Family stymied by law in trying to avert Halloween shooting

November 5, 2016 GMT

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The last thing Heather Kopp expected was her son making national news for a half-mile-long assault on downtown Colorado Springs.

Even as Noah Harpham’s long battle with bipolar disorder worsened and his family raced to intervene, Kopp never thought he was capable of taking up arms against random people, killing three before dying in a shootout with police on Halloween 2015.

In her first public comments beyond a condolence statement since the shootings, Kopp said she instead feared her son might lose his job and begin the same “downward spiral” as her father, who also was bipolar and who killed himself at age 47.

“I didn’t associate mania with violence,” said Kopp, a well-known Christian author, in the email exchange with The Gazette. “Noah had never said or done anything that would lead one to think he had a capacity for violence.”

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It’s the very reason the family was unsuccessful in getting him outside help in the days leading up to the shooting, reported The Gazette (http://bit.ly/2fcOLBs). Colorado law mandates that unless a person is an obvious threat to themselves or others or is unable to provide for basic needs, no one can intervene to force them to seek a mental health evaluation or treatment.

Kopp’s husband and younger son were flying separate planes to Colorado Springs on Halloween day in desperate hope of getting Harpham to a mental health facility. Cedar Springs had said they would “be happy to see Noah if we could bring him in,” she said. The hospital reiterated the law prohibiting them from having Harpham committed without his consent, Kopp said.

Their planes landed in Colorado just hours after the shootings.

A dark past

Harpham had long battled demons, even before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his late 20s. Kopp wrote about the alcohol and drug abuse that plagued Harpham’s early years.

In her book, “Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk,” Kopp described her son as “introverted and incurably moody” and said he considered himself “the loser child, the burnt piece of toast in the bunch.”

Harpham would struggle for years, she wrote, until around 2008 or 2009, when he moved in with her in Colorado Springs and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His personality brightened and he started whistling again, she said.

His success allowed him to move into his place. He stayed out of trouble. He held a job as an insurance agent, and he had a girlfriend.

“My worst fears for Noah didn’t come to pass,” Kopp wrote in the 2013 book.

Two years before the shooting, Harpham stopped seeing his doctor and taking his medication. Then, in late October, the family’s concern grew.

Harpham became “euphoric,” his stepfather, David Kopp, said in investigative reports turned over to The Gazette.

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In one of the last conversations the two had, Harpham told him “it would be great and it would happen here,” ″it would be awesome” and “it would blow your mind,” the reports stated.

The family recognized he needed medical attention and “considered if the police could assist,” the report said, but were stalled by the legal restrictions for intervention, Kopp said.

“He was not saying anything remotely threatening toward himself or others,” she told The Gazette.

Even on the morning of the shooting, Harpham’s actions didn’t raise red flags.

About an hour and a half before his bloody march, Harpham stopped at a nearby McDonald’s to get coffee. Employees there were nervous to see the butt of a gun sticking out of Harpham’s chest holster — so much so they called police to report it, but he hadn’t committed a crime. Colorado is an open carry state.

Harpham wasn’t handling the weapon and made no threats. Instead, he asked employees to use the restroom and complied “without any complications” when they told him to leave his book bag outside the restroom door. When he finished, Harpham thanked the employees and told them “Happy Halloween,” before leaving peacefully, investigative reports said.

The next time someone saw Harpham with a gun was an hour and a half later.

A neighbor called 911 to report a man walking around with a long gun and gas cans, but said no one was in immediate danger, according to the 911 recording. The man was “suspicious,” but authorities were more worried by the gas cans than the gun, the 911 call would reveal.

“Because Harpham did not appear threatening to any person at the time, the 911 operator terminated the phone call,” according to the 4th Judicial district attorney’s report on the shooting. Officers would be dispatched “as soon as possible,” the caller was told.

Minutes later, Harpham set the property below his apartment on fire. He raised his gun against his first victim: a passing bicyclist who stopped to tell him to put his gun away.

The chance to intervene had passed.

‘We felt helpless’

Therein lies the conundrum.

Catch a person on a good day when signs of crisis are hidden or minimal, there’s almost nothing authorities can do to get the person help, experts say.

Colorado Springs Police Cmdr. Scott Whittington acknowledges the limitation has hindered first responders.

“If they haven’t broken a criminal law and they’re not a danger to themselves or somebody else, it’s voluntary on their part whether they go (for mental health care) or not,” Whittington said.

Harpham wasn’t about to volunteer for help, Kopp said. He “was convinced that he was the best he’d ever been in his life,” she said.

“We felt helpless,” Kopp said. “We wished there was a number to call, an official mental health professional, who would talk to us about Noah and his situation and possibly try to intervene.”

The Colorado Springs Police Department has such resources available for community use, one of them being the specialized Community Response Team whose only job is to help people who, like Harpham, may be in crisis.

The team combines the forces of police, paramedics and a licensed clinical social worker, who together respond to emergencies to identify mental health concerns and get citizens care faster.

It was created in conjunction with the AspenPointe Crisis Stabilization Unit and a statewide crisis hotline after the 2012 Aurora theater shootings, in which the gunman, James Holmes, was beset by mental health issues.

And numbers show the services are being used.

Last year, the stabilization unit helped 4,824 visitors. From July through September this year, they’ve worked with 3,758 people, of which 33 percent have been first-time visitors, project manager Barbara Kleve said.

“That’s a huge number of people who were not accessing care before,” Kleve said.

Most of those contacts come from concerned families or individuals who themselves reach out for help. But about 15 percent of visitors were connected through CRT, Kleve said.

The partnership has helped alleviate the burden once placed on first responders and emergency rooms to provide services they weren’t intended for, officials said.

‘Nothing’s changed’

Those services only work if the community is aware of them.

Heather Kopp said she sought help from Cedar Springs Hospital, but was told they couldn’t help unless they brought him in personally, because he wasn’t a threat. She didn’t learn about the state’s mental health crisis hotline number until her online search Halloween morning, she said.

The website, ColoradoCrisisServices.org, advertises, “When you don’t know where to start, start here.”

“I called to tell them about our situation and see if there was anything they could do to help once Dave and Nathan (the younger brother) got there,” Kopp said. “As it turned out, the shooting had already taken place.”

But as long as the state’s “imminent threat law” stands, Kopp fears mental health barriers will remain, allowing more people, like her son, to fall to their illnesses and possibly hurt others in the process.

Kopp watched the system fail for two decades when her father bounced around from homelessness to halfway houses, making “frequent suicide attempts” until he killed himself. “The same legal issues” that kept her father from care also failed her son, Kopp said.

“What I’ve learned is nothing’s changed.”

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com