What would you do if your best friend murdered someone? Really consider this question, your best friend. How about if you discovered they had schizophrenia which had gone relatively unnoticed before the murder?
This is the person who you went on family holidays with as a teenager, the person you had your first cigarette with and the person you trusted above most others. To consider this as a reality is totally incomprehensible – but this was in fact entirely real for SJ de Lagarde, who discovered that her childhood best friend killed his stepfather in a schizophrenic rage.
How would you handle the stigma? Would you speak to them again? This is the stuff movies are made of. But for SJ it’s a reality, and it goes on and on…
“I didn’t understand – this is somebody I grew up with, I knew him from the age of 12 and to then discovered he’d been imprisoned, and then put in a mental institution because he killed somebody it was so unbelievable, I knew him as a very handsome young teenager… what the hell happened?” SJ explains.
I feel I need to paint a vivid picture of SJ… She is a lovely German woman, who now lives in London. She is extremely softly spoken and works in finance. Quite the polar opposite to someone who you’d imagine harbouring a story just as turbulent as this one.
Somebody that I used to know…
SJ has kept a pledge to keep the identity of the man in question here concealed, therefore I will refer to him as Jay, as she does in her novel Solacium.
Growing up SJ’s family would always holiday with Jay and his father, as he and her father were best friends. SJ and Jay became firm friends and had a huge impact on each other’s upbringing as they formed a strong friendship as impressionable teenagers. SJ spoke about how they were both slightly rebellious at heart and as they grew older, they would sneak away from their parents on these holidays and go partying and drink underage in whatever beautiful island they were holidaying on at the time, one of which was Ibiza. SJ spoke of a time when they snuck up onto the roof of where they were staying for a sneaky cigarette. They discussed future plans and how Jay thought that they should run his father’s successful stationary business when they grew up as they’d make a great team. However, this happy conversation then took a turn and he would explain how he occasionally heard voices and didn’t know what to do… but the next day, Jay wouldn’t acknowledge anything controversial had been said the previous night, which left a young SJ confused.
“I could hear them unlocking his handcuffs and his foot cuffs on the phone – then I’d hear a click which meant someone was listening into the phone call”
As they grew up and became young adults into their early 20s they remained close but at a distance, work brought SJ to England and she met the love of her life – life was invariably good for SJ. Across the ocean, in their homeland of Germany life was not so great for Jay who was having spells of depression and a string of failed relationships due to paranoia and jealously. SJ would occasionally speak with him about how he was feeling, but admits to perhaps not taking it very seriously, she says: “I remember him ringing me saying he thought he was suffering with a type of depression, and because I was young I didn’t know how to react, I giggled and told him not to be daft.” SJ openly admits to having no psychiatric training, and feeling a little overwhelmed by his confessions and therefore dismissed it. Something she now thinks about often and whether she could have interjected on his road of emotional destruction.
As a young teenager, Jay knew his mother was having an affair, with the man who eventually became his stepfather. He took it upon himself to tell his father rendering his mother’s secret exposed. Resentment had clearly been growing within Jay towards his stepfather but what was to follow in the years to come was entirely inconceivable.
“This is a guy who grew up in a beautiful home with a white picket fence”
Years past, and SJ now a new mother was coming home to Germany for Christmas with her beautiful baby daughter and her loving husband. Traditionally SJ’s family would always spend the festive time with Jay and his father, or at the very least they’d make an appearance. It soon became apparent that Jay wasn’t surfacing – sadly, for SJ he hadn’t been responding to any of her messages throughout the year, but being a new parent she had other priorities and didn’t think too much of it. She explains; “I asked my parents where is Jay? As he would always spend Christmas with us. They went entirely white in the face, I thought he had died initially from their reaction.”
SJ soon came to learn that he had killed someone. His stepfather in fact, and he was incarcerated. How do you process this kind of information? It’s just not normal, how would it ever feel steady? “Not only did this all happen in the previous year, but the week he killed his stepfather with a baseball bat, was the week I gave birth to my first daughter. My parents never told me, they didn’t want to stress me out any further… they said that I was focused on new life and they didn’t want to tell me about the life that he ended.”
I asked her what she did next, after this kind of information seeps in, what do you actually do with it? She describes the first phone call she made to him; “I knew he hadn’t been feeling good in the years leading up to this, but I never thought he’d be capable of anything like this. I then asked his father for the number to call him. It was the scariest phone call I have ever made – I had the number in my bag for a few days before I mustered up the courage to call, all these questions in my mind… What am I going to say to him? How can I talk to him? Should I be doing this? Truly a mental minefield.” By this time his trial had been and gone and Jay had been transferred to a mental institution due to his then diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic condition and the severity of his crime. She tells me that when she eventually plucked up the courage to ring her friend from yesteryear, she remembers him saying; “SJ, is that really you?!” his voice was the same, the same tones which brought her right back to those holidays and the carefree life they used to lead.
“The conversations in the early days were limited to 15 minutes, and it was only on certain days. He was in a maximum security facility. I could hear them unlocking his handcuffs and his foot cuffs on the phone, and then letting him into the room – then I’d hear a click which meant someone was listening into the phone call.”
As time went on went on, and years went by he began to prove that he wasn’t an immediate threat and he was steady on his medication. The authorities allowed him more phone time ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. He would be involved with a lot of therapy seeing different psychologists and psychiatrists. Every time he made progress he would gain time doing unsupervised art, or more minutes on the phone.
Jay wasn’t someone who would be traditionally paired with the term ‘schizophrenia’ SJ tells me. He was from an exceptionally respected family in the region, his parents and his stepfather were deemed as very successful people. In theory, he had the best start at life, but appearances can be deceptive it seems.
“This is a guy who grew up in a beautiful home with a white picket fence. I remember seeing his house in one of the articles I was reading about the murder, and I obviously recognised it as I had been there so many times – in the article they explain how he was found on the stairs (stairs I had walked up and down numerous times) covered in blood having killed his stepfather with a baseball bat.”
“They said that I was focused on new life and they didn’t want to tell me about the life that he ended”
The reason behind Jay’s irrational motive was entirely laced with his schizophrenic paranoia, not only did he constantly think that girlfriends were being unfaithful – he also built a story in his mind around his stepfather and his younger half-sister. He had decided that she was being molested by him, he would take a small incident like his stepfather patting his daughter on the knee and somehow equate this to molestation creating the rage. This then was false, but sadly Jay couldn’t see past what the voices and his mind told him – which eventually led to the brutal end to his stepfather’s life.
For SJ finding out this news on that fateful Christmas many years ago was horrifying and disturbing. She recalls everyone around her being non-conversational about the subject because they’d had nearly a year to ingest the almost unbelievable story. But for SJ, it was real and it was current. She remembers; “Besides my husband I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it all. I’d find myself trying to speak to lots of people about it, which inevitably was shocking and wasn’t the right thing to do as people didn’t want to talk about my childhood friend who had killed someone.” She continues; “I remember meeting my in laws after that Christmas, they were asking me how it had been seeing my parents over Christmas – I was still trying to get my head around it all, and I told them it was strange and then started asking if they knew much about schizophrenia explaining to them about Jay and what he had done – I was conscious they were thinking… who the hell has our son married?!” Sensing this feeling of recoil across the board SJ took pen to paper, or rather hand to keyboard and started to write her feelings down, this was probably a couple of years ago.
“Initially I just wrote down our conversations on the phone, random notes and tried to make sense of the situation that way. I would speak to my husband about it who was patient and kind, but probably didn’t want to hear about it as often as I brought it up. The notes soon became a story, a story of my childhood into adulthood which ran in parallel to Jay’s. It was amazing to be transported to that time again where we had no worries and we were free. Endless reminiscence. The more I wrote the more therapeutic it was, and the less isolated I felt. My best friend from my teenage years killed someone, who wants to be associated with something as terrible as that? When I wrote, I could talk about how he used to be, and talk about the small part of him that I think still exists under all the medication and the voices.” SJ explains that’s what led her to writing her novel Solacium.
I was intrigued to learn about what Jay’s mother thought about his actions, and in turn his illness. To which SJ told me that this incident happened over 6 years ago, and he has only in the last three years started to receive a phone call from her on his birthday. Quite understandably having your husband taken from you in such strange and unrelenting circumstances must be unbearable, especially if the murderer is your son.
Coming face to face with Jay
“SJ, have you ever visited him?” I ask. The answer is yes. She went to one of the best friend’s children’s christening in Germany, and her plan was after the Christening her husband would drive her to the institution he was living in. There was unrest with her group of friends when they learnt where she was heading off too, they didn’t understand why she was going to see a murderer. “I didn’t have a concrete answer for them. He used to be my friend, I had stayed in contact with him for years at this point – all the time being while he was incarcerated, but never visited him. I was nervous, I was scared. But it was something I had to do.”
SJ explains what it felt like walking into the building; “I was intimated, everyone around me was terrifying. It didn’t feel real.” She then talks about the shock when she actually came face to face with the man who had caused so much controversy these last few years. “He looked so different to the last time I saw him, he wasn’t the good looking guy from years ago. He looked worn, he was much bigger and looked emotionally broken.” SJ spoke about an urge in him around wanting to get better, he would ask her questions about her profession and how much she thought he could earn if he was to ever get out.
Chronologically, Jay received life imprisonment in a mental institution for his crime. This was reduced to eight years, which eventually was reduced to six due to signs of remorse and vast improvement in behaviour, a decision made by the German authorities. Jay is now living in a halfway house, he isn’t part of society, nor is he totally imprisoned. He is occasionally allowed visits to see his father, SJ told me one of her biggest fears; “I was worried that he could potentially come and visit, as he is now allowed to visit his dad (in Germany) as I live in England this is probably not going to be the case. I had an irrational fear and asked him if they are giving him his passport – I couldn’t have him turn up on my doorstep, I am fiercely protective of my girls and I just couldn’t handle that. I didn’t even like him mentioning my daughters on the phone.”
The last time SJ ever saw Jay she presented him with her novel, the story telling both their lives – which he had given his full consent too. He remarked that she had the life he wanted, a loving family and a good job and now she has told the world his story, his biggest paranoia.
She never heard from him again, and this was over two years ago. She tries to reach out every so often, but it falls on deaf ears.
SJ has come to realise that she will never hear from Jay again.
This article in absolutely no way condones Jay’s actions, but perhaps it highlights how we all need help at times. This is a very extreme example of a human falling deeper and deeper into a dark place in their mind, and perhaps not being medicated properly. But just in everyday life, if someone is destressed, take just five minutes out of your day to talk to them. They might be under pressure at work, they might have an irrational fear of something you don’t understand – but just listen. A study carried out 14 years ago indicated that 11% of unlawful killings carried out in the UK are carried out by those suffering with Schizophrenia, this number has since declined by 3% per year – this could be because we are talking about it more openly now. If you listen to someone what’s the worse that can happen? You might gain nothing, you might save their life, or possibly someone else’s.
SJ in her own words has written about Jay’s condition:
SJ de Lagarde
Mental Health Awareness Week
This week is national mental health awareness week (8th-12th May 2017) and we as a society have a duty to talk about societal issues – be it big or small and if it leads to lives being lost I would say this ranks pretty highly in the grand scheme of things. SJ spends an incredibly amount of time now speaking and campaigning around the subject of mental health and how we can all help in our own little way.
SJ de Lagarde
When SJ contacted me and told me her story I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks, I tried countless times to put myself in her shoes, but I just couldn’t. If it was my friend, I just don’t know honestly how I’d react. I think it was exceptionally brave for SJ to speak out about this controversial subject, and tell it from the eyes of a friend, a trustee, and a concerned voice.
We never consider apart from the victim and their family who a murderer impacts – whether the murderer is sane or not. How do families and friends of the murderer shake the tarnish they are unfairly painted with? How do they get on with their lives free of judgement? SJ is a mental health advocate, and is passionate about the taboo around Schizophrenia to fade allowing sufferers to speak openly about their condition.