Medical care was sought for Hiltner
When Jeff Hiltner committed suicide Friday, Dec. 27, he left behind frustrated family members and friends who had tried to find medical care for him.
The Glenwood Springs man suffered a significant mental breakdown during the final months of 2002 before taking his own life.
“We called the police, sheriff’s department, Eagle County and Garfield County Social Services, the Eagle County magistrate, and Colorado West,” said Heidi Potter, Hiltner’s former sister-in-law. “No one would help him.”
But Bo Persiko, a social worker who teaches psychology and sociology at Colorado Mountain College, said American laws and attitudes about the mentally ill make scenarios like Hiltner’s occur in this country far too often.
“It’s a terrible weakness in our system,” Persiko said. “Because we have such an extreme interpretation of individual rights and individual freedoms, we are unable to extend help to those who are no longer in control of their health.”
Hiltner attracted attention during November and December for instigating an elaborate clean-up campaign around Glenwood Springs, New Castle and Silt.
The former framing contractor bought rakes, brooms, clippers and trash bags – and eight Ford trucks – and paid teams of people to rake leaves, sweep streets, and trim back vegetation on public and private property.
His actions led some to believe he was an eccentric and others to think of him as a hero. But to Jodi Fay, the mother of Hiltner’s 12-year-old son Jeffrey, and to Heidi Potter, Hiltner’s ex-sister-in-law, he was neither.
“He was a sick man in need of serious help,” said Potter.
Fay, who shared custody of Jeffrey with her former husband, said Hiltner started acting strangely around the end of October.
“I got a call from one of his workers,” she said. “They were finishing up work on a big house in Aspen, and Jeff wasn’t bringing blueprints with him to the job site.”
She saw other signs.
“A big red flag went up when I could see he wasn’t tending to his business,” she said. “He had always been meticulous about his finances and his work. He wasn’t himself.”
Fay said her son, who spent weekends with his father, reported odd behavior, too.
“Jeffrey said his dad was referring to himself as God and Jesus Christ,” she said. “He was hearing voices.”
The final straw was when Fay was leaving the Glenwood Springs Mall on a school day when she was sure her son was at school. She saw her son and Hiltner picking up cigarette butts in the mall parking lot.
“I took Jeffrey with me right then,” she said. “Jeff’s visitations with Jeffrey ended right there.”
Fay was convinced Hiltner was seriously ill, and this was not the father Jeffrey knew.
“Outside of these few months, Jeff was a good father,” Fay said. “He loved this boy. He lived for this boy. But his behavior was night and day.”
Since Hiltner was never evaluated, his exact mental diagnosis is unknown.
Social worker Bo Persiko said diagnosing mental illness is very tricky, but Hiltner could have been suffering from bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia.
And longtime Hiltner friend and employee Jack Woolsey said when he saw Hiltner’s behavior change, he contacted a mental health facility. Workers there said it sounded like Hiltner might have schizophrenia and paranoia.
When Fay refused to allow Jeffrey to visit his dad, Hiltner called authorities, putting Fay in Eagle County Court in front of the magistrate.
Fay took the opportunity to request an emergency hearing to discuss with the court Hiltner’s mental state. Their court date was set for Jan. 7 – six weeks after Fay asked authorities to step in and evaluate her son’s father.
“I don’t consider that a prompt response to an emergency situation,” Fay said.
In the meantime, Hiltner’s condition continued to deteriorate. Potter said Hiltner stopped bathing. His hair was unwashed and matted, and he let his beard grow out.
Hiltner painted graffiti on his little Victorian house in downtown Glenwood Springs, and put out cardboard signs reading, “Help us clean up.”
People looking for work, some homeless or in the country without proper documentation, started hearing of paychecks Hiltner was offering. They began showing up at the front door, some spending one or two nights in Hiltner’s house with him.
Because Fay was not allowing Hiltner access to their son until the hearing in January, she began fearing for her safety – and for that of their son.
“I knew he was sick, and that something was really wrong,” she said. “Jeffrey was afraid to play outside. But I couldn’t get any help.”
Knowing that Hiltner had guns stored in his home, Fay asked 9th District Court Judge Tom Ossola for a restraining order against Hiltner, but was turned down.
“I was told since he wasn’t threatening us, and he hadn’t done anything criminal, there was no reason for a restraining order,” she said.
Watching the situation go from bad to worse, Potter got on the phone.
“I called the Garfield County Sheriff’s office,” she said. “And I called the Glenwood Springs Police. But I kept hearing the same thing. Unless he does something criminal, nobody could do anything.
“I called Social Services in Garfield and Eagle counties, looking for suggestions,” Potter said. “They said we were doing the right thing by not confronting him. You can’t make someone have a mental evaluation.”
Fay said she thinks the last straw was when she filed a complaint with Garfield County Social Services. Fay said she was instructed to send Hiltner a copy of her complaint – by registered mail.
“I think that might have done it,” Fay said. “I understand personal liberty, but I felt there was no safe place for my son. And for me to have to send Jeff that complaint might have just put him over the edge.”
Potter shook her head.
“It was avoidable,” Potter said of Hiltner’s suicide. “But not with the way the system works now.”
Social worker Bo Persiko said as a society, we don’t think twice about calling an ambulance when someone is having a heart attack, but when someone is mentally ill, we expect them to be able to help themselves.
“But in so many cases, they’re incapacitated,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to expect someone in a mentally ill state to think clearly.”
Mental health awareness also needs to be strengthened, Persiko said.
Well-meaning citizens praised Hiltner’s efforts during his clean-up campaign, not realizing the signs of his mental instability.
Glenwood Springs City Council members officially commended Hiltner at one of their meetings for paying crews to clean up areas of Glenwood Springs, even sending him a congratulatory letter.
Persiko said health care for the mentally ill is much different in other countries such as Japan, France and Germany than it is in the United States.
“In Japan, they say that Americans wait until people fall off the cliff,” he said, “In Japan, they help people before they get to the cliff’s edge. That really hits the nail on the head.
“In the U.S., our laws tie the hands of authorities. It’s desperately difficult to get those who need it some kind of care.
“Because our laws are so strict, we have to literally wait until someone has a gun to his head, a noose around his neck or a bottle of pills in his hand before we can step in. It’s very, very tragic and a real outrage,” Persiko said.
Persiko said the United States is “still in the dark ages when it comes to mental health, the government and the legal system.” And he doesn’t see it changing any time soon.
“It’s a crime in my book, but this ends up to be a budgetary matter,” he said. “Already, budgets are tight and getting tighter for mental health care in Colorado and the rest of the country. The legislature has to be convinced to change the laws so that we as a society can take care of one another when we can’t take care of ourselves.”
Hiltner’s friend Jack Woolsey said finding a way to change the laws so that those who need mental health care can get it is his primary goal now.
“This is my main objective,” Woolsey said. “The precedent needs to be set in Colorado.”
Woolsey said he doesn’t know where to start or who to go to, but he thinks he would like to contact State House Rep. Gregg Rippy.
“Gregg just lost his son,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a good time to ask him for his help on this or not.”
Following a private memorial service for Hiltner on Saturday, Woolsey will be teaming up with Heidi Potter and Jodi Fay. Together, they want to find out about changing existing laws so that a crisis like this doesn’t happen to another family.
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