In the days leading up to his suicide, Colton Peterson assumed a free fall of self-destruction. Caught in the jetstream of drugs, violence and legal trouble, the 21-year-old Missoula native fought to right himself, but only spiraled into a sharper nosedive.
The more he struggled, the faster his world spun off its axis and with no one willing or able to intervene, his life ended in tragedy.
It’s a story that’s all too common in Missoula and across Montana, that of young people taking their lives. Montana ranks second in the nation for its suicide rates, and has been among the top five for 30 years. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Montana youth ages 10-24, and experts agree that substance abuse, as well as underlying mental illness, contribute to the high rate of youth suicide.
While Peterson fits that picture, the involvement of law enforcement lends a deeper shading to his case.
Peterson’s family concedes a succession of poor decisions on his part, but they say Missoula police, who knew of his suicidal tendencies, also bear responsibility. There’s no better argument for mandatory crisis intervention training for law enforcement, they say, than the way their son’s case played out.
In quick succession in the week before his death, Peterson was assaulted by two men after reportedly brandishing a gun to collect a drug debt, was busted for growing pot, recruited as a confidential informant, and pressured to provide a list of other growers’ names by 5 p.m. on July 27.
He didn’t make the deadline.
At about 3:30 p.m., he shot himself.
A relatively small number of Missoula police officers have completed advanced crisis intervention training since its inception in Montana in 2004, according to Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir.
“All officers receive mental health training at the law enforcement academy and establish the ability to recognize mental health symptoms,” Muir said. Beyond that, such training “is not something that you just put everyone through and then expect them to put it into practice. It’s advanced training that not everyone is well suited for.”
Missoula’s participation in a more basic course wins high praise from Jerry Williams, the risk management trainer at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.
The 16-hour course called Mental Illness Intervention training covers police interactions with mentally ill people and teaches them how to de-escalate crisis situations.
“We’ve done more Mental Illness Intervention training in Missoula than in almost any other city in Montana,” Williams said.
Williams also facilitates weeklong Crisis Intervention Team training sessions around the state. The training has been praised as a best practice model by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, a mental health advocacy program.
At the end of this month, Williams is bringing the CIT training to Missoula for two sessions, which will be taught by mental health and other experts in the community; Muir says he has officers enrolled in both classes.
But Peterson’s mother, Juliena Darling, and father, Frank Peterson, say that’s not enough, particularly given the way police handled their son’s case.
They object to law enforcement’s conscription of Peterson as an informant in an ongoing drug investigation, despite their repeated attempts to explain that his mental health was at a tipping point.
“I’m really upset with those guys that they didn’t heed our warning and instead just used him,” said Frank Peterson. “They’re going after them like they’re drug cartels from Bolivia and these are nickel-and-dime pot sellers.”
“The bottom line,” said Darling, “is that the police are not trained to know if someone is suicidal. They should have called me in to talk with Colton when they had him. They should have called a mental health professional. But they didn’t because they wanted information, and I don’t think he had any.”
Police say Peterson got on the wrong side of the law in July working as a medical marijuana caregiver. He was licensed by the state to grow six marijuana plants for a single patient, and six plants for himself, but a tip to law enforcement from an informant allegedly revealed a larger grow operation at his apartment.
That tip led to a raid on July 26 and an eventual agreement between Peterson and detectives on Missoula’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force – he would work as a “cooperative defendant,” gathering string on potentially more serious drug dealers in the area, and in exchange police would tell prosecutors he had cooperated with the investigation.
There was no promise of immunity to Peterson, according to Chief Muir, though he was neither jailed nor charged with a crime.
But jail is exactly where his parents thought he should be.
After hearing Peterson threaten suicide and seeing his behavior turn increasingly erratic, his parents, who are divorced, thought jail was probably the safest place for their son. They had been trying to get him help for days, and viewed the pot bust as an opportunity for an involuntary commitment to the hospital and a mental health evaluation.
Records indicate that Darling relayed her concerns to police on at least two occasions in late July – first on July 24 when Peterson called police to report that his parents had stolen his gun (Darling and her husband, Bill, confiscated his 9 mm gun because they were worried for his safety) and again after the July 26 pot bust, when she told a detective outside Peterson’s apartment that he needed to be forced to get psychiatric help.
“I wanted them to arrest Colton because we were terrified he was going to kill himself. We thought that if he was arrested he could finally get a mental health evaluation and get some help,” Darling said last Tuesday, on what would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. “In my opinion, they didn’t get him help because they wanted to use him as an informant.”
“He was obviously stoned out of his mind, playing Hollywood with the gun and the pot,” said Frank Peterson. “We should have gotten him help sooner and we failed. But in the end, we had nowhere else to turn but the police, and they let us down.”
Police maintain they did everything in their power to assist Peterson, even offering him a ride to St. Patrick Hospital during a July 26 interview after the drug bust. In Missoula, St. Pat’s is the principal point of entry, besides jail, for someone in crisis who requires immediate mental health services.
Met with resistance from Peterson, however, the officers opted to continue with the drug investigation. They released Peterson to his mother after the interview, with an agreement that he would re-contact the investigators with information the next day at 5 p.m.
“They followed up on the mother’s concerns that he was suicidal,” Chief Muir said. “They spoke directly to the issue with him, and said there was help available. Colton Peterson denied that help, denied that he was even thinking about killing himself or that he had made specific threats to his family about killing himself. He said he just wanted to go home with his family.”
The next afternoon, on July 27, police received information that Peterson was retrieving “items” he had stashed after being tipped off to the previous day’s bust. A receipt of the property seized from Peterson’s apartment indicates that police recovered “two live budding plants (marijuana)” and “15 cut marijuana plant stems,” but officers suspect he harvested dozens more before their arrival.
“The concern was that he had potentially gone and recovered marijuana or something to do with his marijuana operation and that he was getting right back into dealing,” Muir said. “There was an understanding that he was not to be engaged in those activities.”
HIDTA Detective Dave Krueger, the police department’s lead investigator on the case, immediately got word of the report and called Peterson on his cell phone, asking him to meet at Willard Alternative High School, which is near the Missoula HIDTA office.
The meeting took place at about 1:25 p.m.
Statewide suicide prevention coordinator Karl Rosston says the extended Crisis Intervention Team training is exactly the kind of program that could benefit all first responders in Montana, including law enforcement, emergency room personnel and EMTs.
“Suicide in Montana is part of our culture,” said Rosston, of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which funds more than a dozen suicide prevention programs statewide. “We have 180 to 200 suicides every year. We need to talk about suicide the same way we talk about heart disease or the dangers of smoking, and we need to coordinate our resources.”
The 2007 Montana Legislature spent roughly $400,000 on a bill to fund suicide prevention, and principal among those measures was hiring Rosston, who said he hopes to one day make the CIT training program part of the curriculum at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.
“CIT covers all mental health issues and disorders and delves heavily into suicide,” Rosston said. “It trains officers to recognize warning signs, how to intervene, and what resources there are around the state.”
Williams said offering CIT through the academy as part of its regular curriculum would be a challenge, given that the course is 40 hours and draws on the expertise of a wide range of professionals who vary from community to community.
It’s also not a magic solution, and no one pretends that better training and resources would have guaranteed another outcome for Peterson.
The two accounts of what happened during the July 27 Willard meeting differ, and because the encounter was not recorded, it’s unclear exactly what occurred.
Peterson’s one-time girlfriend, Shanen Johns, accompanied him to the meeting and waited inside Peterson’s pickup truck with the engine running while he spoke with Krueger. She says the detective’s “aggressive body language” indicated a heated conversation, and when Peterson got back in the car he was shaken, saying Krueger still wanted him to provide names of other drug dealers by 5 p.m.
“They were pressuring him that he needed to give more names. They were pressuring him with [jail] time,” said Johns, who was the last person to see Peterson alive. “Colton was panicking because he was trying, but he didn’t know any big drug dealers. He was really stressed out by the detective.”
Muir and his investigators say Johns’ account is inaccurate, and that she has no way of knowing what was said, or even the tone of the conversation.
“We don’t know how she therefore gets her information,” Muir said. “From our perspective, there were no specific threats or ultimatums, other than for him to stay in contact with the investigator.”
Whatever the exchange between Krueger and Peterson, it was less than two hours later that a man found Peterson’s body slumped against a pine tree in a grove near the O’Brien Creek trailhead, the butt of a hunting rifle cradled at his feet, a baseball cap lying on the ground beside him.
He was pronounced dead on July 27 at 4 p.m., one hour before he was scheduled to re-contact the detective.
“It was somewhere in that time frame that Colton, in my opinion, really came unhinged,” Darling said. “To me, the fact that he killed himself an hour before he was supposed to meet with the detective is telling.”
Muir said it’s easy to view the handling of Peterson’s case with the benefit of hindsight, but having listened to an audio interview between Krueger and Peterson after the pot bust, he is certain the investigator did everything in his ability to get Peterson help at the time.
“I can say with a fair degree of confidence that had they forced him to go to St. Pat’s, based upon what I heard in the audio of his interview and the way that he answered questions with respect to his ideations of suicide, I suspect that Colton would have been back out of the hospital before the investigator had even finished his paperwork,” Muir said. “And that happens all of the time.”
Muir said Peterson’s suicide and the family’s concerns have prompted city officials, including Missoula Mayor John Engen, to begin assembling a panel of experts from the community to address the criticisms.
Darling would like to see juveniles and young adults whose mental health is questionable be treated differently by law enforcement, especially when called upon to assist in drug investigations.
“That is one of the things the family is seeking as an outcome of Colton’s unfortunate death,” Muir said. “The mayor and I have begun efforts to bring together a group of individuals who have worked with each of the various facets of the issues revolving around mental health. We are going to all put our heads together and figure out if there is something we can suggest to legislators to make use of this hindsight.”
“Certainly, Colton is not the first young person to commit suicide in Missoula,” he continued. “I don’t think for a minute that this is something law enforcement can solve on its own. It is a much bigger problem than just having a run-in with the law and killing yourself.”
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com.