John Shick case tragic in more ways than one
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Nine weeks ago, John F. Shick entered the lobby of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland with murder in his heart and two semiautomatics in his hands.
By the time Shick, 30, was brought down by a University of Pittsburgh police officer's well-aimed bullet, Michael Schaab, a 25-year-old Western Psych employee, was dead and five others wounded by his gunfire.
The shooting at Western Psych occurred on March 8, one week before the Ides of March immortalized in a soothsayer's utterance in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." But just as in that Shakespearean tragedy, a warning foreshadowed the violence that descended on Oakland that cold and overcast day.
Twelve days before Shick's name was added to Pittsburgh's ever-lengthening list of mass shooters, California gastroenterologist Brennan Spiegel began a series of emails to three UPMC doctors and a University of Pittsburgh Medical School administrator voicing his suspicions that the man who would terrorize Western Psych nearly two weeks later was a paranoid schizophrenic.
"I think it is wise to contact risk management and to investigate this swiftly and comprehensively. This is out of the ordinary," Dr. Spiegel wrote in an initial email. "I live over 2,000 miles away, but am nonetheless quite disturbed to read this. It would seem prudent to act on this expeditiously."
The UCLA faculty member's concern was based on a rambling letter Shick sent him complaining of his treatment in Pittsburgh. Shick's letter was laced with enough hostility and paranoia to warrant Dr. Spiegel passing along a strongly worded warning to the medical professionals most likely to cross his path.
To underscore his fears that the graduate biology student was dangerous, Dr. Spiegel asked UPMC to keep his name out of its dealings with the troubled patient. He didn't know what Shick might do to get back at him. Still, the doctor's own sense of responsibility made it impossible for him to say nothing.
"Suffice it to say, this is psychotic language, in the clinical sense of the word," Dr. Spiegel wrote. Even before Dr. Spiegel made his long-distance diagnosis, Shick had gone out of his way to confirm it with erratic and sometimes violent actions in Pittsburgh of the kind that got him involuntarily committed in places as disparate as New York and Oregon.
Shick's menacing actions ranged from the verbal abuse of medical staff and harassing of a female student to brandishing a baseball bat at the Shadyside Family Health Center. He confronted one of his doctors in the apartment building where they both lived.
The fact Shick was incoherent most of the time should have indicated that he was no longer taking antipsychotic medication to keep his demons at bay. Still, Shick avoided involuntary commitment because he hadn't convinced the right people he was an imminent threat to himself or others.
Perhaps it is the nature of tragedy to unfurl with horrifying precision when we look back on the things that led to them. The memos that engineers sent to their supervisors at NASA warning of an imminent and catastrophic O-Ring failure that would destroy the Challenger space shuttle could have been written by Shakespeare in a moment of ironic fury.
The father of would-be terrorist underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab personally contacted CIA officials to warn them that his son had been radicalized in Yemen and was planning something. Even so, his name wasn't added to no-fly lists and his visa was not revoked. The terrorist was able to board a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit because no one connected the dots. This is pure Shakespeare.
Whether it is a call from a concerned father in Nigeria or an August 2001 President's Daily Brief with the headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US," some dire warnings have a way of falling on deaf ears. It is a mystery worthy of Shakespeare why so many people in positions of power only seem capable of a cost-benefit analysis that could save lives after disaster has struck.
After the shooting, Dr. Spiegel wrote: "I sincerely hope my messages were sent to risk management and UPMC police, that the authorities are acutely aware of this valuable information, and that this information will be part of the ongoing police (or even FBI) investigation."
As those with even the vaguest memories of Shakespeare's play will recall, Julius Caesar is dismissive about the soothsayer's warning.
What happens next is etched in blood and folly. "Et tu, Brutus?" Caesar says at the beginning of the third act before the knives come down. The victims of John Shick's rampage could just as easily ask UPMC the same question.
First Published May 8, 2012 12:00 am