Commentary

The downward spiral of Mark Becker

Updated: April 13, 2010, 8:23 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- A fresh coat of brown paint is splashed on the basement walls of the Becker home now, and in giant block letters, the word FAMILY hangs near the stairwell. It was cathartic, remodeling this room, stripping everything away. This is where the voices came and haunted Mark Becker. See the wall over there in the corner? Mark punched a hole there with a baseball bat. The Beckers paced and cried in this room, waiting for their 24-year-old son to stop screaming, for nighttime to turn to light so he would finally sleep.

"This was sort of our family-therapy project to do this," Joan Becker says as she takes a seat near the fireplace across from her husband, Dave. "We had so many horrible memories down here."

It's Wednesday night, a day after a 12-person jury finished 25 hours of deliberations and found her son guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting of Aplington-Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas. The Beckers' house is finally quiet, save for the occasional yipping of an attention-seeking Jack Russell terrier named C.J. But it doesn't mean anyone will be getting much sleep.

[+] EnlargeDave and Joan Becker
AP Photo/Matthew PutneyDave Becker, wife Joan and son Scott await the jury's verdict in Mark Becker's trial in Allison, Iowa.

Joan said goodbye to her son Tuesday afternoon after he was ushered out of the courtroom and stepped into an expected mandatory life sentence. That night, she text-messaged Jan Thomas, Ed's widow. "Let the healing begin," Joan typed on her cell phone.

For the Beckers, it starts by going backward. Joan grabs a scrapbook with her middle son's name on the cover. She wants to see pictures of the Mark she knew. In one photo, he is proudly standing outside his shiny Monte Carlo with his prom date. He loved that car and plunked down three years of paper-route money to buy it. In another snapshot, he's side by side with Thomas at a team banquet.

"There's our little climber," Joan says as she points to a picture of a toddler standing on the table. "He liked to fish. He loved sports.

"Summer after freshman year [of high school], we started to notice he became much more withdrawn. He felt different than everybody else. He felt like everybody was looking at him. His senior year, he seemed to bounce back. But when he left for college, we lost him. Didn't we, Dave?"

Dave Becker, a bear of a man with a thick beard and a loving smile, nods. After Mark's first psychotic episode in this basement, Dave had to call the sheriff's office and have his son committed. By the time the squad car came, Mark had snapped out of his rage. "Daddy, don't let them take me," he said as tears rolled down his face.

It was too late. The boy in the scrapbook was already gone.

The bond with Ed Thomas

They lost two people, really, on the morning of June 24, 2009, when Mark Becker walked into the high school's makeshift weight room and pumped five bullets into the most beloved man in the community. Mark's father is in his 50s, has a wife and three kids and a spread outside of town, but he still respectfully refers to Ed Thomas as "Coach."

They met in 1975, when Dave was a senior in high school and Thomas was Parkersburg's new football coach. Back then, this was known as a girls' basketball town, and folks used to line up outside the gym to watch their six-on-six team in all its glory. Football? The program had never seemed to muster more than three wins each season. Then Thomas came along, a young man in his 20s with hair nearly down to his shoulders. The kids would laugh at that now, that Thomas had long hair. But Joan pulls out a yearbook with a bicentennial flag on it, proof that Parkersburg's most famous buzz cut once had a mane.

Thomas loved that first team back in '75, and he took his players out to eat at The White Bear on Friday nights after games. He had 24 on that roster -- the Falcons now have 90 in camp just about every year -- but Thomas got the most out of those boys.

"He had a real charisma about him," Dave says. "He just sold us that we could be winners. We were going to have to work harder than anybody else, but the fourth quarter would be ours. And it played out that way."

Thomas arrived in Parkersburg the same year Joan's family moved to town from north-central Iowa. They would remind each other of that for years, that they came in together and would always be connected. He was so hard-core that he used to make the cheerleaders take a football aptitude test. He didn't want them chanting, "First-and-10! Do it again!" on fourth down. Joan, who had three brothers, aced the test. She fell in love with Dave, the brawny, long-haired guard who made all-conference.

Dave's black-and-white photo was the first that Thomas framed and hung on his wall. There would be dozens of all-conference and all-state honors to follow. Having Coach teach his boys how to play football, how to be men, was always a dream of Dave's. The Falcons won a state championship in 2001, when Mark was a sophomore lineman. Dave couldn't wait until his youngest of the three, Scott, got the chance to play for his own hardware.

Nearly every spring, when Thomas would hold his rules meeting, he'd tell his players that he'd get sad every year because it meant it was one fewer year he'd be coaching. The week before he died, Thomas took Scott and a couple of other senior linemen to a coaches' clinic in Waverly, Iowa, to display their footwork and technique. That night, Thomas spotted Dave and playfully smacked him on the side of the leg. "Scotty looked good today," Thomas told him.

Dave starts to talk about how excited he was to watch Scott play for Thomas as a senior, and his voice trails off. He breaks down and cries. Scott grabs his dad's hand and holds on to it tightly.

"It's nice for us to be able to talk about him now," Joan says. "Because we loved him."

Mark as a boy

Mark Becker at age 1
Courtesy Joan BeckerMark Becker at age 1.

Mark Daryl Becker was born on time in 1985, right on his June 3 due date, and that seemed appropriate. He was always prompt and somewhat of a perfectionist. His room had to be meticulous and just right. When he was 5 years old, the family took a trip to Arkansas, and Mark woke up in southern Missouri as the family car was passing a neighborhood full of run-down houses with appliances and junked cars in the yard. "This is just great," Mark said. "You brought me to a junky place for vacation!"

He walked at 8½ months and rarely stayed in his crib. At 10, he built a two-story tree house complete with windows and doors. Work was never a problem for Mark. He loved to cut the lawn perfectly and baled hay without ever leaving a mess behind. On weekends, son and dad went hunting together.

"He was kind of like my right-hand little man," Dave says.

Their two other boys were near-4.0 GPA students. Mark was the more creative one, the guitar player, the left-handed artist who didn't apply himself in high school and got mostly B's and an occasional C and D. His class was unusually large, and, in the good parts of his childhood, Mark could be found hanging out with the gang, rumbling through the northeastern Iowa town of about 2,000 with his blue-and-white 1971 Monte Carlo. He was so connected to the car that his friends called him Monte. Now the old ride sits covered and unused in a shed on the family farm.

There were hints of problems as early as his sophomore year in high school, but nothing staggering enough to lead the Beckers to believe that it was much more than teenage growing pains. In hindsight, there is something of a history of mental illness in the family, but it didn't bear out until Mark was well into adulthood. A son of one of Joan's cousins was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia within the past year or so; another relative has bipolar disorder.

When Mark started to pull away and withdraw from his friends, Joan asked him why he wasn't hanging around with the group. "It's too noisy, Mom," he'd tell her. Too many people. They were once close, and he used to tell her everything.

"I remember one day he came home from school and just started crying," Joan says. "He wouldn't talk about it.

"He just started losing some confidence. And he was always a confident kid."

His senior year, Mark's parents took him to counseling, and the boy's mood seemed to turn for the better. It was the first of nine mental health facilities the Beckers would reach out to in the hopes of finding their lost middle child.

The downfall

Maybe one disaster triggered another. Yes, Mark had drifted away, with drugs and vacant looks and quiet visits. But in May 2008, right after an EF-5 tornado ripped through Parkersburg, his behavior became extreme. Mark wasn't even in town at the time. He was living with his older brother, Brad, in South Dakota. But Mark kept calling his parents, and the voice on the other line of the phone was nearly unrecognizable to them.

[+] EnlargeMark Becker
Courtesy Joan BeckerMark Becker as a boy, sanding a fireplace mantel.

Mark told his parents to stop worrying about him, stop getting into his thoughts. The Beckers had no idea what he was talking about. Before that, he had seemed to be doing fine. He had a job as an assistant bakery manager at Hy-Vee, and his boss raved about how meticulous Mark was, how he took such pride in his work, how the bread he baked was perfect.

But Mark would become volatile and out of control, shouting obscenities, picking fights.

"Brad started calling in like the beginning of June, saying, 'I don't know what's wrong with Mark,'" Joan says. "'He's like a different person.'"

Mark called home and said he wasn't working at the grocery store anymore and wanted to move back to Parkersburg, be closer to the family, watch Scott play football. He moved into the basement in July 2008 and got a job making cabinets. Two months later, on Sept. 7, the Beckers went to sleep for the night, and their lives were never the same. They were awoken by the sounds of Mark thrashing around downstairs -- "madder than a hornet," Dave says -- yelling and slamming a baseball bat against the walls and doors.

"What's going on?" Dave asked.

You know what's going on! Yes, you do!

Mark's face was puffy; his eyes burned through them.

He said there were people behind him trying to rape him. Can't you see them? Get them off me! He claimed he was being turned into Chief, their coon dog. He said there were feathers on him. He tore down a poster of Ed Thomas and his four protégés who play in the NFL. He said Thomas was raping him, too.

Dave tried, for hours, to get his boy to go to sleep, but the screams and rants continued, and Mark split one of his prized childhood projects in half. It was a plaque carved out of wood.

It said "I believe in Jesus."

At 6 a.m., Mark finally went to sleep. An hour and a half later, he was up again, back in his psychotic rage, and Dave was forced to call the deputies. The sheriff observed Mark for roughly an hour and told the Beckers they had two options: They could watch their son get arrested, or they could have him committed.

The decision "tore us up," Dave says. Mark begged them not to make him go to a mental hospital, but the Beckers knew he needed help.

A drug test revealed that Mark tested positive for amphetamines, but Joan says her son was only smoking marijuana at the time.

"Who knows?" she says. "We do know now, from talking to doctors, that it's not what caused the schizophrenia. They have no doubt the schizophrenia caused the drug use. Mark was trying to self-medicate. Trying to feel normal."

The thing is, the Beckers had little communication with doctors until it was too late. They didn't find out about the paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis until it was uttered in court a few weeks ago during the murder trial. They committed him three times yet didn't have a say in his treatment because their son was an adult and a piece of privacy legislation stood in the way.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 was designed to promote the confidentiality of information passed from one organization to another. The Beckers say it created a wall that prevented them from fully discussing Mark's psychotic episodes with his counselors and psychiatrists. In the months from September 2008 to June 2009, Mark Becker bounced around mental health care facilities in Iowa, Joan says, going to appointments only when he wasn't in a psychotic state, apparently telling various doctors he was fine.

The Beckers say they were frustrated by the HIPAA law that limited communication with Mark's doctors. Unless Mark signed a waiver to allow his doctors to speak with his parents, the lines of communication remained closed. One day, after one of Mark's outbursts, Joan was so frustrated that she called his counselor, who promptly told her she couldn't talk because Mark hadn't signed a release.

"That's OK," Joan told her. "You don't have to say a word. But you're going to sit and listen to what we've been living with."

The counselor, Joan says, had no idea Becker was experiencing psychotic episodes.

After that first committal, Mark turned hostile toward his parents, especially Joan. They should have feared for their lives, several mental health professionals told them later. But they were too naive. Mark would never hurt them, they thought.

Then one night, Joan woke up and Mark was standing over her, pressing on her stomach so hard that she couldn't breathe. He told her to get out of him and quit trying to get in him.

"He thought," Dave says, "that he was in his mom's womb again."

The tirades, the unpredictability

They put him up in a pay-by-the-week hotel for three months so he could be right next to his treatment facility. They paid thousands of dollars in hospital bills and took over his student loans. But Mark's parents weren't allowed to know whether he was on medication to quiet his demons.

[+] EnlargeThe Becker family, from left: middle son Mark, mother Joan, oldest son Brad, father Dave, youngest son Scott.
Courtesy Joan BeckerThe Becker family, from left: Mark, Joan, Brad, Dave and Scott.

The family tried to live with it, the unpredictability. One minute, Mark was happy and enthusiastic about going to see the movie "Marley & Me" with the family. Halfway through the movie, he stormed out and paced the parking lot, yelling.

In February 2009, Mark moved back home, and for a while, things seemed almost normal. Maybe he was taking his medication, Joan thought. On Easter Sunday, Mark's grandparents were in town. He sat at the table with them, talking about his new job at Old Chicago, going over the restaurant's menu items. Then his face changed, and he looked away, then glared at his grandparents.

"What in the hell is everybody looking at me for?" Mark screamed.

He shouted profanities and launched into a tirade for hours. The Beckers again called the deputies, who noticed he was particularly agitated at Joan. They suggested that for her own safety, when Mark was in the house, Joan should leave.

So for the next couple of months, Joan moved to various relatives' houses throughout Iowa seeking refuge from the boy she so desperately wanted to help.

"What's so sad about it," Joan says, "is I can't believe the times I sobbed for three hours going to the next place I was going to stay. I just wanted to fix what was wrong with my son. We couldn't get anybody to help us."

The days before the shooting

By June 20, Mark had moved into an apartment in Waterloo, Iowa, but he stopped by his parents' house around 8:30 p.m. and asked for a glass of iced tea. He gave them a hug, told them he loved them and headed out the door. An hour later, the sheriff's office called to tell Joan that Mark was OK. Of course he was OK, she said. She had just seen him.

But in that short span, Joan and Dave's son had managed to drive 25 minutes to Cedar Falls, take a baseball bat and smash it against the home of Cedar Falls resident Dwight Rogers, lead police on a high-speed chase, and hit a deer. His antics crossed three counties, which may have led to the confusion that unfolded later.

Mark Becker
Courtesy of Joan BeckerMark Becker in November 2007.

Sheriff's deputies took him to the Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, Iowa. After roughly two days of treatment, Mark was released, and the sheriff's office wasn't contacted. A spokeswoman for Covenant said Thursday that she wouldn't go into specifics about the hospital's policies on releasing patients. She referred questions to the Iowa Hospital Association and a statement that Covenant issued this past summer shortly after the shooting.

"Had the record indicated a request to contact law enforcement at the time of discharge, we would have honored the request by making the notification," the statement says. "Our review shows no evidence of this request, so notification was not made.

"It is always our goal to work cooperatively with law enforcement and carry out requests for notification as we have done many times before. Care delivery and patient discharge are governed by complex Federal and State laws and regulations that were followed by Covenant Medical Center's professionals. Discharge, in this case, was to a third party."

Mark's rage on the night of the incident was pointed at the father of a former classmate. Mark thought Rogers cast a spell on him with a teddy bear. "And he was going to take care of this once and for all," Joan says.

Mark called his parents on June 23, asking for a ride home. So they picked him up, and he asked to spend the night. He slept. The house was quiet.

That morning

The morning of June 24 started with a 4:30 a.m. knock on Dave and Joan's bedroom door. Mark was up and alert and wanted to know whether he needed two or three scoops of coffee to brew a pot for his dad and him. Rising at 4:30 wasn't unusual for Dave, a diesel mechanic. And that morning, Mark wanted to sit at the kitchen table, sip coffee and talk. He told his dad that life was like a teeter-totter. It goes up and down, he said as he tipped his hands back and forth. You just have to find a balance.

Mark asked whether anyone in town still needed help with the tornado, and Joan, who was up by then, said yeah, there's a family at church that still needs help. Dave told his boy he was going to work, going to get his mechanics started for the day, but then he'd come home and get Mark's prescriptions filled and they'd talk more about the tornado help. He asked Mark whether he could pick up the sticks that littered the lawn after a windstorm. Mark, always the helper, said yes.

[+] EnlargeEd Thomas
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallEd Thomas devoted his time to helping his community recover from a tornado and to rebuilding his field.

He poured ice water into a thermal cup for his mom, who was heading off to work. It was a great morning, she thought, and Mark carried her computer out to the car. He hugged and kissed her. "I love you, Mom," he said.

Dave was encouraged that morning, too, but nonetheless, he took the keys out of the ignition of a car that was parked in the driveway. He didn't want Mark going into town and possibly getting into trouble.

Sometime between their loving goodbyes and the middle of the morning, Mark used a pair of antlers to open the family gun cabinet, took out a .22-caliber revolver, found another key to the car, drove to the weight room at the high school and killed Ed Thomas. A neighbor called Dave at work, telling him that a bunch of squad cars were at his house. About that same time, Dave heard word of the shooting. Still, he refused to believe his son could do something like that to a man the family respected so much. They would hear it from a psychologist later, that paranoid schizophrenics sometimes lash out at the people they love and respect most.

Dave raced home, passing a squad car along the way on the road. In the backseat of the car sat Mark.

"And I'm still in denial," he recalls. "I think somebody else [did it] and maybe came to our house after the incident. Maybe it was somebody who knew Mark that did this to Coach.

"I just don't think it's possible."

Dave told Joan to have someone drive her home from work. She works for a software company training people and was more than an hour away in Ames, Iowa. Then they had to tell Scott, who had lifted weights with Thomas earlier that morning and was working at a lumberyard when news of the shooting broke. One by one, his friends gathered at the yard, standing around him for support. Scott, who figured something had happened but didn't know what, was puzzled and wondered why all his buddies were hanging around.

A friend of Joan's called and asked what they should do. "Pamela, you need to tell him," Joan said.

Scott met up with his dad at the Butler County Sheriff's Department. They sat there in a room not far from where Mark was babbling about the devil. They prayed together.

The days and weeks after

There was a time recently when Scott Becker pondered heredity and mental illness. He's 17, which was around the age when his brother started to close himself off and head down a path that seemed unfathomable for the boy mugging for a yearbook photo in his football uniform.

Joan tells Scott that he isn't like Mark was in high school. But she'll be watching him closely. She knows how unpredictable paranoid schizophrenia can be.

He is so smart, this youngest boy of the Beckers, so grounded. He makes sure they're all right. The day after Ed Thomas was killed, the team had a meeting, and Thomas' boys, Aaron and Todd, spoke to the players. And right after that, they pulled Scott aside for their own private therapy session.

"They cried together, they prayed together," Joan says. "And Scott told me, from that point on, that he was OK."

Eight months later, the Beckers say they've never heard an ill word from any of the townsfolk in Parkersburg. Some in the national media say they don't get it, how a community could be so unfailingly understanding. Joan's answer is simple: It's small-town Iowa.

But even with all the outpourings of love, the Beckers knew Scott needed help beyond the shoulders of his friends. He has talked to counselors, and he keeps a constant dialogue with his parents. This past fall, Scott was named homecoming king. And he stood by his parents throughout Mark's trial and could be seen in pictures streamed across national wires when the verdict was read Tuesday.

One night later, Scott sits at home, typing away on a laptop, reminiscing about Thomas. He laughs about how he tried on a helmet last year, and Thomas always liked to give him a tight one, then tell him it would fit better after he got a haircut.

Thomas used to be the town delegator, but now that responsibility has fallen on Aaron, who took his dad's former job as athletic director. With Aaron there, Joan says, the town feels at ease. He's the spitting image of his dad.

A couple of hours before the verdict was read, Aaron was in Des Moines, lobbying for a bill that would release psychiatric patients who faced criminal charges into the custody of law enforcement.

"Please do what is right," the younger Thomas said.

It sounded exactly like something his dad would say.

Prayers for each other

As the trial dragged on in a courtroom in Allison, Iowa, the people of Parkersburg had to do something. So they prepared meals each day and delivered them to Allison for the Thomases and Beckers.

[+] EnlargeJan Thomas
AP Photo/John Gaps IIIJan Thomas listens as the jury is polled after Mark Becker was found guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of her husband, Ed Thomas.

The families tried to stay out of each other's way during the trial, which was natural in such a conflicted venue. But Joan always knew she had the Thomases' support. The night Ed was killed, Jan Thomas called Joan, who sings with her in church. Jan said she knew the Beckers had tried to get their boy help.

After the shooting, Mark did get help. He was prescribed three medications for his schizophrenia, and by the fall, the hallucinations subsided and the Beckers saw glimpses of their son. Dave, Joan and Scott gathered in a holding room with Mark after the verdict. Two deputies stood in the room while the family gave their emotional goodbyes. Mark started to cry when his mom hugged him. "God's going to be with you wherever you are," she told her son.

"I know, Mom," said Becker, who is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

And sometime after the reporters filed out of the courtroom and two families were left to move on with their lives, Jan Thomas replied to Joan Becker's text. Ed Thomas' widow said she was sorry for all that Joan was going through.

"I hope we can all start to heal," the text read. "See you soon."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.