January 27th, 2014
09:25 PM ET
9 years ago

Creigh Deeds: 'No reason to believe there would be any violence'

(CNN) - Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds remembers his son as "a sensitive, beautiful child" who was "full of love," but a severe mental illness led Austin "Gus" Deeds to do what his father now describes as the unthinkable. Gus, 24, stabbed his father multiple times before taking his own life.

"Whatever illness that took him was so contrary to his nature," an anguished Deeds recounted in a candid, emotional interview with Anderson Cooper for CNN's "AC360" just two months after his son's death.

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As Deeds got ready that fateful mid-November morning last year, he went out to the barn to feed the animals. He saw his son coming across the yard and recalls waving his hand and asking simply, "Hey bud, how'd you sleep?"

A second later, "I turned my back, and I took it twice in the back," Deeds recalled the stabbing.

Deeds had been consumed with worry for his son but says he never had cause to believe his child would resort to violence.

Even as the brutal attack was underway, Deeds said he wasn't aware of what was happening. He just could not believe his son was capable of nearly killing him.

"I said, 'Gus, I love you so much.' I said, 'Don't make it any worse than it already is, son,'" Deeds told CNN. "The first blow to my back was pretty close to a spot where he could have drawn a lot of blood...The second punctured a lung. There was a good bit of blood."

"He could have killed me. No question about it," Deeds said matter-of-factly. "He had that gun."

At that point, Deeds prefers to think his son had a change of heart.

"I like to think that Gus, at some point in that attack, the old Gus came back," Deeds said wistfully.

A father grows more and more worried

Not 24 hours before the brutal assault, which left a scar stretching across Deeds’ face, the state senator observed extremely troubling behavior in his son, a pattern that was on-again, off-again for months.

“Gus' whole attitude, his delusions had taken over," Deeds recalled. "Delusions of grandeur that he was a demi-god." Gus' delusions often took on religious overtones.

Even more worrisome, Deeds found references to guns in his son's journal.

Deeds immediately sought and obtained an emergency custody order. As his son played the banjo in the family's den, sheriff’s deputies showed up to enforce the order. Gus was not happy.

"He was surprised. He was frustrated," Deeds said, but he had "no reason to believe there would be any violence."

However, as the day wore on, Deeds said his son grew more upset.

Mental health professionals at the Community Services Board evaluated Gus Deed and determined that the boy was not suicidal, and Gus was released. Deeds says he was told there were no psychiatric beds in the area and that an individual could only be forcibly held for up to six hours under state law.

"I just had this sinking feeling Gus was going home with me, that they weren’t going to find a bed for him," Deeds recalled, ominously.

Space was then found for Gus at a halfway house in Charlottesville, Virginia, but the troubled young man was still sent home for the night where it was thought he would get some rest and be more stable in the morning, Deeds recalled professionals telling him.

Creigh Deeds was alone with his son and worried, but he says he was focused more on getting his son help, despite pleadings from his family and from Gus' mom who texted her ex-husband, "Get out of that house. Go to Lexington tonight."

Deeds’ response: "I've got to stay with my son."

Just two days before the attack, after reading his son's journal and his mention of guns, Deeds said he disassembled his shotgun and got most of it out of the house, careful not to raise his son's heightened suspicions.

He left behind a .22 caliber rifle, but no ammunition. Deeds still doesn't know where his son got the one bullet that would end his life.

"Gus was just so bright. Maybe he had one squirreled away somewhere. I don’t know," Deeds said.

Deeds sat at one end of his dining room eating a sandwich; Gus "writing furiously in his journal" at the other end, no interest in dinner.

"I don’t think he got much sleep that night," Deeds said.

Determined to help others

"The system failed my son," Deeds concluded. "He was very ill. He was obviously delusional. I mean, the system let him down. It's inexcusable," Deeds accused.

The Virginia state senator blames what he calls "nineteenth century" state laws and is determined to change those laws to help the mentally unstable, partly blaming the bad economy several years ago when, Deeds says, the additional money that was appropriated for mental health services in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech was "taken away."

Creigh Deeds: 'The system failed my son'

Over the years, Deeds said he tried to get his son to sign powers of attorney so he could get a sense of the medical situation Gus was facing.

"He never would. He was afraid of giving up control," Deeds said with a slight laugh and a pause, seemingly aware of the irony.

Deeds says he knows that part of the law won't change, but he is determined to get legislation passed that mandates an up-to-date database of psychiatric beds available in the state, this in the wake of reports showing there were, in fact, a handful of beds available to Gus Deeds that fateful night.

To find a bed now, Deeds says, basically involves a mental health professional “just calling around.”

Deeds has also introduced a bill that would mandate a 24-hour period during which a mental evaluation must occur. Right now in Virginia, it's four hours with a two-hour extension, something Deeds is convinced hurt his son.

Tears streaming from his eyes, Deeds said emphatically, "I'm determined that something good must come from this. We cannot allow other individuals to suffer the way my son did."

"He was everything you'd want in a son"

A talented musician, Gus Deeds first learned the trombone, but, said his father, when Santa Claus figured out that would not be perceived as cool with the ladies, Gus got a harmonica and taught himself to play. Then came the piano, the fiddle, the banjo, and guitar. There was hardly an instrument the young Deeds did not try. He was so good on harmonica, he once opened a show for legendary Bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley. He wrote "ditties" for each of his family members and composed major musical pieces in his spare time.

He was on his way to becoming a concert trombonist at The College of William and Mary.

"He was a deep thinker," his father said, and he had a love of the outdoors. "He was almost the fish whisperer," Deeds recounted with a glimmer in his eyes. "Gus could always catch a fish when others couldn't."

But still, Deeds recalled, his son never wanted to kill any living creature.

"He didn't have the killing instinct...but he could shoot dead eye, dead on, either left or right (handed)," Deeds laughingly recalled.

Raised in the Baptist faith, Gus Deeds took an intense interest in religion and was something of a linguistics expert, as well.

Recalling the rush of events that led up to the November 19 attack, Deeds can point to no single, signature moment when he knew his talented, loving son was in deep trouble, but the landscape of his son’s life appears dotted with red flags.

Gus Deeds was a sensitive child, at times overly sensitive, his dad said, keeping track of rights and wrongs, but he blossomed as a teenager.

One seminal moment appears to be pegged to his father's disastrous 2009 gubernatorial campaign in which he lost to Republican Bob McDonnell. Gus had taken a year off school to work alongside his father, and when his father lost, Creigh Deeds says he son "just went astray."

He sat out another year of college and took a sudden road trip, not telling his family. When he returned, he had an almost "fanatical" interest in religion.

"He was noticeably different. He started making knives out of scrap metal," Deeds recalled. His family began to worry.

In 2011, Gus Deeds lost his job and went to live with his father. For the first time, he admitted to his father that he had suicidal thoughts.

"The reading I've done, I’m convinced he was schizophrenic," though Deeds has, to this day, not seen any official diagnosis.

Gus Deeds eventually returned to college in 2012 and appeared to be doing well, but in the spring of 2013 that all changed.

"When he came home, I thought he wasn’t taking his medication," Deeds said, "But he wouldn’t tell me. He became a little more distant. A little less open."

In the summer of 2013, returning to a job at nature camp, he started to withdraw even more.

"His ability to relate to people was basically restricted to the camp," Deeds remembered. "He shut people off. He wouldn't communicate with them."

His medication he had been taking for most of his adult life appeared to stop working.

"He was suffering for a long, long time. At least he's at peace now, but it's a price to pay," Deeds voice cracked with emotion, eyes filled with anguish.

And though it is just a short time since his son's tragic death, Deeds says he must speak out now.

"Life goes on. Now there's a little bit of focus on mental illness. If we can make a change that will save lives, we have to do it. I've got no choice," a visibly exhausted Deeds concluded, voice brimming with emotion. "I've got to keep going."

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Thomas

    Mental illness .

    Americas under Ronald Reagan destroyed the mental healthcare system .

    January 27, 2014 09:32 pm at 9:32 pm |
  2. itEatsYouUpInside

    i truly applaud what State Senator Deeds is doing. it would be wonderful if this could be taken to a national level. mentally ill people and their loved ones need the help. it is a frightening world. if you don't know...you cannot understand.

    January 28, 2014 02:14 am at 2:14 am |
  3. bptsj

    My heart goes out to the family. As he say's maybe something good will come from it. In CA we have a 72hr hold on mental cases, but there are still not enough beds. The mentally ill are not properly diagnosed or cared for.

    January 28, 2014 02:24 am at 2:24 am |
  4. Jeff6187

    I'm sorry that it took this for one of our elected officials to take a strong personal interest in the problems of the mentally ill in this country. Nobody wants to look hard at the problem because it's scary and depressing and overwhelming. But ignoring it makes it vastly worse. Most of us know a mentally ill friend or family member, which means that most of us are familiar with inadequate resources and inadequate help ... the broken system. This is a great story, and hopefully will generate some positive steps toward dealing with this problem.

    January 28, 2014 02:44 am at 2:44 am |
  5. Mainscribe

    My heart goes out to Mr. Deeds. If your body can catch a cold, your stomach can ache so much. Your lungs take on Pneumonia, why is so unreasonable that your brain can get sick, hurt or even be only 50% in full working order? Mental illness is not just lock them up and sedate them until they act the way you want them to...


    January 28, 2014 02:59 am at 2:59 am |
  6. c

    Noone ever thinks to blame the medication.

    January 28, 2014 03:11 am at 3:11 am |
  7. YoonYoungJo

    Apparently this really isn't a disease. Doesn't Kim Jun Un have this? He is a living god after all, who shot 18 hole in ones in a row.

    January 28, 2014 03:22 am at 3:22 am |
  8. bilbfit

    Demos, and their family values. Geez...

    January 28, 2014 03:26 am at 3:26 am |
  9. JC

    It's sad that it takes situations like this to get politicians to care about mental health. I'm both sad and happy for Mr Deeds about how this turned out. Sad that he had to witness his son take his own life, but happy that he was able to survive the ordeal and make a positive impact from such a horrific experience. Now maybe his fellow senators will take this more serious since it hits closer to home.

    January 28, 2014 03:48 am at 3:48 am |
  10. Benjamin Faith

    Mental sickness can be so terrible, especially if the patient has violent tendencies. I lost a cousin to it, a tall handsome young man. He hanged himself. I have also heard suffocating stories of mental patients who are abusive to their caregivers, like a mother who was on radio telling how her abusive mentally ill Child is causing her trauma and affecting the whole family. Saying she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
    I reckon They need genuine love, the kind they can feel even when their minds are dysfunctional, also to be handled by well trained proffessionals.

    January 28, 2014 04:32 am at 4:32 am |
  11. Rosehorse

    Watched your interview with the Senator whose son attacked him and then took his own life. The comments about the stigma of mental illness hit home with me. I have been struggling with major depression and an anxiety disorder that has taken over my life (I have been on disability for 4 years). It's true that people, including myself, don't want to get these things out in the open. I personally don't discuss my problems with anyone but my therapist and my psychiatris mainly because I don't want to bother my family or friends with my problems. Also, with the stigma out there and the mass shootings that have happened in the recent past (most of them by mentally ill people) I worry that people would be afraid of me doing something similar. I have had thoughts (and attempts) of suicide many times in my life but I would never take anyone else with me. I have in recent times recognized when my illness is so bad that I need to go to the hospital. I hope everyone struggling with mental issues will stop and realize they need help. Some people aren't capable of doing this depending on their particular problem and need to have family and friends get them the help they need.

    The facilities I have been to haven't always been the best, but the alternative is a much worse outcome. My thoughts are with the Senator and anyone else who struggles like I do each day.

    January 28, 2014 06:37 am at 6:37 am |
  12. Shmeckell

    I love this guy's logic. It's the system's fault that I didn't get my son any help until it was too late. Like his son's mental issues popped up overnight.

    January 28, 2014 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  13. Susan

    Shmeckell, You obviously no nothing about mental healthcare in the country, the cost of services, availability of services, insurance coverage or the simple fact the someone in the United States can be mentally ill and YOU CAN'T MAKE THEM GET TREATMENT! Once a child becomes of age, parents are powerless to participate in anyway, shape or form unless the mentallly ill child allows it..and there begins the biggest roadblock to helping.

    January 28, 2014 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  14. everyone is sick

    I have a hard time believing this guy. If his son was sick for all of these years I am sure it steamed from some type of abuse, looks like the finger is pointing to you Mr. Deeds Sr. What did you do to that poor boy, or maybe it's your ex-wife who is so quick to abandon "get out of that house"

    January 28, 2014 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  15. Paul II

    Schizophrenia is not caused by abuse.

    January 28, 2014 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  16. Edward

    Schizophrenia is not caused by abuse.

    January 28, 2014 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  17. Nic

    Shmeckell, You have no idea what you are talking about. Virginia is one of the least mentally ill freindly states in regards to families being able to force help on those that are too mentally ill to admit they need it. They protect the rights of that person (rightfully so) but also block the families and care givers from getting them help. I had a neighbor who psychotic on bath salts threatened to kill me and my family, punched through his girlfriends car window, broke jars over his heards, went up and down the street calling for people to come fight him as he whipped around chains, said he was el diablo and that he would return to his spaceship... He got to the hospital and when the community services board rep came in and talked to him, he said no, he didn't want to hurt himself or anyone else and they let him go within 2 hours of the incident, against the protests of the police that were there, against the protests of his family. We lived in terror for a month until he was forced by his grandparent to move out of the house they were paying for for him. I had a restraining order and blatently told the judge it was so if he did make it into my house the next time he went psychotic, that if he was shot while I protected my family, that there would be no question that I had a right to protect my infant daughter and myself, since the system obviously wasn't goign to protect me, and a piece of paper is just that... a piece of paper. It is sad and terrifying, and I wanted and still want nothing more than that man to get the help he needs, but especially when addiction is involved, they do not see how they are a problem, how they affect others lives as well with their actions.

    January 28, 2014 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  18. Love my little sis!

    My little sister got a severe head injury at 17 fro a DRUNK DRIVER & she's never been the same!
    About every 7-8 years she has these odd "breakdowns" where she gets ANGRY, PARANOID, UPSET & VERY SAD. Even though she lives w our parents she will NOT give them power of attorney (only ME). Well, I live in another state w my own fam (husb & children) & I am very ill with a chronic illness myself thus it is hard on me to take on this responsiblity but I do it BC I LOVE MY SISTER!
    I feel for Deeds. I can tell he lived Gus so much yet he couldn't get him the help he needed! I agree that the "system" failed him.
    A person that is so mentally ill cannot make ANY DECISIONS for themselves! They should automatically be given POA over their son/daughter, mother/father etc. The system is messy.
    One last thing: the person that's mentally ill is in SUCH EMOTIONAL AGONY... I don't think ppl understand the magnitude of their saddness! Their brain/MIND is failing them & on some level, they KNOW this! It's heart-breaking to see it happen & I hope you will have better understanding of their pain!

    January 28, 2014 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  19. Love my little sis!

    This is directed at EVERYONE IS SICK & shMeckell- NEITHER of you seem to have been around a person that is having a psychiatric episode or "meltdown"! You can't blame his father when the kid refused to give him POA! This man not only lost his SON but almost his OWN life! He would probably give ANYTHING to have his son back & medicinally treated!
    As a doctor of Pharmacy I can tell you these meds DO work but many times the sick person stops taking them due to any number of reasons: cost; side effects; judgement fro others; & many more! Sometimes the meds stop working as well & they need to be switched to a diff one!
    I agree that the disease didn't crop up over night but it worsens like an undertow in the ocean & pulls one down before one even knows what's happening!
    Shifting blame to the family doesn't work. Mental illness sometimes is caused by head injuries, such as my sister, or it is genetic.
    Neither way can you place blame w the family!
    Our system is not working correctly to get ppl help. It is broken & millions of ppl need help!
    Be careful what you say bc you too might become one of those "sick" individuals!

    January 28, 2014 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  20. Frank Jones

    There is something missing to this story. At first I thought the father was talking about HIS delusions of grandeur. I would like for him to open up his son's journals to the public where we can see what was really going on. I bet you any money the domineering father played a big role in his sons outcome and not his so called yet to be proven mental illness.

    January 28, 2014 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  21. Sandy

    The crux of the problem is that when you have a child who has issues you lose all rights to knowledge of their medical diagnoses as soon as they turn 18. You know what your child shares with you, and it should be obvious that if your child has a mental illness you aren't going to get much useful info. You don't know if they have medication or if they're taking it, etc. You can't make them do anything they don't want to do, unless there is a danger to themselves or others ... but in many cases you don't know this until after something has happened. Yes, there needs to be more accessible mental health care, but without changes that give more info to parents with dependent adult children, it will be hard for parents to help.

    January 28, 2014 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  22. Jody P

    Sadly this type of story is all too common. I am retired LE and was responsible for evaluating and implementing emergency detentions hundreds of times. We have two major hospitals in my jurisdiction and both have the locked psyche wards required. They are always full or not staffed. This is a two fold problem. There is a shortage of doctors/staff. It is a high burn out position with reason. I get that. However, psyche patients are frequently difficult to deal with and there is little profit in doing so so the administrators force the regular people to turn them away even when they are in crisis. See your doctor in the morning/Monday. It's a joke how much money ends up being spent because people can't get help, even when they seek it, early in the process. There is no one to do adequate follow up because no one wants to pay for it so it ends up costing us a boat load later when they go into a full blown crisis. The system is backwards. I will also say that the mental health advocates need to back off a little as well. I understand people's rights but what good are they if they are dead or locked up in a psyche ward the rest of their life?

    January 28, 2014 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  23. Name david

    Keep going

    January 28, 2014 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  24. Humbrrto

    Being in denial and wanting is not mentally ill. People commit criminal acts all the time for such. Wouldn't take Much to use someone like that
    Who doesn't know the captain of his own ship and has so many people with lame excuses for his criminal act and new found religion their looking for funds for.

    January 28, 2014 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  25. herb

    I know what he is talking about I take care of my son make sure he has food and a roof over his head His ultimate dream is to live with me but he is extremely difficult and scary to live with All the family and doctors warn me that he may try to end it all and take me with him so before I meet him I have to make a judgement call on his state of mind he has spent more time in mental ward than out going in for 4 to 5 days let out for a couple of days then gets picked up and is back in again They say because he is an adult he cannot be deprived of his rights.

    January 29, 2014 01:41 am at 1:41 am |
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