MUSKEGON, Mich. — From a distance, he was like anyone else on Amity Street. He mowed the lawn, tinkered with the car and romped with his children in the vacant lot near the family's faded-pink house.
But Bart Dobben was like nobody else on Amity. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic with a desperate religious vision and a history of bizarre behavior, a man obsessed with the end of the world.
He hated holidays and was estranged from his wife, yet on Thanksgiving Day he loaded his spouse and their two toddlers into the car for dinner at his parents' house.
He worked in a foundry where co-workers stuck "Kick Me, I'm Crazy" signs on his back after he was released from a mental hospital. Yet he stopped at the Cannon-Muskegon Corp. plant on the way to dinner to show his sons where their father had toiled for nearly 10 years.
Neighbors and friends said he doted on his boys, 2-year-old Bartley Joel and 15-month-old Peter David.
And yet, police say, he put them inside a giant ladle used to carry molten metal, then heated it to 1,300 degrees while his unknowing wife waited in the car.
"It was my worst nightmare," said Harold Paulsen, a firefighter who rushed in vain to the ladle, which was red hot.
Now, Bartley James Dobben sits under suicide surveillance in the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ypsilanti, waiting to find out whether he will be treated for mental illness or tried for murder.
"Throwing the children into a caldron and burning them to death . . . " mused District Judge Edward Farmer, who will decide if Dobben, 26, is mentally competent to stand trial.
"I read the offense report when he was brought before me, and it was such a hideous crime that I almost automatically decided I would have to determine his competency to stand trial."
A psychiatric evaluation should reach Farmer by late December or early January, after which the judge will set a competency hearing, said Dr. Lynn Blunt, the center's clinical director.
In the meantime, people in this blue-collar town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan have been trying to fathom the deaths, the grisly culmination of a troubled life.
Bart Dobben was popular and active in school, said his mother, Mari Dobben. Like many young men in town, he went to work in a foundry, starting as a janitor after high school.
He soon moved into production, operating a huge vessel that purified and treated 10,000 pounds of molten iron at a time to produce various alloys, said Paul White, his partner in the vessel's control room for five years.
"He wasn't disliked. He was a friendly, outgoing person. He was energetic" and would ask the foreman for work when operations were slow, White said. "He used to call me Chuck and I called him Buck."
Dobben didn't drink, smoke or swear, he said.
"He took a lot of abuse from people he worked with," White said. "I felt a lot of people would take advantage of his nature and inability to come back with a lot of vulgar talk. He'd get around it. He'd say 'Don't be such a smart Alice.' "
Began to Unravel
Dobben had a new house and a year-old baby when things began to unravel in late 1985. White, 31, said he noticed the change.
One day in September that year, Dobben took his family on a careening, 80-m.p.h. drive down twisting roads "because he felt God told him that our baby was in danger," Susan Dobben said, according to court records.
The police were called and Dobben was taken to the psychiatric unit of a local hospital, where White visited him.
Dobben told White that his family and the hospital wanted him to sign a form to authorize psychiatric treatment.
"He told me he was afraid to sign. He said, 'Chuck, they could do anything to me, they could give me shock treatment.' He had an open Bible on the bed, like he was searching for an answer."
Dobben refused to sign, and his wife petitioned to have him committed to the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital.
In her petition, she said her husband once covered the house windows and the television set with towels, hung diapers over baby pictures and "anointed the baby and things in his room with olive oil."
Dr. Jadimpalli V. Raju, a psychiatrist, diagnosed Dobben as a schizophrenic who exhibited an "overt religious preoccupation" and who believed "God is going to come soon and take care of things."
Dobben was prescribed psychotropic drugs. Released from the hospital, he returned to work quieter, more subdued, White said.
Dobben's hospital stay was common knowledge around the foundry.
"When he came back they would slap him on the back with 'Kick Me, I'm Crazy' signs," White said. "There's some people down there who have a lot of soul-searching to do now."
Family and friends say Dobben's behavior became more erratic in the last eight months, after he joined a fundamentalist sect and stopped taking his medicine.
Neighbors said Dobben and his wife argued frequently and separated often. He became more fanatically religious, likening holiday celebrations to pagan rites.