violent.
Court records state that Harrison’s mother first told doctors that she’d noticed a severe change in his behavior in 1979. Later that year, she woke up around 2 a.m. to find Harrison hovering over her and rubbing his forehead. Then his hands went for her throat.
Shirley says her mother played dead, stopped breathing and waited for her son to leave the room before she screamed for help. “When asked about his attempt to choke his mother, [Harrison] became hostile and stated that she was not his mother and that the woman he choked was the devil,” court records state.
Harrison was sent back to the psych hospital, and Shirley urged her mother to put locks on the bedroom doors. “For what? That’s my child. I’m not afraid of him,” she recalls her mother saying. “He just needs his medicine. The doctors will get him his medicine.” Harrison sent his mother a long letter of apology. When he was discharged from the hospital, he got on his knees and begged his mother and Shirley for forgiveness.
It appears Harrison’s medicine, the antipsychotic Loxitane, worked. But if he skipped a dose, the delusions returned. In the spring of 1986, according to hospital records, Harrison’s family called the cops out to his mother’s Beaumont house; Harrison had forgotten to take his medicine and got into a fight with his sister. Harrison ultimately admitted himself to the psych hospital, telling doctors he thought his family was “possessed by demons.”
By 1993, Harrison was working for a software company and living in Houston. Family says that a change in his insurance plan that year meant Harrison had to start seeing a new psychiatrist closer to where he lived, Dr. Timothy Hunsucker, instead of the doctor in Beaumont who had treated him for years.
Court records indicate that Hunsucker agreed to take Harrison off his antipsychotic because he no longer showed symptoms of mental illness and because of concern that long-term use of the drug could cause serious, irreversible side effects. (According to medical board records, Hunsucker left Texas to practice in Georgia two years after Harrison murdered his mother. A phone number listed for his practice has been disconnected; he didn’t return a message left at another number in his name.)
Relatives remember that Harrison’s mental state quickly declined. Diane says her uncle showed up at her Houston apartment one day in the fall of 1993 “just rambling, frantic.” She later got a call from her brother saying Uncle June had just stopped by his job, telling him to be careful and that unknown forces were out to harm him.
Diane thought about those early-morning prayer circles when she was a kid. “That rang a bell from my childhood.”
Then, around Christmas 1993, Harrison got on a bus to pick up his son, who was living with Harrison’s ex-wife in Dallas. They were just outside Dallas when Harrison threw a tantrum that got him and the boy kicked off the bus, according to court records. They walked for miles until they found a church, where people called the police, who in turn called Harrison’s mother back in Beaumont. Diane drove her grandmother and mother to go pick up Harrison.
“It was a whirlwind,” she says. Harrison insisted someone was switching road signs in order to confuse him. “It was like he was rambling about spy stuff.” At one point, Harrison grabbed the wheel from Diane and crashed the car into a curb.
Diane and her mother remember it being incredibly difficult to get Harrison committed to the psychiatric hospital. When they reached Beaumont, they called the police out to Harrison’s mother’s house. By that time, it was as if someone had flipped a switch inside Harrison. He was back to normal. The police said they would need a court order to take him into custody.
Eventually, the family got a judge to sign an emergency order committing Harrison to the Beaumont Neurological Center two days after Christmas. According to hospital rec-ords, Harrison told doctors he didn’t want to take any medicine “because he thinks his mind will be controlled by ‘other’ people if he does.” Doctors put Harrison on “elopement precautions,” isolated him from other patients and put him in restraints “for protection of self & others.” Once doctors calmed him down, he sat up in his room and wrote all night. He wouldn’t sleep.
Then, on December 29, 1993, a judge called a hearing to determine whether Harrison should stay at the psych hospital. Records indicate Harrison’s behavior hadn’t changed since he was committed two days earlier. Doctors had already suggested that he be evaluated for some sort of “alternative placement upon discharge,” rather than simply handing him back to family.
Instead, the judge released Harrison into his mother’s care due to “insufficient evidence to warrant holding patient,” according to hospital records.
In January 1994, Harrison twice saw his psychiatrist, who urged him to take his medication. Both times Harrison refused.
As Harrison would later describe in a 2003 court hearing, his delusions by this point had begun to boil over. “I get overly suspicious of people for no reason at all, thinking somebody’s following me or out to hurt me,” Harrison said, describing the symptoms that indicate when he has slipped back into psychosis. “I might have religious thoughts, like, the world is coming to an end or I’m some worker in God’s plan, you know, somebody trying to carry out God’s mission on earth.”
In the weeks before Harrison killed his mother, his family recognized the paranoia, but they had no idea that Harrison had also begun to hear voices. “Sometimes the voices would just have a conversation with me, talk back and forth,” Harrison said in court. “Other times my suspicions…paranoia got worse and the voices started accusing people of trying to hurt me, whatnot, telling me this person is not right, this person is evil, this person is trying to hurt you or hurt your family members.”
Shirley remembers her brother being in a particularly bizarre state the night of January 31, 1994. He’d come to visit his family in Beaumont for the week, and had just called into work, saying he wouldn’t be returning the next day. “He was just rambling, talking so fast that I couldn’t understand what he was saying,” Shirley says.
A Beaumont police officer dispatched to the scene the next morning wrote in his report that when he approached the house, Harrison told him, “I killed the bitch and she is on the bed in her room.” Harrison pointed to the laundry room, where he’d wrapped the knife, hammer, screwdriver and a large kitchen fork used to dismember his mother in an orange towel.
Shirley’s niece, who had been living in the house at the time, ran outside when she caught a glimpse of the crime scene. Neighbors began to gather out on their front lawns when they heard the screaming.
When Diane and her brother arrived in Beaumont that morning, the police had cordoned off the street. They ditched the car and ran to the house, but a police officer stopped her before she could go inside. She recognized the cop; he’d been called out to the house before during one of Harrison’s psychotic episodes.
She says he was crying, mumbling something about how he wished they could have done more.
Shortly after Harrison was arrested and charged with his mother’s murder, a judge found him incompetent to stand trial and sent him to the Vernon State Hospital, the state’s maximum-security mental institution. According to court records, he told doctors that people all around him were possessed by demons and that he heard “the voice of God.” Five months after he murdered his mother, Harrison physically attacked a staff member and “threatened to cut off a staff member’s head.”
When he went back to court in October 1994, prosecutors agreed to waive a jury trial. A judge declared Harrison not guilty by reason of insanity and sent him back to the mental institution.
Diane stayed in contact with Harrison from the beginning. “At first, the family was very angry with me,” she says. Diane says she kept visiting Harrison, even in those early years, because she could still see glimpses of her former uncle. “I knew who he was, and I knew the real him outside of the psychosis.”
Isaac Randle, Harrison’s brother-in-law, says he figured the only thing that might ensure Harrison never came back to reality was complete separation from family. “Being locked up and having nobody on the outside to communicate with…that would make anyone’s condition worse,” he says.
The first two years Harrison went back to court for recommitment hearings, state hospital doctors recommended he stay in inpatient treatment. At first, Harrison rejected the notion that he needed antipsychotic medication. He complained that a smoke detector was giving off X-rays that blocked his thoughts. He would call Diane to warn her about demonic forces. He was scared to take a Rorschach test, saying the inkblots looked like X-rays of the human skeletal system.
Records indicate that Harrison urged his psychiatrist at Vernon to take him off antipsychotics in 1995. The doctor agreed to it, allowing Harrison to slip back into full-blown psychosis in the hopes that it would reinforce the gravity of his mental illness.
It apparently worked. In December 1997, doctors at the less-restrictive Rusk State Hospital, where Harrison had been transferred, for the first time recommended that the court order Harrison into some sort of outpatient treatment plan in which he’d be monitored by community mental health workers. Harrison’s psychiatrist at Rusk told the court that Harrison understood he would need to stay on antipsychotic medication for the rest of his life; for assurances, Harrison’s doctor asked that the judge mandate court-ordered doctors’ visits so that Harrison could be readmitted at the first sign of relapse.
Every year, Harrison’s doctors and court-appointed attorney brought the judge information for another halfway house willing to take Harrison, and every year the judge shot down each one of those facilities, saying they weren’t up to his standard and ordering Harrison back to the state hospital.
From looking at the record, it’s not hard to understand why a judge might be skeptical that county mental health workers could adequately monitor Harrison once he’s released into the community. During Harrison’s 2003 commitment hearing, a social worker named Barbara Fleming with Spindletop Mental Health Mental Retardation, the mental health authority that contracts with the state to serve much of East Texas, testified that staff often loses track of court-ordered patients. When a patient skips an appointment, often his file is just set aside or his case closed, she testified. “They usually surface at a state hospital or other psychiatric facilities,” Fleming told the court, adding, “We’re just so — we have so many clients and we’re so busy.”
But in October 2004, the state’s Ninth Court of Appeals overturned the lower court order that sent Harrison back to the state hospital. “There is no evidence in the record that Harrison needs constant supervision,” the court’s majority opinion states.
On the heels of that court decision, State District Court Judge Layne Walker appointed Dan Roberts, a clinical psychologist out of Round Rock, to evaluate the case and assist “in formulating an appropriate regimen of treatment” in line with the Ninth Court ruling.
Instead, Roberts drafted what is perhaps the most damning assessment of Millet Harrison throughout his two decades in the state hospital system and the strongest argument for keeping Harrison confined to a mental institution for the foreseeable future.
In his report, Roberts is critical of virtually every psychiatrist who had ever recommended Harrison’s release to outpatient treatment, saying they’d based their suggestions on a flawed, incomplete reading of Harrison’s psychiatric history.
For instance, Roberts insisted that before and after Harrison murdered his mother, he repeatedly had trouble complying with doctors’ orders. Roberts also points out that Harrison has consistently claimed that Ambien, which his doctor had prescribed for insomnia in the months before he killed his mother, triggered the psychotic state that led to his mother’s death. According to Roberts, this is a way for Harrison to avoid taking responsibility for murdering his mother and a way for him to deny the true severity of his mental illness (a psychiatrist who treated Harrison, however, later testified in court that Ambien could have very well exacerbated Harrison’s psychosis).
There are parts of Robert’s report, and testimony that he later gave during Harrison’s commitment hearings, that are more difficult to reconcile. For instance, Roberts wrote that for the first several years Harrison was in treatment following his mother’s death, he received no family visits — a sign, he said, that family was not participating in his treatment. Harrison’s niece and brother-in-law, however, say they routinely visited Harrison and spoke to him over the phone.
Roberts also told a judge during Harrison’s 2013 commitment hearing that there was evidence that Harrison was again experiencing hallucinations. He cited as evidence that Harrison complained of imaginary ping-pong players keeping him up at night. This is despite testimony from hospital staff that Harrison’s room in fact shared a wall with the ward’s game room and that Harrison’s complaint led the staff to close the room after hours so Harrison could sleep. (Roberts did not respond to emails or phone calls from the Press.)
More than anything, however, Roberts’s opinion highlights, as one judge put it, the “war of experts” that has marked Harrison’s case for more than a decade. Roberts believes that Harrison shouldn’t be released back into the community. Others, like Dr. Edward Gripon, who has evaluated Harrison off and on for the court over the past 20 years, say the state hospital system has done all it can for Harrison.
If the system cares about Harrison’s recovery, that will continue only in an outpatient setting, Gripon says. He acknowledges that, compared to other forms of confinement, Harrison has many freedoms at Rusk — he has access to email, the Internet and a cell phone. But in recent years, doctors have said Harrison’s path to recovery should now include re-entry into society, where he can hold down a regular job and regain some semblance of responsibility — attending doctors’ appointments and taking medication on his own, for instance — under the watchful eye of mental health workers and a court-ordered treatment plan.
“When it comes down to it, the hospital has nothing left to offer him,” Gripon says.
But Roberts, in his report and in court testimony, also references episodes that would seem more benign had they not concerned someone who murdered and cut up his mother while in a psychotic state. Roberts points to periods in the state hospital when Harrison again exhibited symptoms of psychosis, as recently as 2012; hospital records entered in court indicate Harrison had trouble adjusting to doctor-recommended changes to his medication. Roberts also points to Harrison’s refusing Metamucil and Benadryl in 2002 and 2004 as examples of how he can’t be trusted to take his medicine.
Some of Roberts’s objections to releasing Harrison point to a larger issue that continues to divide people who look at the case: Harrison’s delusions aren’t entirely gone. In several phone conversations with the Press this month, Harrison described a broad plan of racial persecution that he feels has targeted him and his family over the past several decades, leading, in part, to his mental illness and, ultimately, his mother’s death.
To Roberts, it’s an indication that Harrison is still unstable. But Gripon, the psychiatrist, says that in cases of serious mental illness, successful treatment doesn’t mean that every symptom of the illness disappears. Harrison’s illness is such that he’s prone to take a kernel of truth and spin it into a more broad delusion that’s detached from reality. In conversation, Harrison also talks about how he was just a teenager when the Civil Rights Act passed. He talks about what it was like being part of a black family living just eight miles away from Vidor, Texas, long considered a haven for the Ku Klux Klan (in 1993, for instance, when the feds tried to put black families into Vidor’s public housing, the Klan marched through the city; black families fled within months).
“He’s taken issues that were at one time a reality for him,” Gripon says. For years, Harrison has spun a difficult-to-follow theory that racists in power at the Jefferson County courthouse have conspired to keep him in the state hospital. It didn’t help things when he found Associated Press stories from 2002 stating that one of his court-appointed attorneys, Rife Kimler, was outed during his campaign for a Texas House seat as having a Nazi insignia tattooed on his right arm and ultimately admitted to being friends with a former grand dragon of the White Camelia Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ultimately, the majority of Ninth Court judges agreed with the likes of Gripon, saying in their October 2014 majority opinion that the lower court’s “finding that no suitable outpatient settings exist for Harrison is unsupported by the record.” Four days after the ruling, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office filed an unsuccessful motion urging the court to reconsider, saying, “In light of the historical record, it is clear Harrison has a long history of manipulative non-compliance and dispute with his medications.”
This past March, State District Court Judge Larry Gist ordered that Harrison be released under some to-be-determined outpatient treatment plan.
And then the protests started.
Community opposition to Harrison’s release from the state hospital was, for two decades, rather quiet.
Most often, the community’s fears were expressed in letters to judges overseeing Harrison’s case, such as this one from a Beaumont resident in 1997:
“Don’t we have enough problems out here without one more of this type of animal being released into society?…I personally will know you are responsible if he commits another horrible crime, God forbid he does this again.”
Once Gist ordered Harrison’s release, that opposition got much louder. One self-described community activist, Ricky Jason, has made it his mission to drum up community opposition, sending letters to Gist and going before Beaumont City Council (it’s unclear what city government could do about the matter) to protest the decision.
“If this man gets out, the whole region’s in trouble,” Jason told the Press. Jason has compared Harrison to Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. He’s circulated an online petition demanding Gist rescind his order to put Harrison in outpatient treatment — so far the petition has garnered nearly 300 signatures.
Four days after Gist’s decision, Jerry Jordan, who runs a website called Southeast Texas Investigates, wrote,“[W]hat happens when Harrison stops taking Risperdone?” the antipsychotic Harrison has been taking for the past few years. “Will he snap back into a psychotic state and walk the streets of Beaumont looking for his next victim? Are a few drops of Risperdone each day the only thing differentiating Beaumont from a scene in The Walking Dead? The answer, based on court documents, is yes.”
Accompanying Jordan’s story were grisly crime-scene photographs showing Louise Harrison’s mutilated corpse, photographs that are contained in Harrison’s massive case file at the Jefferson County District Clerk’s Office. Diane Randle-Guidry had never seen the photographs of her grandmother before. Then, last month, someone printed them out and sent them to her office in an unmarked package.
“I understand the concerns of people here in the community for one main reason,” Diane said. “I think it’s lack of knowledge when it comes to mental illness.”
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While Gist has ordered that Harrison be released into some sort of outpatient treatment setting, it’s still unclear how or when that might happen. Gist’s court coordinator, Susan Beck, told the Press that the office is working with local mental health officials to find the best place to send Harrison. “We don’t have a time limit on when this might happen, but we are actively working on it day by day, week by week,” Beck said. Wherever Harrison goes, Beck assured, “they will have to be able to ensure the public safety and Mr. Harrison’s safety…We’re not just gonna stick him somewhere and let him go.”
Diane eagerly awaits her uncle’s discharge from the state hospital. Her mother, Shirley, however, has reservations. She still talks to Harrison over the phone. While they’ve reconnected, she’s not sure if she can ever forgive him — not just for the death of her mother, but also for leaving the body for Shirley to discover.
“I’m not mad at him. I don’t fuss at him. I just listen to what he has to say,” Shirley says.
But sometimes his delusions are too much to handle. And then Shirley thinks back to that morning she found her mother.