OK – this is it. #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth ends today, and I’m not writing about this anymore – at least not for a while, so here comes the hardest part.
I’ve been struggling with how to tell this last part of Joe’s story, and I’ve rewritten this post many times. So I’m going to stop trying to make it perfect or guess how it will have the exact “right” tone, and I’m just going to tell it how it lives in my brain – as if I’m watching a movie.
It feels surreal to me, even to this day, even knowing him like I did. So that is how I will share it with you.
This story talks about suicide. If this is a trigger for you, please do not read any further.
This is the story of Joe’s last day. I have pieced together what happened that day from talking to the police several times, as well as many conversations with Jen, my brother’s girlfriend at the time. Jen was with Joe that morning, and was an integral part of his last few hours.
The things I imagine my brother having thought in his last hours are an amalgamation of things he wrote and said to me over the years, or things he told Jen that she then told me. The police reported that Joe talked to himself for over 45 minutes while they looked on, unable to get to him.
It Started With A Fight With His Girlfriend
Joe died on April 20th, 2006, in a small, dusty town in Arizona. It was a hot, sunny Spring day, but things were about to turn very dark. It would affect the whole town, and bring violence to one little old lady’s peaceful home.
My brother had gone for a walk that morning, leaving his girlfriend, Jen, back at their place. She was seething after another frustrating talk that had gone nowhere. Trying to understand him was exhausting, and she was confused and more than a little bit frightened by his behavior.
Joe had been living with her for months now, except he wasn’t “Joe” to her; she knew him as Kevin. Kevin was great when they first met – understanding, funny, kind. He seemed like the perfect guy. She NEEDED a perfect guy after the crazy assholes she had dated in the past.
Jen was a First Responder, an EMT who loved her job helping people. I met a lot of the women Joe had dated over the years, and they all had that one thing in common – they were all healers of one kind or another. Jen didn’t know this at the time, but she was quite typical of the women that Joe preyed upon.
The Mark…The Betrayer
Jen had made a lot of bad choices in her life, getting mixed up with men that needed “fixing”. She swore she would never let herself end up in another relationship with an abusive asshole again. She knew better, now, knew what to look out for.
Joe had just moved to her small town and had been staying at a cheap, dirty motel. They met at a laundromat and ended up grabbing a few beers together. After just a couple of dates, he had somehow convinced her to let him stay with her “just for a few days until he found a place”.
He was SO intense and sincere, and made her feel like she was the only person that mattered in the whole world. He told her stories of how his family had abandoned him and his business partner had double-crossed him. He told her he had moved to this small town with nothing. He wanted to start a new life and “put down roots and build something good”.
He Was A Charmer
He charmed her with his vulnerability and his strength and within a few weeks she was sure she was in love. Once the relationship had become solid and she was sure they’d be together forever, he started acting a little weird. It happened so gradually that she didn’t even notice what was going on. She didn’t see most of it until after everything was over, and she was trying to figure out what the hell had happened.
They’d have conversations in which he would slyly hint that she was not very smart, or not as good at something as she felt she was. He whittled away at her confidence in tiny little ways, pointing out her flaws more and more, but then following it up with how much he loved her “anyway”.
She remembers thinking that he wasn’t “as bad as the last guy” because he never hit her. But he would have violent outbursts and punch the walls. He had a tremendous amount of anger that he directed toward her at times, becoming enraged about the weirdest things – like running out of eggs, or if she used the last of the peanut butter without getting more.
Every time he flew into one of his rages, he would go for a walk, and come back after “walking it off”. He would return sad, and loving, and kind, and remorseful. He would hug her and tell her how sorry he was and how she was his only reason for living. That he just couldn’t help himself sometimes – she just had a way of making him so MAD.
Maybe it was because he loved her so much, he would say.
Making Her His Own
“Kevin” began hinting that Jen’s family and friends didn’t like him. He started demanding that she spend less time with her friends, and especially less time with her family. He tried to convince her that if she really loved him, she should want to be with him all the time.
She didn’t really fall for that line of reasoning so much as she didn’t want to make him feel bad. He had had so much pain in his life already, and so many people had hurt him. She just didn’t want to be one more person that didn’t understand him. SHE would be the person he could finally trust and who would finally show him what real love felt like.
So she withdrew a bit from her family and friends, spending all of her spare time with Joe. Luckily, her brother was a cop, and could tell something was up. Her behavior had him worried, and he suggested to Jen that she keep an eye out and be careful.
Jen started to really look at how things didn’t seem quite right with “Kevin”. He became more and more withdrawn and complex. She would find him talking to himself – at length – in the bathroom, or while making food in the kitchen. Then he would notice her and shake his head like he was waking up.
He’d say something funny and giggle that high pitched giggle that had sounded so cute at first, but was now just kind of creepy. Or he would say he’d been thinking about something sad. Or he would just hug her, out of nowhere, and tell her how much he loved her and how she was the only one that had ever TRULY understood him.
Jen was seeing some red flags she could no longer ignore. Their fight that morning had been so strange, and he had gotten SO defensive. She decided it was time to figure it out. While he was on his walk, she went through the papers he kept in his pickup truck.
She felt guilty, and weird, and scared…and she was in a hurry because she didn’t want him to find her doing this. It was probably nothing, right? “I’m just being paranoid”, she thought to herself as she pulled open the glove box. Papers were loosely shoved in there, and some fell out onto the seat and floor.
They seemed to be in no kind of order and she was a bit panicked. She changed her mind and decided to just put everything back and go inside. RIGHT on top, though…there was his ID. Only, it wasn’t an ID for “Kevin”. The name was totally different even though that was definitely his picture.
She felt like she had been punched in the gut. He was not who he said he was. There was some other paperwork, but since he had a driver’s license with another name on it, she immediately called her brother at the police station and asked him to check into it for her.
Had Anything He Told Her Been True?
Joe was coming back from his walk soon, and she didn’t think she could face him. She headed into town to see what her brother had found. It wasn’t good. There was a warrant out for Joe’s immediate arrest. Apparently he was wanted in multiple states for a long list of crimes.
She felt sick. She had been harboring a criminal! Now she was scared…and furious. She felt betrayed, and her stomach was in knots. How had he fooled her SO completely? How had she let herself be so stupid AGAIN???
Jen’s brother and his boss convinced her to call “Kevin”, and ask him to meet her at the local coffee shop for lunch. They would be nearby, they said, but this way they could arrest him out in the open and he wouldn’t have time to escape or make any trouble. They counted on him knowing nothing and expected an easy arrest.
The problem was, Joe was paranoid, and Jen was NOT a good spy. When Joe got in his truck to head into town, he noticed things were not exactly as he had left them. Jen hadn’t been able to hide that she had been rifling through his belongings.
The Beginning of The End
When Joe drove up to the coffee shop, he was already pissed off and wary. He saw Jen’s brother and his partner in the shop, and another cop car parked across the street. He slowly pulled back out of his parking space, and casually drove down the street.
He drove away slowly, keeping his eye on his rear view mirror. He figured if they didn’t follow him, then there was nothing to worry about and he could just circle back around.
He saw Jen’s brother come running out of the coffee shop and into the street looking after Joe’s truck. The cop car that had been parked across the street pulled out to follow him.
FUCK. She was such a BITCH. He should have known this would happen – they always betray him. All of them. Nobody fucking understands.
He hit his brakes and felt his blood start to boil. Why was NO ONE ever on his side??? He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. SHIT!!! He slammed his hand into the steering wheel, over and over again, until he saw that the cop car had pulled up behind him.
The Slowest Car Chase Since OJ
He started moving forward again, slowly, as if nothing was wrong.
She was supposed to be HIS, and she betrayed him to her asshole brother and his asshole fascist cop buddies. He wasn’t bothering anyone…he was just trying to live his fucking LIFE, why didn’t anybody GET that?
He continued to drive down Main Street. He kept to the speed limit, driving carefully, feeling empty after his initial rage had passed. He just looked forward and drove straight, ironically obeying all of the stop signs. Because he was in the middle of town, the police wanted to follow without incident until he was in a less “populated” area.
Joe saw the two police cars in his rear view mirror – oh wait, there’s another one. So, three – wow, they must really be afraid of him…that’s the whole fucking police department right there.
He found that funny. Giggled his high pitched, maniacal giggle.
This was kind of fun – look how they all just followed along so slowly…idiots.
He slowed down even further…they couldn’t get around him on this narrow street, and with people around they wouldn’t take the chance that someone would get hurt.
Holy shit, this was AWESOME.
He slowed down to 5 miles per hour, and let his pickup truck just crawl through the small town.
At The House On “Mildred Street”
He drove as far as he could drive…until Main Street became Front Street and Front Street turned into “Mildred” Street. There were still three police cars behind him, driving just as slowly, lights flashing, one or another occasionally hitting their siren for a second, trying to get him to pull over.
This was hysterical – he giggled again, unable to stop himself from imagining their dumbass faces and how frustrated they must be!
Who the hell named a street “Mildred”, anyway? Stupid small town.
Mildred Street came to a dead end at a small, quaint house on a huge plot of land.
Some old lady lived there – you could tell from the flowers in her front yard – only old ladies had yards like that. Her name was probably Mildred. He giggled again.
The cops were running their lights and sirens constantly now. The noise brought the old woman out of her house, and her two small dogs came scurrying out into the yard. One darted across the driveway in front of him, forcing him to stop so he wouldn’t hit it.
Joe sat in the long driveway facing her house, his engine running, thinking about what to do next. He had noticed that she had a large RV parked about 10 – 15 feet away from the side of her house in front of a storage shed. Just enough room for him to pull his truck in there, sandwiching it between the house, the shed, and the RV.
Perfect – the cops wouldn’t be able to get at him. He gave the old woman time to get her dogs and go back in the house.
Shit, she was stupid, she was just standing there staring at him.
“Get your dogs and go inside, MILDRED!”, he yelled at her.
Putting The Police In A Bad Position
The cops had started to pull their vehicles up and one had pulled to the side and started to get out. Joe thought for a moment that it might be all over…but they all froze as soon as his truck started forward again. He giggled again as he realized they were just going to stand there and watch – nobody had even pulled a gun yet!
He drove up onto the old lady’s lawn so he could back his truck into that tight spot next to the RV.
Once he stopped, he took a deep breath. They couldn’t get to him from behind, they couldn’t get to him from the sides…they’d have to come straight at him. He shut off his engine and just sat there.
Now he could THINK.
The police were cautious now. A couple of them had their hands on their weapons, but had not pulled out their guns yet. Jen’s brother started to approach the front of the truck:
“Kevin…I mean Joe – come on, talk to me, man. Jen’s just worried about you – we can get this figured out.”
Joe leaned down and pulled his father’s gun out from under the passenger seat. He sat back up, just looking at Jen’s brother, standing there in front of the truck trying to seem friendly and understanding.
Fucking liar. Fucking fascist liar and his bitch sister.
Joe looked down at the gun in his hand. Felt the weight of it, felt the weight of his history with that gun. He’d known that gun for almost as long as he’d been alive. It was his friend in ways nobody else could really understand.
A Long Talk With Himself
He held the gun up – not pointing it at Rick, just sideways, showing it to him, like you might show a toy to your best friend. Joe was smiling, pointing at the gun but still not pointing it AT the police. Rick’s calm demeanor changed instantly, and he quickly backed away from the truck and drew his own weapon.
“Hee hee – asshole – you BETTER back up. What is it they say in the movies?…I’ll put a cap in your ass! That’s it.”
Joe’s voice started rising, getting louder and full of rage:
“I’ll put a cap in your ass, alright. Come at ME, when your bitch of a sister is the REAL problem. Why don’t you fucking deal with HER and leave me the fuck alone?!?!”
Joe’s face had gotten red and his blood was pulsing in the veins in his neck. He had so much ENERGY…but he was trapped here, in this truck. Trapped by THEM, trapped by HER.
Joe smacked his head with his gun, and then let it linger there, cool against his forehead. He took a deep breath, let it out, felt himself start to settle down. He stopped paying attention to the cops in front of him. Except to show them the gun every now and then, just to remind them he had it.
The police told me that Joe sat there talking to himself, occasionally showing them his weapon and telling them to back off and give him some TIME. He would occasionally shout, and then go back to talking as if there was someone in the truck with him.
He did NOT want to go back to jail. He had sworn he’d never go back. He would never let them put him in a fucking cage again!
He started thinking about all of the shitty people in the world, and how everyone on the planet had let him down. Even Bert, “Sherbert” – his baby sister…even she had abandoned him, after everything he had done for her.
And now Jen…damn. She’d let him live with her for MONTHS now. She said she loved him…he really thought he had her figured out, but in the end, she betrayed him, too.
He was tired. Things were starting to get fuzzy and he felt a little bit confused.
Saying His Goodbyes
He turned to look at his sister, sitting in the passenger seat, just looking at him. He was pretty sure she wasn’t actually there because she hadn’t been there a minute ago.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing”, she said, “Just wondering what you think you’re going to do now.”
“What do you care anyway?”
She kept on babbling, saying something about choices and some other stupid shit. He was pretty sure now that she wasn’t actually there, but why did she keep TALKING to him if she wasn’t there?
“Just shut UP already!!!”
He was so tired, and so trapped – he needed to think, to find a way OUT of this.
He started to talk to her about all of the times everyone had wronged him, forced him to DO things, forced him to take what he wanted because the rules were just put there to control and keep people DOWN.
Didn’t they know he NEEDED things? If society wasn’t so fucked up he wouldn’t have HAD to steal, or lie. He wouldn’t have HAD to hurt people. He just did what he needed to do to survive. Nobody else gave a shit, he had to take care of himself.
He reviewed his whole life – all of the times he had protected her from their parents – from everyone, really. All of the ways people had screwed him over, all of the ways the whole world was just set up to keep people like him from being happy. The women he’d made love him over the years – they were all there with him for a moment.
All for what – everybody left, in the end, or betrayed him.
“You’re the only one that ever listened, you know, the only one I ever REALLY loved.”
She just nodded…she was fading in and out now.
He felt empty, now. His sister just sat there, staring at him, saying nothing.
Fuck her, then, if she didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t need HER.
One of the cops had gotten really close to the truck – a different one, not Jen’s brother. Close enough that Joe could see the expression on his face – frustration, disgust, judgment – all showing through a wary, cautious mask.
They were judging HIM??? And now they were going to throw him back in jail to punish him for society’s failings.
Joe noticed the gun in his hand again. He hadn’t PLANNED on ending it quite this way – with the cops staring at him through the windshield and his baby sister sitting in the passenger seat watching.
That WOULD be kind of epic, though, right? I mean, that would DEFINITELY show her – show ALL of them!
His mind became silent…peaceful. He knew what to do now. There was one way out…one move he could make that let him WIN this stupid game.
Joe put his gun to his temple, and looked the cop straight in the eyes. He enjoyed watching the expression on the cop’s face change. That asshole finally actually looked scared…good. Joe smiled a small, eerie smile, and then moved the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger without another thought.
It took four days for the police to track me down. They had no paperwork that led to Joe’s family. They found some emails he had sent to me referring to me as his sister.
I was cleaning and packing up my house – the movers were coming the next day. I almost didn’t answer the phone when it rang, but I thought it might be the real estate agent. The voice on the other end of the line sounded tired, and wary.
“Are you Joe Hollenbeck’s sister?”, he asked. “Who wants to know?” I responded, immediately on guard.
He told me he was with the police department, and asked if I had anyone there with me. I didn’t. He suggested I sit down, and I knew immediately what he was about to tell me. I had gotten one of these calls before – they always ask if you’re alone, and tell you to sit down. It must be in the manual.
“I’m sorry to tell you that your brother is deceased”, he said. I asked what happened, and after trying to tell me that I didn’t “need” the details, I finally convinced him to tell me everything. Apparently he had been on the scene when it happened.
“I’m so sorry to have to make this call, ma’am, but we need to know what to do with the body.”
I sat down, after all. “What to do with the body”….with Joe’s body….
I just sat there for a while, in shock. Thinking. I wasn’t crying, which I found strange…but I knew I had a couple of phone calls I had to make. I had to call my parents, and tell them that their son had killed himself. I had to call my sister.
Making The Call
So I called my parents. My mother answered the phone. I asked her if Daddy was around, and told her she might want to sit down.
I told her Joe had committed suicide, and that we needed to make arrangements for his body. I did not tell her the details of what the police had told me…not yet, anyway. She was calm, said she’d take care of everything from there. Not to worry, she’d call the police, she’d call my sister. I should just go take care of myself.
Somehow she seemed to know just what to do, now that he was dead. Dealing with him while he was alive was the real challenge…death was nothing. Death she could organize, manage, and “clean up”.
I went about my day in a daze, still needing to finish things so the movers could do their work the next day. We moved out of our home, and into a dingy crap heap of a rental. THAT is another story entirely.
The Family Pretends To Care
I got that call on a Monday, and by Thursday I was in the hospital with meningitis, fighting for my life. I was in and out of consciousness for several days, having fever dreams about my brother and a myriad of other things. I was hospitalized for 5 days, and still very sick for a few weeks after that.
So my mother had my brother’s ashes shipped to them in Colorado, and everybody waited for me to get well enough to travel back there from Seattle.
Joe loved to fish, so my mother’s plan was to dump his ashes at one of his favorite fishing spots – a place he had gone with my Dad a couple of times. She got each of us a carnation, to throw in the water after we took our turn pouring some of his ashes into the river’s current.
It was beautiful. It was also hypocritical and wrong. My nieces were distraught and confused, my sister somehow managed to make it about her, and my parents said the first nice things about him that I had EVER heard them say.
I also realize that everyone was doing the best they could. To my mother’s credit, she was trying to do right by him, and have our final gathering honor the boy she had so WANTED to love.
It was ridiculous, and difficult, and I felt nauseous the whole time. Except when I threw my flower into the river. When I did, I imagined Joe standing there in his waders, fishing pole in hand, the sun glinting off of the water.
He looked free. He looked at peace. He looked like he could finally let go of all of his pain. Maybe that was just my mind, trying to make me feel better. I took it, though, and wished FOR him, with all my heart, that he finally had the peace he had been missing his whole life.
My brother was mentally ill and he did bad things in his life, and he hurt people. He hurt me…a lot.
And I had really, really loved him anyway.