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How a Paranoid Schizophrenic Got a Gun -- And Why He Is a Victim, Too

A deeper look at Peter Jourdan's life reveals the complicated interplay between mental illness, criminality and guns.
 
 
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Brooklyn resident Michael Jourdan’s telephone rang around 1:30am last Friday morning. The caller asked if he was Peter Jourdan’s father; the man had found Jourdan’s phone and wanted to return it.

Michael Jourdan wasn’t surprised. How many times would his son lose his phone, he wondered. Peter, a 37-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic, could never keep track of the cell phones his father bought him. He invited the caller to come by.

Twenty minutes later, Michael Jourdan opened the door to four men, who flashed police badges and began interrogating him about his son. What was he like? Habits? Criminal record? It was minutes before Michael Jourdan got in his own repeated question: Was something wrong with his son? Finally, one of the detectives brusquely informed him that his son, Peter, was dead.

Sometime between December’s Newtown tragedy, when 20 schoolchildren and six staff members were gunned down at their elementary school, and Saturday’s Aurora shooting, the second mass murder in this small Denver suburb in nearly six months, Peter Jourdan — a paranoid schizophrenic with a criminal record associated with his illness — got his hands on a gun. According to the NYPD, he allegedly used fired a handful of shots at undercover police officers, who in turn, shot him seven times, killing him. If the statistics included people killed by police, Jourdan would be nearly the 500th victim of gun violence since Newtown. A deeper look at his life reveals the complicated interplay between mental illness, criminality and gun control in the United States.

Jourdan was 19 when he changed. An average Brooklyn teenager, he listened to hip-hop and boxed at Gleason’s gym; he smoked and drank; he loved to draw cartoon sketches. But just before he turned 20, he confessed to his father that he felt like someone was following him; that someone was after him. His paranoia worsened over the next year. He began drawing the apartment’s shades tight. Voices whispered in his ear. His father, whose sister also suffers from mental illness, knew something was wrong and began bringing him to hospitals. But it wasn’t until Jourdan attacked a neighbor who had complained about noise did the teenager receive his diagnosis — which was doled out along with a prison sentence for assault.

With his new classification as a paranoid-schizophrenic, Jourdan headed to Riker’s Island. He was soon transferred to Sing Sing, where he spent a month in solitary confinement.

“That really screwed him up,” said Michael Jourdan.

When he came out, everyone in the family noticed the difference. Peter would stick out his tongue and shield his face from other people’s gazes. He developed a facial twitch and refused to make eye contact with anyone, including his younger sister, Natalie, who was closest to Peter. Worst of all, he refused to take his medication.

Peter Jourdan began a cycle of incarceration and hospitalizations. He wasn’t aggressive, but he was deeply afraid of other people and could be violent if he felt threatened. When not in prison, he didn’t want to live with his family or take his medication. The rest of the Jourdans were at a loss; doctors refused to medicate or commit the man against his will. His father tried deception — crushing up his son’s medication and mixing it in with his food. The night Peter Jourdan realized the trick, he induced vomiting and then stopped eating anything that didn’t come from a can. Finally, Jourdan disappeared.

Seven years later, the family received an incoherent letter from Jourdan postmarked Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. It was just in time; his father, distraught over the disappearance of his son, had hired a private investigator who promised to find Jourdan “dead or alive.” But alive he was, and forced to take his medicine during his incarceration, he was clearer-headed than ever. At the end of his sentence, Natalie went out to fly him home.

“It was the first time he’d been on a plane, and he was terrified,” she said, explaining that Peter, a 6’2’’ grown man, held her hand throughout the entire flight. “He begged me to take a train back.”

Natalie recalled the story just after the family returned from looking at caskets on Saturday afternoon, two days after the shooting. Between press calls and villainous headlines, it had been a difficult few days, and the family took solace in memories of Peter’s normalcy: the time he peed his pants at his uncle’s wedding at nine years old, or when he got out of a prison stint and, sufficiently medicated, requested a feast of pancakes and knishes.

Back on the East Coast after his California adventure, Jourdan moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where his mother lived. The family set him up in an apartment, which Jourdan paid for using his disability checks. His sister said she wasn’t fundamentally scared for her brother’s safety. “I was mostly concerned he wouldn’t keep his apartment clean,” Natalie said.

As in the past, he went through good times and bad ones, mainly depending on whether he was taking his medication. Over the last year, he traveled back and forth from New York City to Allentown, almost weekly, sometimes arriving with little more than a plastic bag of things. Natalie took him shopping for winter clothes. Michael made sure his son always had a cell phone, and he kept a cupboard of canned food ready for his visits.

“Whenever he needed me, he came,” explained his father. “He’d call — sometimes he’d come at 4 or 5 in the morning. If it was cold, he’d sleep here. And then in the morning, I would say 'I love you' and hug him, and he would smile before he left.”

The situation wasn’t ideal — but there’s no easy way to care for an adult paranoid-schizophrenic who refuses medication.

And then, sometime in the last few weeks, Peter Jourdan got a gun. He’d recently lost his apartment, and refusing to live at home, often slept on the streets. But when undercover officers in the subway approached him and ordered him off the N train for crossing in between moving cars, Jourdan panicked, drew the weapon and fired at them — and was killed.

According to the NYPD, Jourdan used a 9-millimeter Taurus handgun that, reports say, was registered in the state of Pennsylvania.

“It’s not a hard gun to find,” said Russell Jones, the owner of Jones gun shop in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Jourdan and his mother lived. Jones explained that a 9-millimeter Taurus is an inexpensive handgun — about $300-$400 new, and $200 used—and readily available in the area.

“Basically, we’re talking a 15-minute to half-hour drive in every direction, and you’ll find about 30 gun shops,” he said. Jones explained that with a clean criminal record, someone could be in and out of one of these gun shops with a 9-millimeter Taurus in under an hour.

“I can tell you this much: If you were buying a rifle, shotgun or handgun you could walk in and look at a display and say, 'I want this gun,' or, 'I want you to order me this gun,' and someone will take it out of the cabinet and hand it to you. You fill out two forms; they make a call in to the state police; and you'll have it within an hour,” he said.

(The 9-millimeter Taurus handgun is made by Forjas Taurus, an international weapons manufacturer based in Brazil. In 2011, it netted just over $300 million in revenue, making it a small sliver of the more than $400 billion global arms manufacturing industry, which has been growing despite the recession. On January 3, the day before Jourdan died, Taurus bought the Florida-based weapons company Diamondback Firearms, which specializes in concealed-carry pistols.)

It’s unclear how Jourdan — who has a handful of felonies on his criminal record — ended up with this handgun, and whether he purchased it legally. Both the criminal convictions and his history of mental illness should have made it impossible for him to buy a gun legally; federal law prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions from purchasing a gun. Pennsylvania, however, is one of 19 states that has added fewer than 100 mental health records to the FBI database in nearly 20 years, meaning that Jourdan’s illness is almost surely absent from these records.

But this question wasn't the main focus of the mainstream media's reporting after the incident. Instead, the city's papers rushed to villify Jourdan and celebrate the bravery of the police officers. The New York Daily News even illustrated this point by printing the headshots in two separate boxes: Jourdan under the headline "bad guys" and the officers under the headline "heroes." To Natalie, this framing was as simplistic as the superhero cartoons her brother liked to sketch as a child. To those following the national debate over gun safety that has erupted since Newtown, this narrative recalls the National Rifle Association's proposal that the only way to stop violence is to get guns in the hands of the good guys — including having a "good guy with a gun" in every school — despite evidence that the only thing more guns cause are more homicides.

But the story of Peter Jourdan is more complicated than any black-and-white, hero-and-villian narrative. To those closest to Peter Jourdan, their tragedy is an example of how guns, and their shocking accessibility, is what kills people — a story that has been obscured by a mainstream media that cannot imagine the shooter himself as another victim of the gun manufacturing industry.

“I’m not trying to say my brother did anything correct,” said Natalie. “But they definitely painted a picture of him that was false… they didn’t even release [information on his illness] in the press. For all his life he was a schizophrenic. But when he was shot dead, then he was cured — he was just a criminal. That’s amazing. The police cured him. All my life, I couldn’t do that.”

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.

 
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