AT FIRST, MICHELLE DURDEN thought her eldest son, Cameron Davis, was just going through some early 20s growing pains. He dropped out of college and quit his job. He began to lose weight and grow his hair long. He spent a lot of time in his room, teaching himself to play guitar. He withdrew from friends and family.
“He was just a good kid. He had a genius IQ, just smart, nice to everybody; loves old people, dogs, the whole thing,” she said. “And then he just got weird.”
Perhaps, Durden and her husband thought, Davis was just trying to find himself. They never considered there might be something else going on. So, in the fall of 2018, they packed Davis into his Ford Fiesta with his clothes, guitars and amplifier, some groceries and cash, and waved goodbye as the 23-year-old set off from their home in North Carolina to Stockton, California, where he would stay with his younger brother, Kevin.
Kevin helped Davis settle in and even got him a job at a vineyard. But soon, things went sideways. Davis was fired for ignoring his duties and instead lying in the grass staring at the sky. He began talking to himself, laughing inappropriately, and became paranoid around Kevin’s friends. It all came to a head late one night in January 2019, when Kevin called his mother. Davis was in the background yelling and playing his guitar; Kevin was worried that the neighbors would call the cops. He’d told Davis that, but he wouldn’t stop, Durden recalled. Davis said he “didn’t understand what the word ‘neighbors’ meant.”
Durden was scared. Something was seriously wrong. She convinced Davis to come home so he could be seen at Duke Medical Center. It had taken him two-and-a-half days to make the cross-country trip to California, so Durden figured she’d see him soon. He never showed up. Four days later she filed a missing person’s report with the Stockton police, and they quickly located Davis in Los Angeles. A cop there stopped him and said he should call his mother. She again told her son to come home. More time went by, and on January 24, she again called the police to file a new report.
Finally, in early February, Durden got a call from a Stockton officer who told her, “‘I found your baby,’” she recalled. “And she’s like, ‘He’s alive. And he’s in jail.’”
On January 28, 2019, Davis had been pulled over for speeding just outside of Tyler, Texas, in the northeast part of the state. As the state trooper sat in his vehicle checking Davis’s license and registration, Davis hit the gas, touching off a high-speed chase that ended after Davis damaged his car; no one was hurt. Davis was arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison.
Durden was stunned. Since then, she has struggled to understand a criminal justice system that she feels has aggressively ignored her son’s deepening mental health crisis, which is also what she believes prompted him to flee the cops in the first place. “Where’s the common sense where somebody goes, ‘There might be something wrong with this kid’?”
How those with mental illness are treated in the system has become a focus in the ongoing calls for criminal justice reform that have increased in volume since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May. At least 25 percent of fatal police encounters involve a person with mental illness, and individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police, according to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.
“I’ve heard a thousand stories like this,” Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” said of Davis’s case. The criminal justice system — from police contact to prosecution and prison — has been thrust onto the front lines of handling mental health crises and is ill-equipped to do so, Roth said. “It all needs to be fixed.”
Anything but Unique
Highway Patrol Trooper Chaney Wade of the Texas Department of Public Safety was sitting in his car monitoring eastbound traffic on Interstate 20 in Smith County when he clocked Davis going 89 in a 75-mile-per-hour zone.
Reading the police report, it’s clear that from the start, Wade sensed that something was off about Davis. He was mumbling and wouldn’t make eye contact. When Wade asked him who he’d been staying with in California, Davis couldn’t remember his brother’s name. Wade took Davis’s license and registration back to his car to run it through the computer. Sitting inside with his window rolled up, Wade could hear loud music coming from Davis’s car. He watched Davis as he rocked his head back and forth. Then the brake light came on; Davis looked over his shoulder and just took off. Wade gave chase.
The whole pursuit, which eventually included several troopers along with officers from other agencies, lasted about 17 minutes, with Davis weaving in and out of traffic at speeds that topped 110 mph. He got off the highway and ran through a fence before re-entering the interstate going the opposite direction. Ultimately, damage from hitting the fence disabled Davis’s car, which came to a stop in the middle of the highway.
Trooper Kevin Lybrand approached the car, and he too noted that something was off. As he stood there with his gun drawn, Lybrand wrote in his report, Davis just sat in the car, shaking his head to the music. Eventually, Davis complied with Lybrand’s commands and lay face down on the asphalt. Davis was booked into the Smith County jail on a charge of evading “arrest or detention,” a third-degree felony. Lybrand asked Davis why he’d fled. “He stated that he was ‘just chillin’, trying to get back home,’” he wrote.
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