The parents of a man accused of killing three retired farmers in southwestern Wisconsin warned Waukesha County officials just before the murders that their son was delusional and potentially dangerous, but county mental health professionals disagreed and did not detain him.
As Jaren Kuester, 31, of Waukesha, sits in Lafayette County jail in Darlington on three tentative charges of first-degree intentional homicide, his parents are saying the tragedy uncovered April 28 never would have happened if Kuester had been hospitalized as they asked.
“Our son is going to spend the rest of his life behind bars because they wouldn’t help him even though we repeatedly asked,” said his mother, Kathleen Kuester of Waukesha.
The head of the Waukesha County mental health system stands by the April 25 assessment from one of its most experienced crisis managers that Kuester didn’t meet any of the criteria defined by state law that would have allowed the county to detain him against his wishes.
“We felt we responded in the ways we could,” said Peter Schuler, director of Waukesha County Health and Human Services.
The bodies of Dean Thoreson, 76; Gary Thoreson, 70; and Chloe Thoreson, 66; were found a week ago in the town of Wiota home where Gary and Chloe lived. The men were brothers, and Chloe and Gary were married.
Police said Kuester abandoned his Jeep Wagoneer on a rural road in Green County on April 26 and removed all or most of his clothes as he walked through five or six miles of swampland, brush and thick woods before he reached the Thoreson home.
Kuester did not know any of the Thoresons, police said.
Police believe Kuester was in an “altered mental state” during the killings, said his father, Jim Kuester, who has been in contact with police since the murders.
Diagnosed at age 16
Jaren Kuester was initially diagnosed with depression when he was 16, his mother said, and court records show a history of violence as a teenager that was linked to mental illness. Kathleen Kuester declined to describe any of her son’s mental health diagnoses or what medications he was taking, but she said he has received disability payments because of his mental illness. He also has been hospitalized at least twice because of his mental illness, according to his father.
Besides the Waukesha County mental health crisis worker, employees at the Waukesha Police Department and Waukesha County jail, where he was detained briefly on April 26, also declined requests to admit his son to a mental hospital, Jim Kuester said.
“He was definitely delusional,” said Jim Kuester, who called police Sunday afternoon from his Waukesha home after his son appeared there. Police say Jaren Kuester drove there from Lafayette County in a truck that belonged to one of the Thoreson brothers.
Jim Kuester later learned from police that their son allegedly told them that he thought demons were all around him when he attacked the Thoresons, according to Kathleen Kuester.
Her son also told police he thought he was walking to heaven when he walked through the swampland and removed his clothes and folded them neatly along the way, she added.
It wasn’t the first time he abandoned his car and walked through swampy ground in a state of paranoia, according to Kathleen Kuester. Both events were triggered by a traumatic event, real or imagined, she said.
Four years ago, Kuester, under a delusion that a high school classmate had been killed, ventured aimlessly for 16 hours through a wooded marsh in Racine County before ending up cold and shivering in the back of a convenience store, his mother said.
According to a Racine County Sheriff’s Department report, Kuester was “covered in burdocks and soaking wet” when deputies found him on Feb. 13, 2009, near Franksville. He could not explain to police why he was there or what he was doing, the report said.
After his parents arrived to pick him up at a police station, Kuester showed signs of paranoia and told them somebody was trying to kill him, Kathleen Kuester said.
“Back then, he thought somebody killed a girl he went to high school with who he had a crush on. He said he knew these demons killed and tortured her and that they were coming after him,” she said. “He thought helicopters were following him. He ditched his cellphone, he ditched his coat, he climbed over barbed wire fences to get away from the helicopters he thought were following him.”
Kuester’s parents drove their son to a hospital, and he eventually wound up at Waukesha County Mental Health Center, she said.
“It’s been like this ever since,” said Kathleen Kuester, whose divorce from Jim was final in January. “We just go back and forth with him.”
Puppy’s death a trigger
Jaren Kuester had his own apartment and did odd jobs for a tile company owner, his mother said. He had been training in mixed martial arts.
He is close to his parents and four brothers and visited them often, especially when he was having problems with his mental illness, Kathleen Kuester said.
Her son’s state grew darkest over the past few weeks, she said.
“We tried to get him to go to the doctor and he said he would, but he didn’t go,” she said. “He said he was taking his meds and I questioned whether he was.”
Kuester’s condition worsened after his 6-month-old puppy, a pit bull mix named Armani, was killed by a car a couple of weeks ago, she added.
“He loved that dog, and his mental health just spiraled out of control from there,” Kathleen Kuester said. “He would come to his brother’s place that is across the hall from my apartment and spend hours talking about the demons all around him. He said they were following him everywhere.”
The Kuesters became alarmed and sought help, Kathleen Kuester said.
Jim Kuester said he asked Robert Walker, a clinical social worker and crisis manager for the Waukesha County Mental Health Clinic, to admit his son to a mental hospital when he and Jaren met with Walker and another crisis manager on April 25.
“I said to him that he is a danger to himself, and Jaren right away responded that that wasn’t the fact, and then he got up and walked out,” Jim said.
Walker said he wouldn’t admit Kuester unless he agreed to it, the elder Kuester said. “They basically refused to give him any help,” he said.
Walker was just following state law, which forbids involuntary commitment or emergency detention of individuals unless it can be shown they are a danger to themselves or others, Schuler said.
“From what I know, that assessment would not have seen those criteria met at that time,” Schuler said. “You can’t admit somebody because a parent, best friend or interested party wants that done.”
Walker, one of the county’s most experienced crisis managers, was busier than normal that day, Schuler added: “He had some very serious other things happen in the community that he had to be deployed out to.”
After striking out with Walker, Jim Kuester said he turned to Joan Sternweis, a Waukesha County social worker and clinical services manager. “She sent me a complaint form to fill out,” he said. “It’s on my desk. But it’s a little late for complaining.”
He also called the Waukesha County office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which offered to help him look for his son, Jim Kuester said.
Jailed after shelter incident
Jim Kuester didn’t see his son again until the next day when he learned he had been taken to jail after an incident at the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County.
Jaren Kuester, who took his dog there to be cremated right after it died, told staffers it was alive and he wanted it back, according to animal shelter director Lynn Olenik. He also became verbally abusive and threatened the staff. He told them they were sick and would pay with their lives for hurting the dog, Olenik said.
When he returned to the shelter later in the day, police took Kuester to jail on an outstanding warrant. Schuler said county mental health employees were informed he had been jailed.
The Kuesters thought the sum of his erratic behavior that week would be convincing evidence to have their son hospitalized.
“He was talking about getting his dead dog back, he was talking about Satan, he’s talking about demons, he’s talking about people following him trying to kill him, he’s talking about messages God was giving him,” Kathleen Kuester said.
When their pleas to police and at the jail went nowhere, Jim Kuester said he sought help from the office of Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas. His message was relayed to Vrakas’ chief of staff, Shawn Lundie, who said it went no further.
“He (Jim Kuester) was the parent of an adult in the county jail,” Lundie said. “Those calls do happen on occasion. They are generally considered legal matters — certainly not something that the county executive can intervene (in).”
Eventually, Jim Kuester learned his son had been bailed out of jail by a man who employed his son from time to time to do odd jobs. He said they talked on the phone.
“Jaren asked me for a ride to his truck, which was at the (animal shelter). When he got in his truck, he drove off and that was the last I saw him until Sunday,” Jim Kuester said.
“I texted him Saturday, ‘Jaren how is it going?’ but I never got a response.”
Later, Jim Kuester learned his son’s cellphone was found in Beloit, smashed but working, he said. And then, an officer with the Green County Sheriff’s Department called to tell him Jaren’s car was abandoned and they were searching for him.
“I don’t know why he drove there. He was delusional. He knows nobody out there. He has lived in Waukesha his whole life,” Jim Kuester said.
He declined to discuss what happened after his son arrived at his place Sunday on the advice of his son’s attorney.
‘Not shy’ about detentions
Schuler said Waukesha County mental health employees take seriously every call from a parent or loved one seeking help for a mentally ill person.
“If we see it’s necessary, we’ll certainly cooperate with family and others to do an emergency detention,” he said. “Over 85 percent of the people who come into the mental health facility here in Waukesha are because they are emergency detained. So we are not shy about that at all.”
Short of committing someone, mental health workers have other ways to help, Schuler said.
“You are trying to counsel them, you’re trying to reassure them, you’re trying to drop in on them, you’re trying to phone them, you’re trying to assure that if they are taking meds that they continue taking meds,” Schuler said. “I know all of those things we were consistently doing” with Kuester.
But Schuler said nobody contacted Kuester from the time he left Walker’s office on April 25 and got out of jail on April 26.
His mother said that is tearing her up inside.
“I feel for the victims’ families. Our whole family does,” Kathleen Kuester said. “But I can’t help but feel that Jaren was a victim, too, and that he was let down by Waukesha County Mental Health, the Waukesha city police department and the Waukesha County jail.”