A life of mental illness ends in violence

Last modified: 9/26/2011 12:00:00 AM
Four months later, Jim Naroian still displays the condolence cards that arrived after his wife, Shelly, was killed by a police officer's bullet in the living room of their Hillsboro home. The cards reassure Jim his wife isn't forgotten. But they've done little to assuage his guilt and anger.

Jim is the one who called the police to the couple's Sleeper Road home on May 19, after his wife woke him around midnight with a gun to her head and this question: Is this a good one to use?

This wasn't Shelly's first suicidal episode. There had been many, according to family members, and she had been hospitalized twice for psychiatric problems, most recently around Christmas. But this was behavior that Jim, 61, didn't think he could handle himself.

Shelly was angry about a few things that night: She wanted Jim to evict his 42-year-old son by his first marriage, who'd been living with them for 10 months. She was furious that Jim had threatened divorce, which would have jeopardized her standing with her Jehovah's Witness church. The complaints were familiar but this time Shelly also told Jim she had found the keys to his gun safe.

With his wife watching him, Jim called 911. In a recent interview, he said he had hoped the police could do what he couldn't - calm his wife and disarm her before she hurt herself.

"I was thinking to myself she finally is going to get some help," he said. "This time she is going to go to a mental ward she can't get out of until she is well."

An hour later, Shelly was dead, not by her own hand but by a bullet fired by Hillsboro police Sgt. Mark Philibert. She was shot after threatening to kill Jim's 42-year-old son, Ken Naroian, and then aiming a gun at Philibert. She died on her 47th birthday.

According to an investigation by the state attorney general's office, Philibert had tried to coax Shelly out of the house unarmed by assuring her the police were there to help, not hurt her. The attorney general's report said Philibert had been patient - until he heard a shot fired from inside the house.

When Philibert stepped through the front door, time had run out. Shelly was sitting 10 to 12 feet away on a sofa with a revolver aimed at Philibert, the report said. Jim was in the bathroom, on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, when his wife and Philibert came face to face. He ran out just before his wife was shot.

According to the report, a police officer's commands - "Show me your hands, show me your hands, show me your hands! . . . Drop it, drop the gun, drop it, drop it!" - can be heard in a recording of the 911 call. The sound of Philibert's gunshot follow. Then Jim can be heard crying.

Jim said he doesn't remember the police negotiating with his wife or telling her to drop the gun. But according to the attorney general's report, he had told the 911 dispatcher he could hear that his wife wasn't cooperating with the police. Nor would Jim have believed that he had been on the phone with the dispatcher for 59 minutes had the report not said so.

The state attorney general's office concluded that Philibert was legally justified in shooting Shelly because he reasonably believed she was about to kill him. Jim has come to a different conclusion.

"I believe this was a real mess by untrained police officers who didn't seem like they had a leader," he said. "They didn't seem like they ever knew what they were doing. I have no faith in the legal system anymore. I will never call 911 again."

 Life without peace

Jim Naroian met Shelly Stilson 28 years ago at a Seabrook restaurant. He was on his way to work at the nuclear power station. She was 19, alone and looking distressed. "She'd been out with her friends, and they all had left," Jim said. "I said, 'You don't know me from anyone, but I'll give you a ride home.' "

The detour made Jim late for work, but the two exchanged phone numbers. He was divorced with a son. She was single. They began dating, and Shelly eventually moved in with Jim, into the log home he had built in Sandown. They were wed in 1988 - it was his fourth marriage - and together they had two children, Sarah, 23, and Peter, 18.

In 2002, Jim and Shelly moved their family to Hillsboro in search of more land and privacy. The house came with 120 acres and plenty of space for Shelly to grow flowers, walk in the woods and ride their four-wheeler. She worked as a real estate agent for a while, cared for an elderly woman in Exeter, cooked meals for an elderly neighbor and, most recently, had begun making jewelry. She sometimes took her beads to the local youth center to teach kids her craft.

Life, though, was without peace, family members said.

"She saw enemies everywhere," said Ken Naroian, Jim's son. "If you didn't think like she did, you were not only wrong, you were evil. She was out of touch with reality, and you never knew from one minute to the next what mood she was going to be in or what she was going to do."

Jim, who now works in maintenance for Canobie Lake Park, said he knew from their earliest days together that his wife suffered with mental illness. She went though mood swings, and like Ken, Jim never knew when his wife's personality might change dramatically. "It would change in the blink of an eye, in a snap of a finger," Jim said.

Two stays in psychiatric hospitals and regular meetings with counselors, including a marriage counselor, had not helped enough, Jim said. During her hospitalization last year at Hampstead Hospital, Shelly was diagnosed with bipolar and dual personality disorders, Jim said.

Jim was relieved to see his wife get into the hospital. But both stays were too short - just 11 days, Jim said, because that's all their insurer would cover. Jim believes Shelly was discharged both times prematurely. She was sent home with prescriptions for depression, anxiety and mood swings, but her family also believes she was abusing her pills and taking medication that didn't belong to her.

"Here's a woman who took all these drugs (not as prescribed) and what do they do, they give her more drugs," Jim said. "The day she got out, she didn't know that I had been there every day after work to see her. She was hallucinating the day I picked her up."

That is wrong, Jim said. "You can't cure a person in 11 days."

Shelly's depression and mood swings had seemed to worsen, he said, as their kids grew older. Sarah left home for college five years ago; Peter, still living at home, was struggling in school. He ultimately left school and earned his GED. Jim said his wife was especially upset when their children left the Jehovah's Witness church.

Also, against Shelly's wishes, Ken Naorian was living with them in Hillsboro while he looked for his own place. Jim had suggested that Ken move in, in part so the father and son could get to know one another better. Ken had been raised by his grandparents, and even as an adult had not spent much time with his father or half-siblings. Ken, a high school English teacher, was paying rent while saving to buy his own place.

Very quickly, Ken realized life on Sleeper Road was chaotic, even frightening.

Shelly once tackled Sarah because she disliked something Sarah was doing, Ken said. And more than once, she forced Peter to live outside in his truck because she disapproved of his friends, Ken said. Shelly was also abusing medication, family members said. Ken would come home to messages on the answering machine from several pharmacies telling Shelly her prescriptions were ready.

Ken and Shelly's relationship reached bottom shortly before the shooting. She had accused Ken of buying alcohol for Peter; Ken said that never happened. He demanded an apology but was nervous about crossing her because he believed she was manipulative enough to report the allegation to the high school where he worked.

"I told her, 'I'm leaving (soon). You stay away from me and I'll stay away from you,' " he said. "I realized that now I was the enemy." That was the last conversation he had with Shelly before the night she came into his room with a gun and told him she was going to kill him, he said.

Jim described life with his wife similarly.

"I had to be on my toes 24/7 pretty much," Jim said. "I'd get seven, eight, 10 phone calls a day at work sometimes. Sometimes she was sad. Sometimes she was angry. Sometimes she just wanted to hear my voice."

Sarah, who graduated with a psychology degree from the University of New Hampshire two days after her mother's death, said she doesn't think Shelly understood her mental illness or the consequences of mixing medications.

"She knew she was hurting and she knew (the medications) could make the pain go away," she said.

But Shelly also used the pills for dramatic effect. About a year ago, Jim said, Shelly swallowed a handful of pills in front of Peter during an argument. Living with that anger and unpredictable behavior was difficult for everyone, family members said. After the pill incident, Jim and Peter went to the Hillsboro police and asked them to put Shelly in a hospital.

Jim said the officer told him the police couldn't force her into the hospital "until (Shelly) did something really crazy."

He thought his wife had reached that point when he called 911 just after midnight May 19.

 Final confrontation

The fighting began that night around 5, as soon as Shelly, Jim and Ken were all home from work. Shelly renewed her complaints about Ken living at the house. The argument was familiar, but Shelly seemed off, Jim said. Shelly also picked a fight with Peter that made him angry enough to leave the house, Ken said.

"After 30 years (of living with Shelly), I could, by looking in her eyes, tell that she was not herself," Jim said. "She had taken a lot of (her) prescription drugs."

Ken said he knew it too. "Her eyes were pin-wheeling," he said. He later found an empty bottle of morphine in Shelly's Jeep that had been prescribed to Shelly's mother.

Shelly demanded the keys to Jim's car and sped off, angry. Concerned she was going to hurt herself or someone else, Jim called the Hillsboro police.

Hillsboro Officer Chris Parsons found Shelly at the local McDonald's with Peter and some of her friends, according to the attorney general's report. Parsons asked Shelly if she was okay, and she assured him she was, the report said. Parsons told Shelly that Jim had called the police out of concern for her. He inquired again if she was okay, the report said.

Again she said she was fine.

When the police told Jim they had found Shelly, he asked them to test Shelly's blood in case she was impaired by the drugs she had taken. The officer said he could not do that because Shelly was not driving. Jim asked the officer to wait and observe Shelly's driving. Jim said the officer declined.

According to the state's report, Parsons did relay Jim's concern to other officers, telling them to stop and check Shelly if they saw her driving.

Shelly drove home, now angry with Jim for calling the police. She called the police herself around 10 p.m. in retaliation and demanded that Ken be removed from the home. She told the police Ken had been disrespectful to her in the past, though she did not allege that he had been violent or threatening.

Officers Parsons and Derek Brown and Sgt. Philibert went to the home. Brown told Shelly he could escort her to a safe place if she felt threatened, according to the report. He also told her she could get a restraining order against Ken but that he could not make Ken leave because Ken had Jim's permission to be there and had not threatened anyone.

Shelly turned aside Brown's suggestions. Officers told investigators later that Shelly did not appear unstable at the time. They described her behavior "as joking and a little bit snide at times," the report said.

The police left, and Ken confronted Shelly, telling her things he'd never dared say before. "I told her all the things she's done to her kids to hurt them," he said. "I told her she was a plague, spreading misery wherever she goes. I told her the kids would be better off without her. I told her that is why she should not exist, because she can't interact with anybody."

Then Ken went to bed. Jim did the same. "At that point, I thought it was just another of her angry arguments that would pass," Jim said. "I told her, 'I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning. I don't want to argue with you.' "

About two hours later, Jim's 911 call a brought the police back to the property. He told the dispatcher his wife had two guns and was threatening to harm herself, according to the dispatch call log. As six police officers surrounded the Naroians' home, Jim stayed on the phone with the 911 operator, relaying what he could from inside the bathroom about his wife's frightening behavior.

He could hear his wife going into the basement, where he said there were eight to 10 guns and ammunition in the safe. He described her behavior as "delusional," according to a summary of the call.

Shelly turned music up, then down. She was yelling. She told the police she wasn't going to shoot them, but she also said she was going to "test the system," according to the state's report.

She fired a shot at a wall and then walked upstairs to where Ken slept, the report said. The shot had awakened Ken, and he quickly got out of bed and stood behind the bedroom door, trying to make sense of what he was hearing. His door had no lock, so he waited, listening to Shelly say his name as she came up the stairs.

When she got to the top of the stairs, Shelly said nothing and swung the door open.

Ken could see that Shelly had a gun in each hand. When she said his name again, he slammed the door against her with all his strength. The blow knocked one gun from Shelly's hand, but she clung to the other as Ken tried to pry it loose, he said. She bit and scratched him. He asked her what she was doing in his room with guns.

"She said nothing," Ken said. "I asked her again. She said, 'I'm going to kill you.' "

When Ken wrested the second gun from Shelly, she looked at Ken and asked him to kill her, he said. With the guns in his hands, he ran from the room and out the front door, screaming to the police that he had the guns.

Contrary to what is in the state's report, Ken said the police were across the yard, some distance from the house, not outside the door as the state's report said. Ken said officers came running when they saw him. "I told them to hurry the f--- up because she's coming," he said.

When Philibert entered the home, he came face to face with Shelly, who now had a revolver in her hand, the report said. It wasn't loaded, but Philibert didn't know that. He fired. Hearing the shot, Henniker police Officer Stephen Dennis fired too, from the porch. Dennis's bullet missed Shelly and lodged in the wall next to where she'd been sitting.

The police later recovered the bullet, but they left a gouge in the wall. The scar indicates where Shelly was sitting when she died.

Ken moved out shortly after the shooting into a home of his own. He believes the police had no choice but to shoot Shelly. But he's angry with them and his father for not intervening earlier that night.

"She was a predator and a murderer that night," Ken said. "And if I was going to wait for (my father) or the cops that night, I'd be dead."

 Casting blame

The night has become a never-ending video in Jim's brain. The grief he felt in the hours and days after the shooting has turned to anger.

He faults the police for being unable to save his wife. And he and Ken are now estranged.

"She just wanted my son (Ken) out of the house, and Philibert knew that," Jim said. "Everything could have been avoided if the police just said, 'Shelly, we are making Jim and Ken leave.' But instead of engaging his brain, (Philibert) engaged his trigger finger."

Jim recognizes he couldn't help his wife that night but he believes the police could have, should have. "She wasn't a killer," he said. He thinks the incident would have ended without Shelly's death had the state police, not the local police, handled the call. Hillsboro, Henniker and Antrim officers "surrounded the house like Bonnie and Clyde were in here," he said. "I don't think they knew what they were doing."

Hillsboro police Chief David Roarick declined to be interviewed for this story. He referred all calls to the town's attorney, Charles Bauer of Concord, who also declined to discuss the details of the shooting.

When the family was allowed back into the house two days later, Shelly's blood still stained the couch. The family had been told there was a company that would scrub the scene of the shooting, but Jim said the $1,000 fee was too high. Ken and a friend cleaned the blood instead.

Jim believes inadequate hospitalizations and mental health counseling, and his insurance carrier contributed to his wife's death.

Although he knows his wife was "doctor shopping" to get more medication than she needed and abusing the medications she did have, he likes to think she wouldn't have done this had she received better care in the hospital and been allowed to stay longer.

"My dilemma was getting my wife help," he said. "I guess I was more of a therapist to her than anyone. Her best girlfriend said to me at Shelly's funeral, 'If it wasn't for you, she wouldn't have lasted as long as she did.' "

Like the condolence cards in his kitchen, he appreciates the words, but they don't change anything.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)

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