Neighbors say Tacoma mother struggled to find son mental health help before her murder
TACOMA, Wash. - A teacher at Cedar Heights Middle School in the Kent School District was killed in her Tacoma home earlier this month, allegedly stabbed to death by her son.
According to court documents, 66-year-old Gail Gese called 911 before she was killed to report that her son was having a mental health crisis.
Michael – her adult son – was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia, according to court documents.
Neighbors tell FOX 13 that Gese was splitting her time between teaching and taking care of her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Those who live near the Gese home along the 800 block of South Anderson in Tacoma, say that Michael Gese was regularly pacing the block, or in the alley behind his mother’s home. He would regularly talk to himself.
"I’m sure she was trying to manage it the best she could, given the circumstances," said Katherine McMahon, Gese’s nextdoor neighbor. "What I had heard was that he was diagnosed, but on and off medication, but I didn’t really follow-up because; you know, everything Gail was going through with her husband."
Following Michael's arrest, he told investigators that he was trying to "pop the robot’s head off," so that they’d "release him from work."
It’s unclear what exactly he believed was happening, but he later admitted to police that he stabbed his mother in the neck with a kitchen knife. The incident, per court documents, was caught on camera – and occurred while she was on the phone with 911.
An operator heard someone yell, "Get out!" Afterward, there were only sounds of someone gasping for air.
"He was obviously suffering from a lot, so I don’t know how coherent he was," said McMahon, noting that the day prior – Monday – neighbors had noticed he was erratic, and pacing more than usual.
Those who live in the area are frustrated because they believe Gail Gese had tried to get help for her son for some time – though, it’s unclear what roadblocks she may have faced.
As a whole, Washington faces some challenges in terms of mental health. The 2023 State of Mental Health in America ranked Washington 32nd in the U.S for overall mental health — a ranking that indicates a higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care.
A state report done before the pandemic indicated that there’s one mental health provider for every 360 residents in our state. In most of Puget Sound, those numbers are higher, while the numbers are worse in rural areas.
Around the U.S., professionals in the mental health field have sounded alarms over a fast-approaching crisis. The Association of American Medical Colleges has long warned that roughly 60% of practicing psychiatrists are 55 or older, meaning the numbers could get worse in the coming years.
However, when it comes to serious mental illness, the ability to reach a clinician isn’t always the biggest roadblock.
Dr. Jurgen Unutzer, the head of UW’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, told FOX 13 that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of this case, but noted: there are challenges in health care when it comes to serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, specifically patients often don’t think they need help, or don’t want the treatments offered.
"When serious mental illness is not treated, individuals can lose touch with reality and become a danger to themselves (much more common) or others," he wrote.
As for Michael Gese, he was arrested a short time after his mother’s murder. When asked about his mother’s death, he noted he felt sad — likening his feelings to a funeral.
Gese has been charged with first-degree murder. He’s currently being held in the Pierce County jail.
Israel Vela, the superintendent for the Kent School District, relayed a message from the principal in a message to families noting that Gail was a lifelong WSU fan and the leader of the Cedar Heights Sunshine Committee – a group that took on initiatives to boost morale.
In Washington state, people suffering a mental health crisis can dial 988. You can also text the word "START" to 88788.
A national suicide prevention line also exists at 1-800-273-TALK.
The National Mental Health Hotline can connect individuals, or their family members, with help for people suffering from schizophrenic symptoms at 1-866-903-3787.