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.
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.”
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.”