The mothers of a murder victim and his murderer both tried to have their sons committed to mental institutions before the young men's paths crossed and led to tragedy.
Bella Feldman spoke to the Mail Tribune on Wednesday, offering a more complete portrait of her son Avi Feldman, 20, who was stabbed to death by Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez, then 22, on Nov. 6, 2016, during a party in Ashland.
"To me, this is a double tragedy for both of these kids," Bella said. "Both had parents who tried to do everything for them and couldn't get help. It's senseless."
Sabalsa-Mendez was found guilty of murder except for insanity in August. He is now at the Oregon State Hospital in the custody of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board.
The case prompted the Mail Tribune, in partnership with KTVL, to run a four-day series investigating Oregon's high commitment standards and a statewide shortage of beds for long-term psychiatric treatment.
Avi and Sabalsa-Mendez's lives had many eerie similarities.
They both had religious delusions involving demonic possession. They both believed they could communicate telepathically. They both threatened to kill other people, according to Bella and police reports from the murder investigation.
"They had very parallel stories," Bella said.
Sabalsa-Mendez has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a chronic disease marked by hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking. The disease can be managed in many patients with medication, counseling and other mental health treatment.
Bella said Avi had schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that subjected him to hallucinations, delusions, mania and depression. He also had a rare sleep disorder called Kleine-Levin syndrome, which is characterized by episodes of excessive sleep, altered behavior and a reduced understanding of the world.
His medication for his mental illness once triggered an episode of his sleep disorder, making him reluctant to take it again, Bella said.
Sabalsa-Mendez began exhibiting signs of mental illness in March 2016. His behavior included burning sage to try and get rid of evil spirits and saying he needed to kill someone, although it's not clear whether he meant himself or another person. He also made threats against his mother's wife, according to police reports and Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Cromwell, who prosecuted the murder case.
His mother consulted with Jackson County Mental Health to try and have her son committed to a mental health facility, but was told he didn't meet Oregon's high commitment standards, Cromwell said.
Sabalsa-Mendez later cut his own face and body in an effort to be rid of demons, according to police reports.
On the night of the murder, Sabalsa-Mendez was suffering from several delusions. He believed he was on a CIA mission to kill Avi and could communicate telepathically. He also thought Avi was taking part in a scheme to crucify his soul, investigators discovered.
Bella said Avi's mental health problems emerged when he was 12 years old. He ended up getting kicked out of middle school.
She said teachers, parents and kids need more education about the signs of emerging mental illness.
"The onset is usually in the teenage years," Bella says. "Most parents think, 'My kid's being a difficult teenager.' They don't know the signs. The kids get no treatment, no counseling. Then they go off to college and have a major psychotic break. It gets missed."
Jackson County has started an Early Assessment and Support Alliance program to provide support and treatment for young people age 15-25 with emerging mental illness. Early warning signs can include a reduced ability to filter out information, sensory sensitivity, fearfulness and new problems reading, speaking and understanding complex sentences.
When Avi was 16, he began suffering from delusions and thought he needed to kill someone, Bella said.
"He told me, 'So-and-so's mother is possessed and she's dangerous and I need to kill her,'" Bella said.
She called police and Avi was taken to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, then transferred among hospitals in Portland.
RRMC has an 18-bed psychiatric unit for adults, but children who need inpatient psychiatric care must be sent out of the area.
In Portland, Avi wound up in a residential treatment center for minors with severe problems, Bella said.
"There were criminals there. It was a disgusting place. The facility was like a prison. Most of the kids there had severe legal issues. It was the only place he could go — but it wasn't a good place," Bella said with tears in her eyes.
Despite the experience, Avi still didn't believe he was sick.
"The first time he went into treatment, he said, 'I didn't need that. I was just there to help other people,'" Bella said.
Avi was once kept in the intensive care unit at RRMC while his family waited for a pediatric psychiatric bed to open up in Portland, she said.
"We need local pediatric services. Our kids spend time in inappropriate places," Bella said. "Avi spent time in the ICU, not because he needed to be in intensive care, but because they had a room. They get put wherever there's room while they're waiting for a bed in Portland. Avi sweet-talked a nurse into letting him take a walk out of ICU. He escaped from the hospital. I was in the parking lot and I watched my son run out the front door."
Bella said her son wanted to escape and avoid treatment so he could enjoy the euphoria he felt during manic phases of his bipolar disorder.
When Avi turned 18 and legally became an adult, Bella said she lost any control she had over his mental health treatment.
"One of my goals is to change the laws. Kids have a right at age 18 to be in charge of their own medical care," she said. "Leaving it up to someone who is mentally ill to be in charge of their own mental health care is crazy."
Bella had to kick Avi out of her home at age 18 because of his behavior.
Like many people with mental illness, Avi was capable of putting up a temporary facade in front of police and mental health workers, Bella said.
His delusions often took on a religious aspect, another common occurrence among people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although his behavior would often drive away friends and family, he was still known for reaching out to help strangers and friends alike.
"He was very beloved. He thought he was God. He was very spiritual. He had a lot of wisdom to share. He was always there to help them," Bella said.
His problems continued into adulthood. Avi would take hallucinogenic drugs, which worsened his mental illness, Bella said. He was evicted from an Ashland trailer park in September 2016. He was disruptive and would bring homeless people to stay in his trailer. After the eviction, Avi hitched up his trailer to a friend's vehicle but ended up leaving the trailer somewhere near Grants Pass. He couldn't find it and the trailer was later stolen, leaving him homeless, Bella said.
Meanwhile, Bella was trying to get him to come to Jackson County Mental Health appointments, but he often resisted. He also was beaten up in fights with homeless people.
In October 2016, Bella consulted with Jackson County Mental Health about initiating the process to have Avi committed to a mental health facility. She said she was told he didn't represent enough of a danger to himself or others, and therefore the situation wasn't dire enough for him to be committed under Oregon law.
In 2016, only 7.9 percent of civil commitment investigations statewide resulted in commitment, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
"It's just a failed, flawed system," Bella said. "What's it going to take?"
On Nov. 1, 2016, Avi moved into an apartment for low-income people, although Bella said she doubted he would be allowed to live there long because of his ongoing behavior.
On the day of the party in Ashland, Avi ran into Sabalsa-Mendez, who had been kicked out of the house by his own mother and was living in his car near Lithia Park in Ashland. The two knew each other through their shared love of break dancing. Avi invited the homeless and hungry Sabalsa-Mendez to the party.
At almost 2 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016, Sabalsa-Mendez stabbed Avi to death while Avi was walking a teen girl to her car, according to police reports.
Avi had been scheduled to have a long-awaited psychiatric evaluation on Nov. 11, 2016, Bella said.
"The day he was buried was the day of his psychiatric evaluation. The time frame from seeing a mental health crisis worker to getting actual help is too long," she said. "He had said he was willing to go back on his medications because he missed his family. Had we been able to get him adequate services, he wouldn't have picked up a psychotic kid at the park."
After her son was murdered, Bella started a foundation to advocate for more mental health services and changes to Oregon's laws. The foundation isn't yet registered as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. People who would like to become involved with the foundation can reach her at email@example.com.
Bella said Oregon needs to follow the example of other states that provide more comprehensive mental health services and easier commitment standards.
Despite his struggles with mental illness, Avi was known for his compassion, Bella said.
"It's my mission in his honor to try and make some changes," she said. "Avi was about helping people. If there's any good to come from this tragedy, I would want it to be to help others so we can stop these occurrences from happening."
— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.