The Final Frontier
"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."
Slowly, Dandrea ambled down the bike path. By now at least six squad cars had gathered at the scene. Officers continued to yell commands. He did not respond. Preparing for the worst, Sgt. Mike Green went to retrieve a department-issued shotgun from his car. The next time he looked at Dandrea, a bicyclist was riding down the path, oblivious to the chaos. "Drop the gun!" Green yelled once more. This time, according to police accounts, Dandrea turned and pointed his gun at the officer. Green pumped off a round. Almost immediately Ofcr. Steven Sworski fired his sidearm. Dandrea fell. He lay there a minute or two, his shortening breath turning to steam in the cold morning air. Dandrea was pronounced dead before an ambulance arrived. The Luger, it turned out, was a plastic squirt gun, its stopper pulled out, dry as a bone.
Unlike the case of 49-year-old Barbara Schneider, a mentally ill woman whom Minneapolis police killed in her apartment this past June, Dandrea's case has received little attention. The Ramsey County Attorney's Office, asked by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to review the matter, concluded Minneapolis police had followed proper procedure. But Spectrum staffers still bristle at the mention of Rocco Dandrea's name. They say there was little they could have done to avoid the tragedy--that Dandrea regressed too quickly to notice, and his final acts were too extreme to predict. Others, though, say at-risk patients such as Dandrea need a level of attention the mental-health system is no longer equipped to provide.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disease. Approximately one percent of the population develops schizophrenia in their lifetime--more than two million Americans suffer from the illness in a given year. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them.
--from the Web site of the National Institute of Mental Health
When Rocco Dandrea was born on Long Island, New York, his sister was 14 years old and his brother Bill was in the sixth grade. According to Dandrea's medical records, his father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother, whom Dandrea would later surmise suffered from some kind of mental illness, was quiet and withdrawn. Though records indicate that Dandrea's father died in 1995, there is no mention of his mother or sister. Two months ago City Pages sent a letter to Bill Dandrea at his last known address. There was no reply.
At age two Dandrea began having severe screaming fits. While going through puberty, he started wearing his sister's clothes. His parents sent him to a counselor, Dandrea would later tell doctors, because his father worried his son was "acting like a girl, like a little whore." At age 13 Dandrea had his first bout of serious depression, which did not lift until he was 23. His parents had him hospitalized for the first time when he was 16, telling his doctors that he was prone to angry outbursts and nonsensical rants. Doctors prescribed Stelazine, a powerful antipsychotic. The drug helped to clear Dandrea's mind, but it made him dizzy and lethargic.
Soon after checking out of the hospital, Dandrea overdosed on his medication in a failed suicide attempt. Over the next several years, he would overdose on a number of other medications; doctors came to believe the flirtations with suicide had more to do with an unwillingness to take medicine than a serious desire to die.
Dandrea continued to cross-dress throughout high school. After graduation he joined the U.S. Air Force. He would later tell those who knew him that he was discharged after five years of service at least in part because of his affinity for women's clothing. He returned to New York in the early Eighties and worked as a cabdriver. In his spare time, he read about space travel and worked on inventions. At night he sometimes went out, dressed in hose and heels, to pick up men.
Dandrea was not hospitalized again until 1996, when records indicate he was admitted twice in the span of a few months. At that time he told his doctors that he had become accustomed to occasional bouts of paranoia and delusion, so he had not taken any medication for years. But now he was hearing voices, and they were terrifying. Again Dandrea was medicated. And again his health improved while he was in the hospital. And again he stopped taking his pills after being discharged. The voices returned. He stayed up nights compiling detailed summaries of his conspiracy theories, then pedaled his bicycle 40 miles into New York City to drop the document in a garbage can he was sure the FBI was monitoring.
Then he began work on a work of fiction, in which John the Baptist was cast as a modern-day dishwasher: John meets a woman named Amy, who turns out to be the antichrist. In what doctors surmise was further evidence of Dandrea's confused sexual identity, the fictional Amy split into two people: a saint and the whore of Babylon. Eventually Dandrea came to believe Amy was inhabiting his body, replacing his thoughts with hers. When he arrived in Minnesota in November 1996, Dandrea was convinced that as Amy he was a prophet from God sent westward to meet television evangelist Billy Graham, whose headquarters are located in the Loring Park neighborhood.
Before taking up permanent residence in Minnesota, Dandrea traveled to New Orleans on his bike. Along the way he stopped several times to send faxes to social-service workers he had already met back in Minneapolis, advising them to "alert the federal government that I am wearing warm clothes and that I'm in full possession of my faculties." He stayed in New Orleans for a brief time, getting by on the money he made as an exotic dancer.
Patrick Wood, who coordinates a homeless-outreach program for the local nonprofit agency People Incorporated, smiles at the recollection of those faxes and the time he spent working with Dandrea. "He was a poet and a performance artist in many ways," Wood recalls. "He's the only person who ever explained the theory of relativity to me without giving me a headache. He went on for two hours and I enjoyed listening to him. He was easy to understand, too." Wood doesn't think Dandrea was attempting to fool anyone by sending faxes insisting he was well: Like many people in the throes of serious mental illness, he simply did not realize he was sick.
By March 1997 Dandrea was back in Minneapolis, claiming to be feeling stable. During a psychiatric evaluation at Hennepin County Mental Health Center, he told Dr. Steven Pratt that although the fall and winter had been difficult, Amy had finally left his body. "He's had supernatural experiences since childhood," Pratt noted at the time. "He believes he can mentally alter the nature of reality. He says there are times when he has had telepathic abilities. He believes he has the ability to create illusions and says that he is 'shifting through time sideways.'"
Pratt urged Dandrea to consider medication. As usual, Dandrea refused. The doctor noted that although there was evidence of a thought disorder, there seemed to be no reason to force treatment. Instead Pratt had Dandrea schedule a follow-up appointment, which Dandrea failed to keep.
At that time Dandrea had his own room at the House of Charity, a boarding facility in Minneapolis where he was given three meals per day and supervised around the clock. He liked the place, remembers Wood, who dropped in to visit him from time to time. But it was still a semi-institutional setting, and after living there for nearly two years, he started talking about living on his own.
House of Charity staff referred him to the Spectrum Homeless Project. On September 10, 1998, he met with outreach worker Bonnie Roehrborn for an intake interview. (For the purpose of full disclosure: I worked for Spectrum Community Mental Health, the Homeless Project's parent agency, for six and a half years, from 1993 until 1999, as a counselor in a program that was not directly affiliated with the Homeless Project.)
Roehrborn asked Dandrea a series of standard questions regarding family, medical history, allergies, medications, diagnosis, and symptoms. Her notes from the interview indicate that Dandrea appeared bright, cooperative, and friendly--a perfect candidate for the program. She also observed that her new client's reality was clouded by a belief that his illness was the work of demons, angels, and spirits. He told Roehrborn he was drug-free. "Meds make my symptoms worse rather than better," Dandrea claimed.
Because Spectrum doesn't require its clients to take medication or schedule regular doctors' visits, Roehrborn wasn't fazed by Dandrea's aversion to antipsychotic drugs. "We designed our program to be, for lack of a better word, user-friendly," explains Charlie Lentz, director of housing support services for Spectrum Community Mental Health. "We felt that a lot of people out there were homeless because they were burned out on and didn't trust the existing system." To gain the confidence of clients like Dandrea, Lentz believes, you have to keep rules to a minimum.
At the end of the interview, Dandrea warned Roehrborn that things always got worse in the fall and winter. That's when the demons, including Amy, tended to come back to possess his mind. It was already September, he told her, and he was starting to worry. He went so far as to instruct her regarding what it would look like when the demons came and what she would need to do to help him (though she did not record these specifics in her notes). He wanted her to know this, he explained, because once the entities were inside him, he would no longer be able to help himself.
Forty years ago a patient plagued with complications like Dandrea's would have lived out his days in a state mental ward. But in the 1950s and '60s, hospitals nationwide, high on advancements in psychiatric medicine, began releasing patients. Mentally ill men and women took up residence communally in group homes, living two or three to a room and sharing a bathroom, and eating meals prepared for them three times a day. By the 1990s nonprofit and private agencies had developed housing programs to provide a wide range of supervision to accommodate residents' needs.
In theory, shifting from institutionalization to unrestricted living is both reasonable and humane. But someone has to pay for the support services. And in states such as Minnesota, advocates for the mentally ill say, money has been in short supply, and people with serious illnesses have fallen through the system's cracks, forced onto the streets or thrown in jail. Because the mental-health system is a hodgepodge of publicly and privately funded agencies, there are no reliable statistics enumerating how many mentally ill people now live on their own. But in the 1960s, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, more than 10,000 mentally ill people were institutionalized in state hospitals. Today there are less than 600.
"The assumption is that those people are being served in the community, but we know there are considerable numbers of people in the state who are not receiving services," asserts Sandra Meicher, executive director of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Minnesota, which has been doing advocacy work in Minnesota since 1939. "I think it's fair to say that the state has made some progress on helping people move into the community. But by the mid-Eighties it was obvious that there just wasn't enough money."
Meicher says funding for mental-health services is spread so thin that agencies often lack the necessary resources to support patients who live alone in the community. Rather than offer services tailored to clients' needs, agencies are forced to come up with broad-based programming. And that kind of "one-size fits all" approach to healthcare, Meicher concludes, can be dangerous. "Agencies don't have the money and resources to say how a person can best be served," she observes. "So they more or less just do the standard things, like checking to see whether someone's taking their meds or getting groceries."
Tom Johnson, assistant executive director of Minnesota's chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, seconds Meicher's concerns. Some people suffering from mild mental illness may only need help finding a home, he says, while others might need assistance buying groceries or paying the electric bill. But in Johnson's view, seriously afflicted citizens such as Dandrea need to be treated case by case, situation to situation.
"Theoretically, it's a good concept that people should be able to live in the least restrictive environment possible," says Johnson. "But if people can only get one visit a week for someone, then an agency has to be sure that whoever is going out to check on people is well-trained. They have to be able to notice symptoms of mental illness and whether those symptoms are out of control. A lot can happen to a person in a week, so sometimes people might need someone to check on them every day. That's not always possible because of dollars. But it still might be necessary."
Earlier this year the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development, the Spectrum Homeless Project's sole funder, awarded the nonprofit a five-year, $1.4 million grant. With that money the project can continue to employ four outreach workers, a psychiatric nurse, and a supervisor and manage up to 40 people at a time. Most of the agency's clients suffer from serious ailments, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some take medication to manage their symptoms. Others don't. When people sign on with Spectrum, they are placed in one of several apartments in the metro area and asked to contribute one-third of their earnings toward rent. If there is no source of income, the nonprofit picks up the tab.
Spectrum Community Health's Charlie Lentz agrees that more money would be nice, but he believes the Homeless Project works well within its means. He also defends the group's methodology, pointing out that caseworkers only visit clients once a week because they don't want to be intrusive, not because they don't have the time, money, or training.
"At no time did we doubt the way we designed the program," Lentz says. "We're dealing with people that can't live with a lot of rules. If we do that, we'll lose them. They'll never trust us. They may never trust themselves. If you set the bar too high, people will never come in."
Tom Johnson is not convinced. He says that he has never received any complaints about the Spectrum Homeless Project. But he wonders what is more important: a client's privacy or his safety. "[Frequent visits] are kind of intrusive. I mean, I wouldn't like someone coming over all the time and going through my cabinets to see if I brush my teeth or not. But it seems like something has to be done to ensure the safety of people living on their own."
Counters Lentz: "When people come to us, many of them are paranoid. So we have to meet them where they're at with what they're bringing to us. We have to start out by trusting what they tell us, so they can begin to develop trust in us and trust in themselves."
Rocco Dandrea played on that trust. He said he was meeting with his psychiatrist every three months. He told his outreach workers that he was doing just fine. And, up until the day before his death, staffers at the Spectrum Homeless Project believed him.
Despite Rocco Dandrea's warnings that demons and spirits were sure to visit him in the fall, 1998 eased into 1999 without incident. His outreach worker, Bonnie Roehrborn, praised her client's progress. "I took Rocco to Savers and to Cub for groceries," she wrote on October 26, 1998. "He is doing fine budgeting his money on his own so far, and he keeps his place impeccably clean."
The following spring Dandrea was feeling so well he talked about getting a part-time job or enrolling in a class of some sort. By June, though, he was telling Roehrborn he'd decided those activities might be "too stressful." What he really liked to do, he said, was write. He had even finished a science-fiction novel, one of many he was working on at the time, and Roehrborn took him to the post office to mail it off to a publishing house.
According to her case notes, Dandrea was beginning to reveal more and more about his family and the content of his delusions when Roehrborn left the program in May 1999. She was replaced by Debra Johnson, whom Spectrum had hired six months earlier. Like many people who take entry-level mental-health jobs, the 23-year-old was enthusiastic about her new job. Charlie Lentz says her résumé included stints working with the mentally ill in group homes and at Spectrum's drop-in center. She had witnessed psychotic episodes, delusions, and paranoid thinking.
Johnson took over where Roehrborn left off, shuttling her client from supermarket to hardware store. By early autumn Dandrea was working on several different manuscripts. He had also decided to supplement his veteran's benefits by selling self-recorded comedy tapes. In mid-November, Johnson's notes indicate, she took Dandrea to a thrift store, where he bought a used, hand-held cassette recorder. A week later they went to Party City to buy balloons and rent a helium tank. Dandrea told Johnson he was going to decorate his apartment for Thanksgiving. On the way home from Party City, Dandrea informed his caseworker that he'd made 30 comedy tapes in just one week, and he gave her one. In her notes from that day, Johnson wrote that Dandrea suddenly seemed "more talkative and outgoing."
The following Tuesday, November 30, the pair went to Office Max to look at copy machines; Dandrea was thinking of buying one to make promotional flyers. Johnson later observed that Dandrea was becoming obsessed with the characters on his tapes. "A few times during our meeting, Rocco asked me a couple of different questions that he asked in a different voice," she wrote. "He uses these personas/voices on his comedy tapes. He told me that he is an actor and was playing different roles/characters. He said that he was 'not experiencing multiple personalities like some people may think.'"
Because Dandrea didn't have many packages to carry up to his apartment, Johnson dropped him off at the curb that day. Before he got out of the car, he informed her that he had just canceled his phone service and was planning a train trip to San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans. Johnson wished him well and told him to call when he returned. Dandrea agreed and said goodbye.
Both Johnson and her supervisor, Kevin Haley, declined to be interviewed for this story. Roehrborn could not be located. One Homeless Project staff member did agree to come forward, though not to be named. According to that caseworker, Johnson played one of Dandrea's comedy tapes at a staff meeting on December 1. When staffers heard Dandrea use profanity to describe angels and demons, they were concerned, the caseworker says. They also raised questions about Dandrea's travel plans, which seemed to come out of the blue. "Rocco had made some tapes that showed he was out of it," says Johnson's colleague, who was present. "He was talking about traveling in time. He was using three different voices. He said really rude stuff on the tape that he would not say if he was doing all right. It was obvious that he was manic."
According to the caseworker, staffers at the meeting argued about how ill Dandrea might be and what to do about it. It was decided that before taking any further steps, Johnson should contact Dandrea's psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orbuch, at the Hennepin County Mental Health Center. Johnson's notes indicate that she called Orbuch that same day, but he did not call back. Her notes indicate that she called the doctor again the following Monday. Neither she nor her supervisors visited Dandrea's apartment during that time.
On Tuesday, December 7, Chuck Parsons, a psychiatric social worker at the mental-health center, informed Johnson that no one in the clinic had seen her client since October 1998. This came as a shock to Johnson, she noted in Dandrea's case file; he had told her that he had been seeing Dr. Orbuch for followup visits every three to four months. According to a statement she later gave to the Minneapolis police, she had not called the clinic to verify Dandrea's assertion.
Charlie Lentz confirms the caseworker's account of the December 1 staff meeting and says the fact that Johnson never contacted Dandrea's doctor is consistent with the Homeless Project's user-friendly approach. "She had no reason to call or check with his doctor, because Rocco was doing fine," Lentz reasons. "That's where the trust part comes in. We have to trust what they're telling us, and if we don't have any reason to not trust what they're saying, we don't need to make those kind of calls."
Lentz is also quick to defend Johnson, who is still with the Homeless Project, where she monitors between four and ten people at any given time. "I do feel that she was qualified for the job. We did what we were expected to do in this case. We did the best we could. I've read the case notes and [copies of the statements Johnson and her supervisor gave to police after the shooting], and even if signs were in evidence, we're talking about a matter of days that he went downhill."
Lentz says he and his staffers discussed Dandrea's case in the wake of his death but opted to make no changes in the way the Homeless Project serves its clients. "We didn't see the need," Lentz concludes.
At 4:00 p.m. on December 7, 1999, 17 hours before police shot Rocco Dandrea, Debra Johnson and her supervisor, Kevin Haley, paid a visit to Dandrea's apartment. No one answered when they knocked. Spectrum staffers have keys to all their clients' apartments, so they were able to let themselves in. Haley knew immediately that Dandrea was seriously ill. "When we went in, we became very concerned about him," he would later tell police. "His apartment was in disarray. Much like you'd see someone that's kind of decompensated with their apartment. So if you see one or two apartments, you'd know what they look like."
Haley crossed the room and unplugged a string of Christmas lights strung up inside one of Dandrea's "computers." Trash and dirty laundry were piled ankle-deep in the bedroom. Dandrea's dresser was covered with empty cigarette packs, spray-paint cans, and copies of outdated fashion magazines. Off to one side lay a yellowing Life magazine offering readers "The Most Remarkable Views of Earth Ever Recorded."
Before leaving, Johnson left Dandrea a note imploring him to call her as soon as he returned. Whether Dandrea read or understood the note will never be known. At a little before 8:30 the next morning, Johnson and Haley returned to the apartment. As they entered the building, they may conceivably have passed the two elevator repairmen who had just alerted security. When they reached the third floor, they heard a man swearing at the other end of the hallway. Johnson recognized the voice as Dandrea's.
When they stepped into the hall, Dandrea yelled to Johnson: "Lady! Lady! You had no right going into my apartment."
Addressing Dandrea as "Rocco," Haley explained that they did have a right to enter his apartment and that they were concerned. "He kind of sat down on this little step area and said that '[Rocco] is the name of the antichrist,'" Haley later told police.
Dandrea pulled his gun from an inside coat pocket and pointed it at the two of them. Haley told police he couldn't recall the exact words Dandrea used, but he made it clear he intended to kill them.
Haley softened his tone. He told Dandrea they were leaving and beckoned Johnson toward the elevator. The two backed down the hallway, keeping their hands raised. Then Haley gave the go-ahead to run. Dandrea made a halfhearted attempt to pursue them, but by the time Haley and Johnson reached the parking lot, he had turned back. Haley used his cell phone to dial 911. He told the operator that his client had a long history of mental illness, that he had a gun, and to send help right away.
Minutes later, at 9:00 a.m., Dandrea was pronounced dead. Photos from the crime scene show bloodstains on his right thigh and shoulder. Next to his body lies the cassette recorder he had purchased 21 days earlier, surrounded by three hand-labeled tapes, entitled "To the murdering churchgoing scums," "Militia Master You Die," and "Join or Die."
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PAUL SCHMIT
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Black Lives Matter marches on the Fair with heavy police escort, few hecklers
Sat., Sep. 19, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 19, 7:00pm
Sun., Sep. 20, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 26, 2:30pm
- Vester Lee Flanagan could have just as easily bought a gun in Minnesota
- A terrible Minneapolis park deal just got $2 million worse