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'Walking Time Bomb' Exploded in Tragedy : Simi Valley: Karen Christensen never got the help authorities said she needed. Murder-suicide was the bizarre final catastrophe.

June 30, 1991|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months later, Christensen was taken into custody by Simi Valley police after she chased a woman in her car. When apprehended, Christensen told police she thought the woman was a CIA agent who had been following her. Police referred her to Ventura County mental health officials for observation.

In March, 1990, a month after Christensen's depression had led to Emily's move to live with friends in Simi Valley, Christensen was arrested for setting fire to her house on Tuttle Avenue.

Charles and Janet Warnick, longtime friends of the Christensen family, had agreed to take care of Emily as well as Kim, who had lived with the Warnicks since 1988. The Warnicks would eventually become their legal guardians.

"She was glad that we could take Emily in," said Charles Warnick Jr., who described himself as Emily's stepbrother. "But then she was mad because she wished she could" take care of her daughter.

Warnick said Emily and her mother often fought.

"They seemed like they always argued," he said, adding that Karen came over to visit Emily about once a month. It was at the Warnicks' house that the shooting occurred.

Since the fire, Christensen had been living with her parents, Oren and Verla Converse, at their Tarzana home in the San Fernando Valley.

Oren Converse said his daughter lived in a detached room at the back of the house. Because of her deep depression, she had been unable to work for the past year but only occasionally saw a psychiatrist, he said.

"We tried to help her every way we could," he said. "We did everything parents could do. But she was totally helpless."

In December, 1990, Christensen pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unlawful burning in connection with the house fire.

Before her sentencing in April, Christensen was evaluated by Dr. David Lichten of the Ventura County Corrective Services Agency.

In his report to the court, Lichten described her as "psychotic and exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia, which may have been diet-pill induced." Christensen was prescribed the drug Elavil for depression and had taken diet pills fairly regularly since the age of 17, according to her probation report.

Christensen told Lichten that she was upset about her husband leaving her and "was at a mental breaking point." She also told him that she had attempted suicide three times.

Lichten concluded that Christensen "represented a moderate danger to society and to herself," but said that "this danger could be substantially reduced with treatment."

Lichten said in the report that Christensen was an appropriate candidate for a new Ventura County mental health program aimed at mentally ill people who had committed crimes. But because Christensen was no longer a resident of the county, she was not eligible for the program.

Under the terms of her probation, Christensen was ordered to receive psychiatric counseling in Los Angeles County, where she lived. But the court did not schedule the treatment.

F. William Forden, director of the Ventura County Corrective Services Agency, said the court allows people some flexibility in getting counseling because there are a number of factors to consider. Among them, he said, are transportation, the ability to pay for psychiatric help and the availability of mental health programs.

His department's budget constraints and Christensen's residency outside the county made it more difficult for probation officials to check on her following sentencing, Forden said.

"Out-of-county cases present all kinds of problems," he said. "Obviously, they are not handy for personal contact."

In fact, Ron Turk, Christensen's probation officer, said he did not verify that she was in a counseling program. Turk, whose workload includes 850 cases outside the county, said his only contact with Christensen since her sentencing was by mail.

Turk said she assured him in a letter that she was trying to get help. Asked why he did not attempt to make sure Christensen was receiving therapy, he cited his heavy workload. "I do the best I can," he said.

Christensen's brother, Stephen Converse, said she had been attempting to enroll in a psychiatric program but was having trouble gaining admittance because most county- and state-funded programs in Los Angeles were full.

"She was rejected at a couple of places because they said she was too normal," he said. "They would say that there were too many drug addicts or bad people taking up all the counseling that was available."

Oren Converse said he and his wife, Verla, had done all they could to see that their daughter got help.

"We had been trying like the dickens to get her signed up," he said. "Verla had been trying to get her committed. She had been trying up until the time of the tragedy."

Forden said he was convinced that authorities did all they could to help Christensen.

"I don't think she slipped through the cracks," he said. "You have to understand that she had reported that she was trying to get help.

"But any time something like this happens, we obviously didn't do enough."

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