Woman out of prison after repeatedly threatening presidents

Desperate cries for help began in Reagan era

kward1@herald-leader.comNovember 14, 2010 

  • If you need help

    ■ The Lexington Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers support to people with mental illnesses and their families. For more information on resources available through NAMI, visit Namilex.org or call 272-7891. Support group meetings are held from 2:30 to 4 p.m. every Sunday at the organization's Participation Station, 869 Sparta Court.

    ■ The Comprehensive Care Center operates the Bluegrass Mental Health Crisis Line, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-928-8000.

    ■ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255.

The first time Susan Collins threatened to kill a U.S. president was in 1985, when she was not quite 23 years old and Ronald Reagan was in office.

Since then, Collins has threatened to hurt or kill presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The threats are not politically motivated, and Collins says she has no intention of ever following through. In essence, her actions have been a rather unorthodox cry for help.

"It was the easiest way to get myself thrown into prison without having to hurt anybody or really do anything," she said. "The only danger I am to anybody is myself."

Collins, 48, is an articulate woman who at one time had a successful career in the medical field. She has a degree in commercial printing technology and certification in phlebotomy. But Collins also is a woman in a seemingly endless battle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

A year ago, Collins had hit a low point in her life. She wanted to go to prison permanently, so she wrote threatening letters to President Obama and former president George W. Bush.

Rather than sending her to prison, the judge gave her probation and assigned a probation officer to her case so she could get her life in order.

Now, Collins is trying her hardest to live a normal life — and avoid going to prison.

"Every time I hit rock bottom I have to start back from scratch," she said. "I need help in getting over the doorstep."

Finding help

As a child, Collins always wanted to please her teachers, but she also wasn't lacking in self-direction. Collins was the kind of student who would refuse to do her math work in class "then go home that night and then do the whole math book. That kind of intensity" said Kathie Skahill, a retired teacher, who has known Collins since she was 9.

Collins' illness surfaced during high school. At that time, Skahill said, Collins "went through every kind of goofy therapy" that was somewhat experimental and not "particularly successful for long periods of time."

Starting when she was 15, Collins spent eight years in and out of mental institutions.

In 1985, she ran out of options.

Collins said she had been raped at a state hospital in Illinois and didn't want to return there. She also knew she needed treatment.

"I had read a newspaper article about somebody who had called the Secret Service (to threaten the president), and they had him arrested," she recalled.

So Collins, who was still living in Illinois, said she dashed off a threatening letter to President Reagan. She dropped it into the mail and hopped on a Greyhound bus bound for California because she didn't want to end up in the state hospital.

"I wanted to go to solitary confinement," she recalled. "I did not know that it did not carry a life sentence."

But she didn't wind up being sent to prison.

She threatened Reagan again the following year and was sentenced to 16 months at the Federal Medical Center on Leestown Road.

That is how Collins came to call Lexington her home. And ever since, when she is at her worst, that prison is where Collins has wanted to be.

Better treatment

Over the years, Collins said she has had trouble finding medicines that work.

"I'm a difficult patient to treat," she said. "If one in 25 has an allergic reaction to something, I'm it."

When she is severely ill, she feels as though she doesn't deserve to be free.

"People don't understand how devastating depression can be," she said. "When I get so depressed, I just never have any hope for it getting better."

Part of the appeal of prison is Collins does not have to make any decisions; they make them for you. Collins could be at a point in her life where she is losing control; in prison, they are in control.

In 1989, Collins was convicted for threatening a local psychiatrist and mailing a letter to Dan Quayle, who was about to become vice president. The letter said: "Start saying your prayers Quayle cause Bush will die."

Court documents detailing Collins' mental illness are sealed, but a judge's order in that case described Collins as having "serious psychiatric problems."

"The defendant is subject to angry outbursts and is considered suicidal and practices self-mutilation," it stated.

Judge Karl Forester sentenced Collins to 21 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

"It is a poor commentary on the availability of adequate mental health care that one would feel it necessary to threaten the life of the president of the United States ... for the simple purpose of going into the federal prison system where adequate care is available," he said at the time. "I think basically that's what happened in this case."

Court documents show that at Collins' request, Forester recommended she be sent back to the Federal Medical Center, so she could participate in a special treatment program.

While there, Collins said, she began seeing a resident psychiatrist from the University of Kentucky, and she found that "medications had come a long way."

Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, said Collins' story points out the efficacy of treatment for mental illness; Collins is like a diabetic who needs to take insulin to stay healthy.

"We tell legislators all the time that if you don't provide the services and supports that people (with mental illnesses) need, they will either end up in and out of the hospital, or they will end up in jail, or they will end up homeless, or they will end up committing suicide," Schuster said.

Good ... for a while

When she was released, Collins says she continued treatment, earned a phlebotomy certificate and found a job.

She had worked at Samaritan Hospital for about five years, until 2000 or 2001, when, she said, "I fell apart" and "just totally went off the deep end."

"I walked out on my job and was just an absolute mess," Collins said.

With treatment, Collins managed to put her life back together.

She worked several jobs, including one as an office manager for a medical practice, "making money I never would've thought possible."

In early 2008, Collins said, she owned 10 acres in Anderson County and was building a log cabin on it, doing much of the work with her own hands. Her car was paid off. She had a good job. She was proud of her accomplishments.

Life was good.

Then, she said, she shattered her ankle while working on the house. And just as she was preparing to move in, Collins said, the builder told her he needed another $20,000.

She was jobless, broke and injured.

"I was extremely suicidal and thinking crazy," she said.

She went to Texas, where her sister lives, and sought treatment, but she said it was not productive.

She returned to Lexington during the Memorial Day weekend of 2009, but Collins said she knew immediately that things were not going to work out.

That Tuesday, Collins said, she wrote the letters that she hoped would land her a permanent spot in prison. One threatened President Obama, the other, former president George W. Bush.

She went to a hotel on Newtown Pike and waited. Sometimes, she said, she'd take her dog to the dog park at Masterson Station.

"I'd just sit and look at the prison," Collins said.

Her sister, from whom Collins is now estranged, called the Secret Service and alerted them about the letters Collins had written.

Soon enough, a special agent arrived.

Joshua Fisher, a special agent for the U.S. Secret Service, said in an affidavit filed in federal court that Collins told him on May 29 that she wrote the letters because she wanted to be arrested and "put down by lethal injection."

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Marye said that while "we don't arrest everybody that's ever threatened to hurt or kill a president," Collins' behavior gave the agent no choice.

"We can't just ignore something like that," the prosecutor said.

Collins was arrested and later flown to Fort Worth, Texas, for a mental evaluation.

While there, "I tried my damndest to get more charges. I did not want to get out," she said.

That strategy failed. The doctors found her competent and Collins pleaded guilty to one count of making threats against a former president.

Surprisingly, when it came time for her sentencing this summer, Collins didn't get what she had hoped for.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered her to participate in a substance abuse treatment program, abstain from the use of alcohol and participate in a mental health treatment program under the direction of her probation officer, Margaret Daniel. She was to get inpatient treatment or live in a halfway house at Daniel's discretion.

Sentenced to time served, plus three years of supervised release, Collins was free to go.

"She said putting me in prison would be condoning my behavior," Collins said. "I was very shocked."

A new start

Daniel arranged for Collins to stay at the Catholic Action Center's St. Anne House for women.

Ginny Ramsey, director and co-founder of the Catholic Action Center, said Collins embraced a positive spirit when she was there.

"She was working hard at being whole and healthy," Ramsey said. "She was one who hadn't given up hope. She knew she had to get up and fight again, and she did."

Collins soon moved from St. Anne House into her own apartment, and she is now back in school for training in medical billing and coding.

She has been seeing an "awesome" psychiatrist, and is part of a treatment program for borderline personality disorder through the Comprehensive Care Center. "They're teaching you skills — being more mindful of yourself and trying to catch things before they get out of control," she said.

Knowing that Daniel will be checking in with her regularly keeps her accountable and is "that added safety net," Collins said.

Collins said she wishes that supervision could continue for the rest of her life.

"I don't think I would've survived had the probation department not stepped in," she said.

Finding a job is her next goal.

In the meantime, Collins volunteers regularly at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. She stays busy there running the cash register, answering customers' questions, pricing items, cleaning and organizing donations.

Staying busy is important.

"Idle time is not good for me," she said.

Collins thinks she has what it takes to avoid another breakdown.

"I have finally accepted the fact I am going to have to stick with a psychiatrist," she said. "I do not want to hit rock bottom again. This has been very difficult trying to start over. I just don't know if I could handle having to start over again."

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