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When O.J. Simpson made his famous Blazer ride down the 405 in 1994, I was headed in the same direction to meet up with my middle daughter Amy for a James Taylor concert. I had no time for murderers. I didn't learn the details of the famous slo-mo freeway chase until later because I was late for my first father/daughter date since Amy began her freshman year at UC San Diego. She had proudly made a show of buying tickets with her own money - a Father's Day gift she knew I'd love because the folky balladeer was my musical hero as well as hers.
Taylor was already on stage when I arrived, but had just begun one of our mutual favorites...
"Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to..."
It was a grand and memorable night but sobering career priorities took over first thing the following morning. In my role as journalist, I was in the employ of both CNN and TV Guide at the time. While I pursued O.J., Amy pursued a BA that would eventually lead to a degree at Loyola Law and a license to practice law in California.
Last week, word came to me that my precious Amy had died, probably at the hands of another. Her body had been found in an abandoned rental car in an upscale neighborhood of Hermosillo, Mexico, four hours south of the Arizona border. She had been missing since Christmas eve. Her husband Mike filed a Missing Person report with the Orange County Sheriff on Dec. 30 and with each passing day, we became more and more worried.
Amy had fallen victim to mental illness at least five years ago. One shrink called it bipolar psychosis; another, schizoaffective disorder. Whatever its name, it gripped my little girl's psyche and wouldn't let go. Medication never had an opportunity to help because her fevered brain told her not to take it. Therapy was futile. She booked into and out of rehabs literally from coast to coast, including Pennsylvania and Utah -- all to no positive end. Like her brave husband Mike, I had to stand by helplessly and watch her unravel.
Shortly after that long ago James Taylor concert, I published a book about mental illness. "In The Best of Families" came out the same week that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were butchered in Brentwood. The book was about the family of Ronald Reagan's personal lawyer Roy Miller - a high-octane partner at the blue chip firm of Gibson, Dunne & Crutcher. Despite his money, connections and political clout, Miller was unable to prevent schizophrenia from destroying his family. His elder son overdosed on aspirin while his younger son raped and murdered Roy's wife of 30 years.
"In The Best of Families" was meant to be a cautionary tale, urging politicians and the public to re-examine mental health "reforms" that President Reagan ushered into existence after he moved into the White House. That never happened. The same ill-conceived laws that shut the doors of scores of mental hospitals while "freeing" patients to live on their own are still on the books. As a direct result, Amy had as much chance to defeat her insanity as Roy Miller’s boys. The courts, the police, social service agencies, psychiatrists -- they all dodge responsibility with impunity because Ronald Reagan & Co. decided the severely psychotic have the same rights and privileges as any other citizen.
Because Amy was a lawyer, and quite a good one, she knew how and when to invoke her rights. Until the last several months before her life imploded, she used every trick in the book to dodge incarceration -- her last best hope of getting enforced treatment. Mental illness brings delusion, tics, bizarre behavior and uncontrollable mood swings, but at least in Amy's case, it didn't touch her street smarts. She could shriek foul invective while torching her husband's high school yearbooks or wrecking car after car, but clean up by the time the cops showed. Acting as though nothing had happened, she talked her way out of arrest time after time.
But she could not talk her way out of trouble the last week of 2019. She rented a car in Las Vegas on Dec. 23, sent off a flurry of pleading texts as she had been doing daily for years, then disappeared into Mexico. An FBI agent called Mike a week after he’d filed his Missing Person report. A battered body had been found, almost unrecognizable. Fingerprint confirmation was pending, but the passport and purse inside the rental car belonged to Mrs. Amy Suzanne Riley, 44, of Foothill Ranch, California.
I know many of you will send condolences when you read this. I know they are heartfelt and I thank you ahead of time. But if you can muster and sustain some form of fury akin to my own, I would ask that you offer that instead.
I dropped the ball 25 years ago. Because my book came out the same week as the O.J. Simpson arrest, "In The Best of Families" didn't sell very well. I shrugged it off and began writing the next book. I didn’t use Roy Miller's tragedy as a cudgel against the deaf, dumb and blind men and women elected to Congress and the California Legislature as I had planned.
Ronald Reagan did not act alone, but his extermination of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 guaranteed that neither Roy Miller’s sons nor my daughter would have anywhere to turn when their worlds began to collapse. IMHO, state and federal bureaucrats are as responsible for Amy's death as the bastards who did the actual killing.
There are over 2 million people behind bars in this country and a large chunk of them are mentally ill. The homelessness crisis now hitting every big city in America is as much about psychosis as it is lack of affordable housing. With every school mass shooting, voices from the left as well as the right cry out for better mental health, then do nothing.
Amy’s loving and extended family join me in seeking answers to the immediate mystery of her passing – a process that will take some time. But my own anger and anguish won’t fade at her grave site. I mean to pick up where I left off a quarter century ago. Millions upon millions of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness but they have no lobby on K Street or Sacramento. When the chips are down, they have nowhere to turn. Like Amy, they too have seen lonely times when they could not find a friend. Forgive me my sweet child. I always thought that I’d see you again.
Former Times Staff Writer Dennis McDougal is author of 14 books, including In The Best of Families: The Anatomy of a True Tragedy.