The Final Frontier

An imaginary spaceship. Disembodied voices. An angel/whore named Amy. Rocco Dandrea's descent into madness and death--and the mental-health system that was ill-equipped to stop it.

"It is true, that as in the case of hard-boiled zealots, some will maintain that destruction is imminent, and that the fear of our destruction had been figured incorrectly. This blind attempt to hold on desperately to madness is nothing new. Every disappointment from the Millerites in 1843, the Jehovah witnesses in 1914, and the religious majority in 2000 always seems to lack the final impetus needed to wake people up from this flawed and illogical belief system. This is no different from the paranoid schizophrenic who, despite any and all proof to the contrary, refuses to give up his delusions."

--from Rocco Dandrea's unfinished
science-fiction novel The Lost Books

 

Rocco Dandrea's body was already on its way to the Hennepin County morgue on the afternoon of December 8, 1999, when investigators from the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension arrived at his apartment accompanied by a bomb squad. They had been warned that the place might be booby-trapped with explosives. They did find a lot of loose stainless steel, electrical wiring, miscellaneous dials and makeshift gauges. But Dandrea hadn't used the homemade gadgetry to build a weapon. He had constructed a spaceship.

The front door of the one-bedroom apartment--number 305 at Riverside Towers, near the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus--served as the ship's outer hull. Inside, a threadbare swivel chair stood in front of a desk emptied of its drawers: command central. From that chair, Dandrea could fly his ship while looking out on the universe through a large rectangular piece of white paper, framed by duct tape. Surrounding the makeshift window were instrument panels built from plastic muffin cups and cookie containers, spray-painted white.

Pulling back the curtains, the law-enforcement agents discovered that the living room's floor-to-ceiling windows had been completely covered with aluminum foil, encasing the ship's computers: drawers stacked end to end, covered with thin pieces of white Styrofoam; dials that once belonged to a stove; and more bare wire. Beneath it all sat a fat gray tank that the investigators thought might have contained propane or helium, but turned out not to.

Investigators later learned that Dandrea had moved into the apartment in October 1998. It was chosen for him by the Spectrum Homeless Project, a Minneapolis program that finds apartments for destitute, mentally ill adults. Each client is assigned an outreach worker who visits him at least once a week. Dandrea's caseworker, Debra Johnson, helped him do everything from buy groceries to prepare meals to shop for clothes. She also monitored Dandrea's mental illness, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. At any given time, if his behavior seemed more than just run-of-the-mill anxiety or sporadic delusion, she was to report it to one of her four colleagues or their supervisor. They would then decide how to address the situation.

Ten years ago someone like Dandrea likely would have been living in a group home, sharing a room with one or two others and being monitored round the clock by staff. But in the past decade the system has changed. Advocates for the mentally ill believe that their constituency deserves to live as freely as possible. Allowing a person to live in his own apartment, they argue, is the most important step. But housing programs such as Spectrum's can't ensure their clients' safety around the clock. And the results can be tragic. Mentally ill patients in other programs have been known to run off and disappear. Sometimes they will become delusional: sitting outside all night in the freezing cold; gargling with household cleaning products; eating spoiled food. And sometimes, as in Rocco Dandrea's case, they die.

According to police records, Brian Harren and a co-worker from Metro Viking Elevator were responding to a repair call at the Riverside Towers on the morning of December 8 when Dandrea approached. "I just kind of greeted him, you know, 'Hi, how you doing,'" Harren would later tell police. "And he carried on about the millennium, and the year 2000, and all the silos are gonna explode, and he's gonna start a militia, and he doesn't care." He just stood there listening to the rant, Harren recalled, until his co-worker wondered aloud whether they should leave. As Dandrea continued to babble, they went outside and called building security, who in turn called police.

Ten minutes later, even as squad cars were making their way to the Cedar-Riverside area, dispatchers were alerting officers that a man fitting Dandrea's description was threatening people with a gun. When they finally tracked down Dandrea, he was walking north on South Sixth Street, getting set to cut across an open field toward a bike path just east of the Metrodome. The lanky Dandrea--clothed in an orange-red bomber jacket, blue button-down shirt, and beige cotton slacks--looked disoriented. Officers on the scene also noted that the dark-haired, blue-eyed suspect was carrying a large tape recorder in his left hand and what appeared to be a German-made Luger handgun in his right.

"We could hear him...mumbling," Ofcr. Ron Reier later told state investigators. "But he never faced us and he never shouted. It was like he was mumbling something. But I have no idea what he was saying. But he acted like he was totally oblivious to all of our commands. And we yelled and we screamed on the PA. 'Drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun!' And he never turned and looked."

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