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A portrait of mental disintegration

Woman accused of stabbing four people at Target spent years in and out of psychiatric facilities, which released her despite her family's pleas to keep her.

May 08, 2010|By Lee Romney, Robert Faturechi and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Antioch, Calif., and Los Angeles — Layla Rosette Trawick could be sweet and charming. She volunteered for causes she believed in, friends and family said, and could be generous almost to a fault.

But anyone who spent time with the 34-year-old woman knew that there was another side to her.

She was convinced in recent months she was the test subject in a mind-control experiment. When she read books, she hallucinated that smaller books were emerging from the text with secret messages for her. She suffered bouts of profound paranoia and delusions.

Last year, hoping to start a new life, she moved from Northern California to Los Angeles.

But on Monday, authorities allege, Trawick entered a Target store in West Hollywood armed with a butcher's knife and a chef's knife. She roamed through the aisles muttering about being bipolar and randomly stabbing people, including a woman holding a baby. Four people were wounded, one critically.

In interviews with The Times since the attack, friends and relatives of Trawick describe her as a woman who suffered mental health problems from childhood. Trawick was in and out of psychiatric wards much of her life, as many as half a dozen times in the last year. But between the flaws of the mental health system and her own paranoia, she slipped through the cracks. Although she felt more stable on medication, those around her said, she was often unable to obtain it or declined to take it.

In the months before Trawick's rampage, her condition was deteriorating. She lived for a time with an ex-boyfriend in his Hollywood apartment, but she had become too destructive. In the weeks leading up to the attack, she was living on the street, and with strangers. Like many suffering from severe mental illness without the prescription drugs she needed, she often used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.

"There was nobody taking her seriously," said the former boyfriend, Steve, who spoke on the condition that his last name would not be used. Trawick was deeply distrustful of mental health professionals who could help her, he added. "She didn't believe that these people were in the right frame of mind, or have enough power to help her."

Traces of Trawick's illness emerged when she was 3 years old in the form of hallucinations.

"She saw fishies," her mother, 55-year-old Sheila Clark, said at her home in the Contra Costa County city of Antioch, where Trawick grew up.

By the age of 7, there were disturbing images of clowns laughing at her. Clark took her daughter to doctors, who speculated that the visions might be the result of seizures, but suggested no follow-up, she said.

At 16, the suicide attempts and cutting began. From then on, family members said, Trawick's life was a constant cycle of light and darkness.

When she was doing well, she was gregarious and vibrant. She loved to dance and act. As a teenager, she performed with Antioch's community theater, taking particular pride in her role as the laundress in "Scrooge."

After graduating from Antioch High School, Trawick became a beautician and worked at a number of local salons, living on her own. But her descents into self-harm were harsh and numerous.

Clark said she lost count of the number of times she called 911 to prevent her eldest-born from harming herself. Officers would arrive and take her away under California Welfare and Institutions Code 5150, which allows for involuntary psychiatric hold in cases of imminent danger to self or others.

Her hospitalizations generally lasted about a week, her family said. She would stabilize on medication. Then, after being released, she would ultimately stop taking her drugs and deteriorate.

Clark said she would beg for continued hospitalization, transfer to a program where Trawick could receive intensive attention, even long-term institutionalization — to no avail.

If she no longer posed a threat to herself, hospital staff would tell Clark, they had no choice but to let her go.

"I didn't want them to release her, and they did, time after time after time," her mom said.

People with severe mental illness like Trawick's benefit from intensive outpatient care, in which housing, medication and therapy are coordinated by a social worker. The style of care — known as "whatever it takes" — is a cornerstone of the Mental Health Services Act, the millionaires' tax passed by voters in 2004 that has raised more than $3.7 billion for improved community mental health care.

But as a resident of four different counties — Contra Costa, Alameda, Sacramento and ultimately Los Angeles — Trawick never plugged into any mental health system to receive anything remotely comparable, her family said. Hospitals typically give a patient like Trawick a discharge plan directing her to a clinic, experts said. Whether Trawick received one is unknown, but many mentally ill people need extensive follow-up to make sure they stick with such a plan.

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