Cambria murder suspect sought help for mental illness
September 4, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Brandon Henslee, 22, tried to get help for his mental illness more than a year ago. Today, he sits in jail accused of killing his younger brother late last month. Henslee became the sixth mentally ill person to be suspected or accused of killing in the past 20 months in San Luis Obispo County.
Sheri Grayson, coping with the death of her son, Tyler Hanks, and the arrest of his older brother, Brandon Henslee, says that a lack of mental health services in San Luis Obispo County contributed to her family’s tragedy.
“When he was young his doctor said Brandon had special needs and that he would probably never graduate, go to a regular school or get married,” Grayson said. “After he turned 18, it was very difficult to get him the help he needed.”
Cases of homicides believed to have been committed by mentally ill suspects have skyrocketed in San Luis Obispo County over the past few years. And, several families of those accused of the killings point to a decreasing number of addiction and mental health services available locally.
Before he became sick, Brandon had good grades in school and excelled in basketball and baseball, Grayson said.
In fourth grade, Henslee began exhibiting signs of mental illness. In the classroom, he refused to remain in his seat and would often interrupt his teacher. When he was 9, Henslee stabbed himself at school and was diagnosed as having a bipolar disorder.
Henslee also began hearing voices, was diagnosed as having schizophrenic tendencies and was placed in transitional care for the mentally ill where he remained for the bulk of his childhood. Aside from one year Henslee spent in a mainstream classroom, he was educated in special needs facilities.
Shortly before his senior year, he moved back into his mother’s home. At the time, mental health workers would come to the home to assist the family in caring for Henslee.
Grayson, who also was diagnosed as having a mental illness, struggled with substance abuse issues and legal troubles while she raised her sons.
As Henslee attempted to socialize with others, he began to drink and abuse drugs. He was arrested several times for using drugs and or committing thefts and has been on parole for the past few years.
About a year ago, Henslee was having difficulty keeping his mental illness under control, his mother said. He reached out to a parole psychologist who suggested Henslee check himself into San Luis Obispo’s County Mental Health’s short term facility with plans to move him to a hospital in another county with better mental health services.
“He said, ‘I have to go to the hospital, I am sick, but I will get better,’ ” Grayson said.
Shortly after Henslee checked himself in, he asked a female mental health employee who was sporting a large bruise on her face, “What does it feel like to get punched in the face,” Grayson said.
The worker responded by calling the police to report she had been threatened.
Because the alleged threat was a violation of his parole, Henslee was sent to Wasco State Prison and then transferred to Atascadero State Hospital where he spent about six months. The court eventually dismissed all charges related to the alleged threat.
Nevertheless, Henslee’s family and friends believe he came out of ASH about six months ago in an even worse mental state. During his time at home, Henslee would talk to himself and run empty appliances such as the washer and dryer for hours, his mother said.
Grayson said she asked a parole psychologist why her son insisted on constantly running noisy appliances and was told it was likely an attempt to drown out the noise in Henslee’s head. Grayson asked family members and friends to remind Henslee to take his medications.
“I can tell when he wasn’t taking his meds every day because he couldn’t focus on conversations,” Grayson said. “He hadn’t been taking his meds when Ty disappeared.”
On Aug. 26, San Luis Obispo County deputies arrested Henslee, for several parole violation while they investigate suspicions that he murdered his brother, Tyler Hanks, according to the sheriff’s department’s charge report which lists Henslee as a suspect in Hanks’ death.
On Aug. 22, Grayson had gone to bed early after taking pain killers prescribed to her for a back injury. She left her two sons in the den and her husband Mike Coffin and a family friend Steve “Chewy” Smith in the garage.
At about 3 a.m. the next morning, Chewy said he heard several people talking including a female voice, while they walked along a pathway that runs between the house and the garage.
About an hour later, Grayson heard a bumping along the side of the house and asked what was going on. Brandon was pulling one of the trash cans from the front yard to the back yard near a door to the den where the brothers had been watching television.
“Brandon said it was nothing and that I should go back to sleep,” Grayson said.
In the morning, Brandon, sporting wet hair from an early morning shower, was in the den mopping the floor, Chewy said. A cushion from the loveseat, in the spot where Tyler usually sat, was missing. Police later discovered blood spatters on the loveseat and removed it as evidence.
“He came in my room and told me he and Ty had had an argument and Ty might not be coming back for a while,” Grayson said. “He said he threw the cushion away because the dog had peed on it.”
On the morning of Aug. 25, Brandon rolled the trash can from the back to the front yard and then down the street. After his mother told him to bring it back, Brandon returned with the trash can and sprayed it out spilling blood onto the ground.
“I asked him if he killed his brother, and he said ‘no,’ ” Grayson said.
The family contacted a friend of Hank’s who, until his disappearance, visited their home almost every morning, and asked if he had any knowledge of where Hanks was. The friend reported Hanks’ disappearance to the sheriff’s office early on Aug. 26.
Deputies found Hanks’ body about eight hours after he was reported missing. The body was four blocks from his Leightin Street home at the northern edge of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
Deputies then arrested Henslee for two parole violations. The sheriff’s department’s charge report says Henslee failed to participate, was under the influence of a controlled substance “and that Henslee was being investigated for being involved in a murder.” When asked for a urine sample, Henslee attempted to substitute toilet water for his urine which later tested positive, according to the arresting officer’s report.
Detectives have not yet told the family how Hanks was killed and they have not released his body. Several days after arresting Henslee, deputies came back to the house and seized a wooden mallet and a shovel, items that could have been used in the killing.
In three letters sent from San Luis Obispo County Jail to his mother, Henslee claims he did not kill his brother and that he is being set up.
In a series of killings blamed on a half-dozen different mentally ill suspects, seven people have lost their lives.
On Christmas night 2010, Andrew Downs, a diagnosed schizophrenic, allegedly shot and killed two sisters he did not know in Santa Margarita. During a 10-hour period, he is also accused of stealing three vehicles, entering a second home in Santa Margarita and beating a man with a crescent wrench.
During his arrest, Downs told officers he needed to go to a mental hospital to get his medicine, which he had run out of three days earlier.
In March 2011, a psychotic man, John Woody, stabbed a stranger 22 times in a Paso Robles laundromat killing him.
Six months later, a San Luis Obispo man with a history of mental health problems allegedly shot and killed his mother at his apartment on the corner of Beach and Buchon streets. Christopher Shumey’s mother, Karen Shumey, was a 65-year-old teacher with the Lompoc Unified School District.
In April 2012, Paso Robles police arrested Sunni Jackson, a diagnosed schizophrenic who had not been taking her medicine, in connection with the killing her 61-year-old mother Earlene Grove during an argument.
In May 2012, two weeks after Michael Van Heuver allegedly assaulted his mother at her home in Los Osos, she died from her injuries
Shortly before her son allegedly strangled her, Lisa Van Heuver sent an email to San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors detailing problems her son had with drug use and mental health issues. She asked the supervisors to support local programs that assist those addicted to drugs and mentally ill.
Several of the victim’s and murder suspect’s families say the county’s failure to provide adequate mental health services has led to the increase in county homicides. While the Board of Supervisors has reduced funding to non-profits such as North County Connections and Community Health Centers, which provide assistance to the mentally ill, it has substantially increased funding to CAPSLO, a nonprofit several of its members are affiliated with.