BOISE, Idaho—Nigel Youngberg was in the upstairs bathroom for seven hours straight the weekend he went missing. A late-night shower always made him feel better. His mother thought of it like the hug machine invented by Temple Grandin to soothe herself when autism made life too stressful. Nigel would hug himself with the warm water when his schizophrenia became too painful.
But this was an unusually long shower, reported the Idaho Statesman.
Nigel’s father, Mark Youngberg, woke at 9 a.m. that Saturday to find water coming through the kitchen ceiling. The deluge stopped when Mark turned off the water to the whole house. By then, Nigel had barricaded himself in the bathroom.
He left the water running because—he later told his mother—he thought it would clean up the germs. He could tell his parents were upset about the water, so he hid in the bathroom. Then he ran. He climbed out the window and grabbed a bicycle with two flat tires from the shed of the family home, just outside Emmett’s city limits. He took off down the road.
When he returned later that day, he was drenched and covered in sand. His temper was flaring.
Sharon thought, as she often did, “If a police officer would come and just see how he was acting, they would know he wasn’t well.”
Mark and Sharon Youngberg knew their 30-year-old son’s patterns by that April day, 15 years after he was first diagnosed with a severe mental illness.
For a while, his bipolar and schizoaffective disorders responded to medications. He excelled in school and took a shine to physics. He attended Boise State University for two years and had a 3.9 grade point average, according to his obituary. He got back the gleaming eyes of his childhood, when his favorite things included video games and Lagoon, an amusement park near Salt Lake City.
Nigel had shelter, a close family and health insurance coverage from his mother’s job, as well as from Medicaid and Medicare. He had access to prescriptions, which many Idahoans with mental illness do not. He was religious—a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and found solace in prayer, his mother said. His family said he never drank or turned to drugs.
But in recent years, the medications didn’t work as well as they once did. Nigel didn’t like the side effects, either. So, like many people who need medications for a mental illness, he stopped taking them as soon as he felt better. It was a cycle: Go off his meds in the winter, be very sick by spring, spend two months in the hospital, come home to recover during the summer, feel “normal” in the fall.
April often was the worst month, when everything came to a head.
This year, April was the month Nigel Youngberg died after wandering the hills of Gem County in a bathrobe, windbreaker and tennis shoes. His parents and siblings say his death could have been avoided if police had heeded their requests to take him into custody and get him to a hospital earlier in the week, as his psychosis worsened.
His brother Malcolm wrote in a Facebook post: “Afflictions of the mind come in all degrees and varieties, but my brother was only 15 years old when he was struck with a harrowing loss of something we take for granted every day: the ability to experience reality through a clear lens, and to engage in it with the full joy humans were intended to.”
“He was the worst I’ve ever seen him”
Nigel Youngberg’s family hopes his death will illuminate the cracks in Idaho’s psychiatric commitment laws, which Emmett’s police chief says are vague, subjective and taxing to carry out in rural communities.
The death also highlights the problem of law enforcement officers who lack mental health training but are expected to act as first responders in a crisis, when it can be hard to tell violent psychosis from garden-variety criminal behavior.
Gem County Sheriff Chuck Rolland told the Statesman that Nigel Youngberg did not meet the criteria to be taken to a hospital.
Rolland and Gem County Prosecutor Richard Linville say Idaho also has broader problems with its mental health system: a lack of funding and, especially in rural areas, a scarcity of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
Linville wants more options beyond hospitalization. He wants a crisis center or a place for psychiatric patients to go during the day, where someone can monitor them and catch the red flags when they become ill again.
“In my opinion, the mental health system needs to be relooked at,” Rolland said in an interview. “I’m going to a mental health summit in September, and I’m going to talk about Nigel and the things that went on with him that I know about.”
Nigel Youngberg had been cycling between calm and erratic behavior all week by the time he flooded the bathroom April 9. When he got like that, even his eyes changed, said his sister, Rachel Millburn. She could tell Sick Nigel from Healthy Nigel based on whether his pupils were dilated.
“When he gets shark eyes, you know he’s not there anymore,” said Millburn, who lives in Virginia. “The last time I saw him was in February, and he was not there. He was just being weird. He was the worst I’ve ever seen him.”
His parents did not know what he might do next—whether he would be the gentle, childlike Nigel who wanted hugs or the paranoid Nigel who once ripped a telephone from the wall when someone used it to call 911.
Nigel was edging into that dark territory where his mind would mistake his loved ones for devils. Sharon was scared for his safety and theirs. She wanted someone to put him on a “mental hold”—to take him into protective custody and get him to a hospital until he could be evaluated by a “designated examiner” for court-ordered commitment.
Sharon called the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Region 3 crisis line for help on Thursday, April 7, hoping a mental health professional could respond. The crisis worker called Gem County sheriff’s dispatch.
“(He has a) history of mental health problems, and his family called concerned. He’s acting paranoid and potentially violent and potentially gravely disabled due to mental illness,” the worker said, according to a tape of the call obtained by the Idaho Statesman. “They’re concerned about him and would like to see if he can be placed on a hold. When she left for work this morning, she was concerned that he was acting paranoid and violent.”
Someone who is “gravely disabled” by a mental illness can be put on a mental hold in Idaho.
When a sheriff’s deputy showed up at the door that day—three days before he went missing—Nigel was calmer. He put on the nothing-to-see-here persona that he often could muster when dealing with people outside the family, Sharon said. He hated going to the hospital and knew it was a possibility that day.
Taking Nigel to the hospital themselves was not an option. Sharon and Mark tried not to drive long distances with Nigel when he was sick, because he might grab the steering wheel or worse.
Rolland told the Statesman that his deputy found Nigel “very easy to get along with. Talked about he didn’t like his medication.”
The deputy told Sharon and Mark their son did not qualify for the mental hold.
Sharon responded, “We’ll call you when somebody’s dead.”
A Drive to the Police Station
The weekend Nigel flooded the kitchen, he came home after what his family assumes was one of the many dips he took in a nearby canal. He yelled at his parents, called them profanities and accused his father of abusing him.
Sharon coaxed Nigel outside, into the front yard, where he tried to get her to sit on the lawn with him but got too rough with her. She jumped into her truck and locked the doors, then decided it would be best to leave. Nigel grabbed the truck bed as she was driving away, dragging his bare feet on the road. He climbed into the truck bed and tried to get into the cab as Sharon called 911, saying she was driving to the police station and to be ready for them.
An Emmett police officer and a Gem County sheriff’s deputy met them outside.
“Sharon stated that Nigel goes through times of being sane and then will go through stages of being unmanageable,” said a report by the Emmett officer, Charmaine Williams. “Sharon stated that Nigel is 30 years old and still lives with them, because he can’t take care of himself due to his illness.”
The family asked Williams and the sheriff’s deputy to put Nigel on a mental hold at that point. Williams phoned Emmett Police Deputy Chief Steve Kunka for guidance.
“My take was that there was not the elements that you needed for a mental hold,” Kunka told the Statesman. “He did not have a plan of committing suicide, so the two elements were not met.”
But Kunka concluded that Nigel had committed a crime—battery on his mother—so he could be jailed.
“I did feel like it was very important for the family to be on board with the decision,” Kunka said.
Emmett police typically use mental holds for people who are contemplating suicide, according to Kunka and Police Chief Gary Scheihing.
When someone does need to go on a mental hold, it is not unusual for a city officer to be taken off the streets for six to eight hours, waiting until a hospital can take the person. On the graveyard shift, that leaves one officer of the 13-member force to patrol the city of 6,600 people.
Rolland said his deputies can spend eight to 24 hours sitting in the hospital during a mental hold.
“It’s not easy to get them into a bed,” he said. “We have to wait until they tell us they have someplace for us.”
Nigel had received emergency psychiatric care at West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell, Intermountain Hospital in Boise and a Saint Alphonsus center in Boise.
Scheihing said his force now takes people who need mental holds to hospitals in Canyon County. They are farther away but better equipped than the small Emmett hospital—the former Walter Knox Memorial Hospital, now Valor Health—to deal with uncooperative patients.
“A mental hold is not an easy thing in Emmett,” Scheihing said. “It’s just a pain in the butt to do it, and it shouldn’t be that way. It should be easy in Gem County. We shouldn’t have to haul them to Nampa. We don’t even have a designated examiner in this area.”
Kunka moved to Idaho from Nebraska. There, he said, a mental health professional would meet the police officer on the scene during crisis cases.
“That was really beneficial and helpful,” he said. “That helped cut down on sending people out of town.”
There is no true counterpart to the Nebraska system in Gem County, he said.
A mobile crisis unit in Ada County sends clinicians along with police officers out on 911 calls that involve a mental health issue. The unit closest to Gem County is based in Caldwell. In Boise, the police department has a crisis intervention team of officers specially trained to deal with mental illness.
‘Gravely Disable … Imminent Danger’
Nigel Youngberg’s parents could not force him to keep taking his medication. They tried a tough-love approach for a while, making his room and board at home contingent on taking his meds. But it felt demeaning, Sharon said.
The Youngbergs say Nigel died because the law was not properly carried out. They cite a section of Idaho code that reads, “. A person may be taken into custody by a peace officer and placed in a facility . if the peace officer . has reason to believe that the person is gravely disabled due to mental illness or the person’s continued liberty poses an imminent danger to that person or others, as evidenced by a threat of substantial physical harm . “
Rolland said he is “not in a position to say the law’s fair or unfair.” Scheihing said the law’s wording is too vague and subjective.
“Gravely mentally ill. What the hell does that mean? It means something different to me than it does to you,” Scheihing said. “The law needs to be more specific, I think. Making an arrest on somebody, it’s clear cut what you can arrest about.”
And the people trying to interpret the law are law enforcement officers, not trained mental health professionals.
The Emmett Police Department has sent one officer to the same kind of training that is used by the Boise Police Department’s crisis intervention team. The department’s goal is to get everyone better trained in mental health.
According to Sharon, Mark and their son Marcus, the family also asked Deputy Kirk Weber to take Nigel to a hospital on the Saturday that he and Sharon ended up at the police station in the truck. Weber refused.
The Gem County sheriff’s manual states the law, then lists criteria deputies can use to figure out whether a mental hold is appropriate:
• Observations by deputies, including a person’s statements, injuries, emotional state, “apparent means to carry out the threat” and a history of depression and/or suicide attempts.
• Witness observations and statements.
• A medical professional’s observations and opinions.
• Recommendations of the Mobile Crisis Unit.
The county does not have a mobile crisis unit of its own.
The Youngbergs saw their options as taking Nigel home, trying to drive him to a hospital, or pressing charges to get him into a place with security.
The law did give them a fourth option: They could have asked the court for a mental hold themselves. Families rarely use that process, which takes up to two weeks. The Youngbergs didn’t know it was an option, Mark said.
“While speaking with Sharon, her husband Mark and son Marcus came to our location,” the police report said. “Mark was very hesitant for Sharon to agree to press charges on Nigel for battery but later agreed it was the safest thing for both of them if Nigel was arrested.”
Within hours, Nigel was released on bail and walked home. A bail company posted a bond for him. His parents do not know where he got bail money.
“After he came home . I felt so bad because his feet were all scraped up, and I told him, ‘Nigel, you go take a bath and soak your feet,'” Sharon said. “And after I bandaged them, he gave me a big hug, and he was so sweet. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I will drop the charges.'”
Marcus, who is friends with Sheriff Rolland’s son, went to the sheriff’s home that night to ask why his deputies refused to take Nigel in a police car to a hospital.
Rolland told the Statesman that he did not recall the Youngbergs ever complaining about how the Sheriff’s Office handled incidents with Nigel. However, he remembered Marcus’s visit when asked about it. He said he told Marcus the criteria for a mental hold, which he thought Nigel had failed to meet.
That wasn’t the first time Nigel went to jail. He had been arrested in 2009 in a similar incident when he destroyed the home phone and hit his father. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.
A couple of months later, his father went to the Sheriff’s Office asking for help again. When deputies arrived at the house, Nigel’s parents remember him showing his baptismal certificate when the officers asked for identification. The deputies took him away on a mental hold. He ended up in the state psychiatric hospital in Orofino.
According to the family, law enforcement officers this year told them to continue to call 911 and to press charges when Nigel acted up, and that eventually a judge would see how sick Nigel was.
So Mark Youngberg kept notes of the events each day, including that Sunday when Nigel went missing:
“4/10/16: Had a belated birthday dinner for Marcus and almost made it through the meal without a fight. Poor Nigel is very paranoid and believes everything is directed at him. Later in the evening he started bullying me and got a little bit physical … and when Marcus confronted him he slugged Marcus in the arm. Signaled Marcus to call 911. I told Nigel to put some pants on but he continued to walk around the house and yard in his bathrobe. He walked up the street towards the canal and Marcus followed him on foot. I caught up to him in the car and we followed Nigel across the highway towards the cycle park. (He casually crossed the highway and was almost hit). Kept him in sight until two sheriffs units arrived. As Sgt. Martin attempted to cuff him he yelled ‘No’, struggled free, pushed Officer Lindstrom into a ditch and ran into the darkness. Marcus was barefoot and I’m recovering from surgery so we couldn’t help trail him. Eventually, 6+ units were involved searching the hillsides.”
A deputy later came to the Youngbergs’ house to take a statement. Marcus again asked why Nigel did not qualify for a mental hold.
“Without answering the question, Lindstrom said he wasn’t sure about the manual but was just following standard procedure,” Mark’s notes said. “It got down in the 40s before daylight. And all he’s wearing is a bathrobe and some tennis shoes.”
The Search Continues
Nigel’s family and many others combed the wilderness around Gem County and searched for him as far away as Salt Lake City. Local TV stations and the Emmett newspaper ran notices asking people to keep an eye out for the man who fled police.
His family argues that the Sheriff’s Office dragged its feet searching for Nigel. They say Rolland was too quick to assume that Nigel would surface—as he had last year, when an officer found him cold and wet after wandering the hills for a few days.
“My biggest fear was that he would do that again, but he had told one of his brothers that he knew he would never have to go to the jail or hospital again, and he was not going to let that happen,” Sharon Youngberg said in an interview.
Rolland said everyone, including the family, thought Nigel would come home.
Mark Youngberg said he had to pressure the Sheriff’s Office to bring in the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue team and to add Nigel to the database of missing persons.
An undated summary by Chief Deputy Donnie Wunder, who was in charge of Nigel’s missing-persons case, says he first spoke with Mark Youngberg on April 12, two days after Nigel went missing. Over the next few days, law enforcement, a search posse, the fire department and an airplane looked for Nigel, the summary says. Search and rescue was called in April 18, eight days after Nigel went missing, to search with dogs.
“There were also many, many people in the public that helped in the search that had their own horses, ATVs, motorcycles and personal vehicles that helped in the search,” Wunder wrote. “100s of man hours were used looking for Nigel.”
Nigel was found April 26 by a family exploring near the Payette River. He had died in an old train tunnel 11 miles from home.
The coroner has not completed the autopsy, but the Youngbergs think Nigel probably died of hypothermia. The temperature dropped to 37 degrees at night while he was gone. Malcolm, another brother, remembers opening a bedroom window one night, thinking how impossible it would be to survive the chill in a bathrobe.
“This case has brought this whole community to its knees,” Rolland said. “A loss like this affects us all.”
Nigel’s death brought the siblings closer together. His younger brothers, Marcus and Malcolm, have become outspoken about what they believe was a fatal error by law enforcement.
Rachel Millburn, the sister in Virginia, has visited Emmett twice since she last saw Nigel—once to help search for him, once to mourn his loss with her family.
She looked through Nigel’s computer after he died, hoping to find pieces of his personality still living there. She thought she might find a blog. She found his to-do list. On the top was a reminder to himself: “Do the big things first, and then the smaller things.”
1. Go to college
2. Get a degree
3. Find a girl
4. Get married
5. Invent a teleporter
6. Make a lot of money
7. Donate to mental health causes
8. Go to Lagoon