Long battle with mental illness marked man killed at theater

AP News
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Posted: Aug 07, 2015 4:41 AM
Long battle with mental illness marked man killed at theater

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The transient glared at patrons in the dark movie theater, the dyed red tips of his hair faded to a dull orange.

Suddenly, he jumped up and attacked two women with a cloud of pepper spray that dyed their clothes the color of blood. Vincente Montano, 29, who authorities said had long struggled with paranoid schizophrenia, set off a scene of terror in the Tennessee theater: He wielded a hatchet and a fake gun. He fiddled with a pretend bomb. He cracked open a canister of propane, releasing gas that police think might have been intended as a bomb, and he clouded the air with chemicals.

But when he fired at officers, he shot pellets. When he brought down his hatchet on a man's shoulder, he barely nicked him. He did those things at a movie that's been out for three months, with seven other patrons there to see "Mad Max: Fury Road" at lunchtime on a Wednesday.

Only Montano ended up dead.

"He seemed to be re-enacting other shootings, very imperfectly," said Dr. Marvin Swartz, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, who has studied the intersection of mental illness and violence. "The question is, if he was trying to re-enact those other incidents, does the fact that he didn't get there mean that he didn't mean to, or that he wasn't organized enough?"

The delusions of people with severe mental illness are often informed by the culture around them, Swartz said. Montano undoubtedly saw wall-to-wall media coverage of last month's shooting at a Louisiana cinema and the ongoing trial in the 2012 Colorado theater massacre.

For at least a decade, officials say, Montano heard voices; his head addled in delusions. He alienated his own family, ended up homeless and shifted from state to state.

Police may never figure out what led the man who had been committed to mental hospitals several times to enter theater No. 4 at the Carmike 8 outside Nashville.

Some would suggest his final delusional episode is evidence that the nation's mental health safety net is critically broken.

"I think this is society's great problem," said Becky Silvernail, a long-time friend of Montano's mother, who watched him grow from a sweet little boy with an endearing speech impediment, to a dark, confused young man who never got the help he needed. "I think we turn a blind eye to this problem, until it escalates to this. We are all responsible, in one way or another."

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Vincente Montano's mother called police for help in February 2004 when she lived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Officers arrived at their home on Briar Bend Drive and Denise Pruett told them her son "has been having thoughts of suicide, as well as homicide," according to the police report. Pruett said he had been hearing voices. He broke a coffee table and a jewelry box.

It was the first in a string of police reports that describe a troubled young man and a mother struggling to keep him under control. He was 18.

Montano's family moved from Illinois to Murfreesboro in 2003, when his mother was transferred for work.

Six months after the first incident, police were called back to the same home.

Pruett said she asked Montano to mow the lawn. But he wouldn't get out of bed, so she threw a bucket of water on him. Then he went into the bathroom and attempted to flood the house.

Mother and son each claimed they were hit by the other. They calmed down and the officers eventually left.

But police were called back two hours later and Montano was arrested, booked with simple assault on an officer and resisting arrest. The court ordered a mental evaluation.

He was committed involuntarily at least three times over the next three years, said Don Aaron, a Nashville police spokesman.

Attempts to reach Pruett through listed phone numbers and other messages have been unsuccessful.

Silvernail said she went to live with Montano and his mother in Murfreesboro in 2008. He had changed, she said. He was angry, delusional, he accused her and others of stealing his tools. When he didn't get his way, he lashed out. He threw a cup through the window of her car and she decided she'd had enough. She moved out and never saw him again.

Then his trail goes cold. He became homeless, apparently shuffling from state to state. His own family lost track of him.

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Montano's mother came across a website in May that listed missing persons in Texas and included a set of unidentified remains located in the Houston area, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. She worried it was her son, and contacted the Texas Rangers.

Ultimately the Department of Public Safety confirmed the remains were not Montano.

"Vinny is ok!!" she wrote on Facebook, followed by a smiley face.

She did not know that Montano had showed up at a Nashville homeless shelter several weeks earlier, on May 6. What brought him back remains a mystery. He checked into the downtown Nashville Union Rescue, though it is unclear if he spent the night. He did not return to the shelter for three months, until Monday.

That very day, Montano's mother contacted the Murfreesboro police department to report him missing. Though she had not seen him in two years, she said Texas authorities found his Tennessee identification card and told her to file a missing persons report there.

She did not know where he was living.

On Wednesday afternoon, he walked into a Family Dollar near the movie theater. He was hauling two backpacks, and employees asked him to leave them outside, Aaron said.

He purchased a mango drink. Then he bought a ticket at the movie theater where his life ended.

"It's not hard to think he was trying to give the impression that he was a bad dude that was trying to scare the bejesus out of people," Swartz said. "There is a certain grandiosity to this, that he was going out in a blaze of glory."

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Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig and Lucas L. Johnson contributed from Nashville.