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The Daily Tar Heel

Speaking From the Inside

Shooter Explains Mental Illness and Its Haunting Consequences

But beneath the quiet demeanor, where medication can't reach, rages an emotional battle about not only what happened one chilly January day, but more importantly, why it happened.

On Jan. 26, 1995, Williamson, then a third-year law student at UNC, calmly started at the bottom of Henderson Street and headed toward Franklin Street with an M-1 rifle in hand.

A few minutes later, gun shots shattered that peaceful Tuesday afternoon, and once the smoke cleared, Williamson was in custody. Two people lay dead -- 20-year-old UNC lacrosse player Kevin Eric Reichardt and 42-year-old Ralph Woodrow Walker, a manager at a Chapel Hill McDonald's restaurant. A police officer and Williamson were wounded.

Williamson was found not guilty by reason of insanity -- he was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia -- and committed to Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.

While state officials might move him, along with other residents, if the hospital closes, Williamson has little concern.

He is more focused on the battle within.

During two interviews at Dorothea Dix, Williamson talked about coming to terms with that day.

"I think that when (my name) comes up, (people) think of a law student who killed people and then got acquitted on the insanity defense and sued his doctor and won a bunch of money," Williamson said. "I think all these different factors come together to paint a picture that the world could do without.

"But that's not the way I view myself."

In his early twenties, Williamson,who graduated from UNC as an English major in 1990, was a socially active student, playing in bands and going out with friends.

But in the years leading up to the incident, Williamson, who was 26 at the time of the shooting, went through a mental transformation that altered his actions and turned him into more of a recluse.

That transformation happened with the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, a disease Williamson says can play a detrimental role in a person's life if the symptoms are ignored or treatment is refused.

There is a better chance for a violent outburst similar to Williamson's if the symptoms are allowed to fester -- a situation Williamson says he now realizes can be avoided with medication.

In the seven years since the deadly shooting and his commitment to a state psychiatric hospital, Williamson has taken steps to inform people about paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that affects from 0.1 percent to 1 percent of the population and typically emerges in the late teenage or early adult years of life.

Williamson documented his experiences with the disease -- most notably the hallucinations that came in the form of voices -- in his 188-page book "Nightmare: A Schizophrenia Narrative."

"I was just imagining what someone would want to know if they didn't know what I had been through," he said. "First of all, I wanted to get everything down.

"Everything that was true I wanted to get on paper."

Williamson said his goal in writing his book is to reach out to people who don't know what schizophrenia is, how it operates or who it affects.

"I'd like to see an end to this insane gunman stuff," he said.

"I know there are a lot of challenges in getting the treatment to the people who need it. ... But I'd like to see situations that I'm in not happen to other people."

But Williamson said that through the book he isn't looking for sympathy and is aware he most likely can't earn forgiveness from the victims' families.

"I haven't really known how to deal with the families," he said. "In a way, I want to reach out to them, and in a way, I'm afraid to.

"I don't want to cause any more trauma than I already have, and I'm not sure how I can keep from it."

Karl Reichardt, Kevin's father, said that although seven years have passed, his family still is coping with the aftermath of the incident.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be a situation where we can truly forgive (Williamson) because he made a decision," Reichardt said. "Even though he was out of control at the time, he committed the murders; it was his choice to stop the medication.

"That, to me, makes him accountable, and whether or not I can forgive, that is still a big question."

Williamson said he knows he made decisions that destroyed others' lives, and because he is taking medication, he has good brain chemistry and is able to grasp his situation.

"There's always this debate in my mind of how much is mental illness and how much is me," he said.

"And my memory includes a lot of psychosis, so I think I'm a person whose intentions were good, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

As part of his delusions, Williamson said that at the time of the shooting and even a couple of years afterward, he believed his actions -- abandoning his medication and reacting violently -- were rational.

"It didn't lead to the best outcome, but I thought I had been rational to do what I did based on the information I was working with," he said.

"But over time that has changed. I don't see my approach to making those decisions as having been rational, but that is the illness."

Williamson said that before the illness struck him, he was just like any other college student.

But in early 1992, Williamson said he began to hear voices in his head.

"The best way I can think of how to describe it is to think of someone thinking with your brain that's not you," he said.

Williamson said sometimes the voices would sound familiar and other times like strangers.

The hallucinations became problematic in September 1992, he said. Williamson was involuntarily committed to Student Health Service for the first time after an outburst on campus.

Williamson screamed out loud at the voices and hit himself violently.

A police official took Williamson to SHS, where he was committed for 10 days. He was released without medication.

Two years later, a UNC dean took Williamson to SHS after Williamson announced to his law class that he was telepathic.

At SHS, Dr. Myron Liptzin prescribed Navane, a psychotropic drug, to help Williamson with his hallucinations.

Williamson stopped taking his medication in summer 1994.

Months later, Williamson suffered from another episode of hallucinations, which pushed him to act out in a violent manner.

With 600 rounds of ammunition strapped on his back and an M-1 rifle in hand, Williamson parked his car in the parking lot of Northampton Apartments, located off Airport Road.

A few minutes later, Williamson climbed a set of stairs leading to Henderson Street. He had been planning this scenario for months, training on his mother's abandoned farm in east Tennessee and using trees for target practice.

Once on Henderson Street, Williamson navigated his way toward Franklin Street, firing randomly at passers-by, letting some pass unharmed and taking aim at others.

Reichardt and Walker were killed, and Chapel Hill police officer Demetrise Stephenson was severely wounded in the hand.

As part of his delusions, Williamson said he did not expect the officers to return fire.

But after a few minutes of exchanging bullets, Williamson was wounded in the right calf and his left ankle, and he surrendered. His ankle required surgery to repair the damage.

"There was a big crowd that gathered after they shot me, and I was being put into the police car," Williamson recalled. His face reflected the horror of the incident seven years later.

"A girl said 'that guy just ruined my life,'" he added. "I don't know who she was."

Even after the shooting, Williamson was convinced his actions were just -- based on his belief that he was telepathic at the time. But his lawyers convinced him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. On Nov. 7, 1995, an Orange County jury found Williamson not guilty on two counts of murder by reason of insanity, and the judge committed Williamson to Dorothea Dix Hospital.

On Jan. 22, 1996, Williamson requested to be moved to Broughton State Hospital in Morganton. After a short stay at Broughton, Williamson was moved in 1999 to the forensic psychiatry division at Dorothea Dix Hospital.

Hospital officials declined to comment on Williamson's situation, citing a N.C. General Statute that forbids them to make any public statements regarding patients or their care.

In the years after Williamson's conviction, controversy arose over whether Liptzin ever explicitly diagnosed Williamson as a paranoid schizophrenic, and in 1998, Williamson took the doctor to court, claiming Liptzin did not.

After two days of deliberations, the jury found that Liptzin was responsible for the fact that Williamson stopped taking his medication, which allowed him to become violent, and awarded Williamson $500,000. The verdict was overturned shortly afterward.

The case garnered national attention and was the focus piece of a "60 Minutes" episode aired June 13, 1999, while Williamson was in Broughton State Hospital.

But now Williamson's life has become more private in nature.

At a December 2001 hearing appealing Williamson's right for grounds privileges at Dorothea Dix, a judge granted him a 10-minute pass that gives him access to four activities. The lesser restrictions have allowed him to find a new job at the hospital.

Williamson's job pays minimum wage and consists of filling out patients' dietary cards.

The hospital caps each patient's pay at $35 per week, so Williamson saves the remainder of his paycheck -- spending little on outside items like caffeine free diet Coke, which does not interfere with his medication.

But because of substantial loans and doctor bills, he thinks it's unlikely he'll ever see that money, should the court deem him well enough to leave.

Williamson also wants the profits of his book to be donated to the victims' families in a system that has yet to be established.

Reichardt, who has established the Kevin E. Reichardt Foundation in his son's memory, said he would be willing to let Williamson contribute to the nonprofit organization.

"It's a way in which we can carry on Kevin's spirit and do some good," he said.

"It isn't as though it's money that we feel is tainted by any means."

The book's editor, Amy Martin, who has become a good friend to Williamson, helped with the publication of the book and launched its sale on her Web site, the Mental Health Communication Network, which is located at http://www.mhcn.org. The book, published in September 2001, is not available in Chapel Hill bookstores.

Martin, who wrote her master's thesis at N.C. State University on the degree of bias in local newspapers' coverage of Williamson and the shooting, never knew Williamson before the incident.

But after successfully defending her thesis, Martin contacted him.

"The first time I visited him, he gave me his manuscript and said 'if you want to know my side of the story, here it is,'" she said.

"In getting to know Wendell in the past couple of years, I've noticed he's sometimes had difficulty talking about his emotions," Martin added. "But recently he was allowed to play his guitar while I was visiting, and when I can listen to his music, it's obvious to me that he's expressing his emotions through music."

Williamson taught himself how to play the guitar while at Dorothea Dix. It took almost three years, and since then, he has composed more than 70 songs, none of which he said is directly related to the incident.

Despite his new grounds privileges, his music and his book, Williamson said sometimes he tells himself that this life is the way it's going to be from now on -- living under court-imposed restrictions in a mental hospital.

"And that, believe it or not, is more comfortable than thinking sometime I might have to go out and make my way in the world after all this has happened," Williamson said.

"I don't know how I would survive on the outside."

Williamson said he is remorseful for his actions and believes God has forgiven him.

"Sometimes it hits me, and I cannot believe that happened," he said, shaking his head.

Williamson said he has adopted a view of his life that relates to the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

The story tells of a man whose punishment is to continue pushing a rock up a hill only to have it fall again and again.

"In a way I've quit pushing the rock," said Williamson, who identifies the rock as his fate.

"I just sit here with the rock, and I'm at peace with the rock not being at the top of the hill."

The City Editor can be reached

at citydesk@unc.edu.

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