Ever since that frozen day 17 months ago when Robert Wood tried to get police to shoot him, home has been a cell in the Ramsey County workhouse in Maplewood.
It’s a tough place for someone with Wood’s medical problems: depression, bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
During a suicidal episode last year that warped into a standoff, Wood seriously injured a St. Paul police officer by shooting him in the face with an air rifle.
He had every reason to expect a fusillade of bullets in response. No other law enforcement agency in Minnesota has shot and killed as many people as the St. Paul Police Department in recent years. Of the 13 people who died in encounters with St. Paul officers since January 2010, at least four were in the throes of a mental health crisis.
But St. Paul officers didn’t kill Wood.
He survived on a combination of luck and the willingness of police to slow their response and do what it took to coax Wood out unarmed.
“They did exactly what we’re asking cops to do,” said senior commander Mary Nash.
Nash is leading the St. Paul Police Department’s efforts to change how it responds to people in “emotional distress.”
The department now requires all officers to take the 40-hour crisis intervention team training. It is also trying to work more closely with Ramsey County’s mental health workers. Dispatchers are now diverting more 911 calls to a separate mental health crisis line. Meanwhile, St. Paul police are creating a list of “emotionally disturbed people” they’re likely to encounter repeatedly, such as the East Side man who jumps in front of cars on Payne Avenue.
The true fix, mental health advocates say, lies in ensuring that people with mental illness get treatment so no one needs to call police.
Wood, a self-described “old hippie,” wipes away tears in disbelief over what he did. He remains convinced that police aggravated the situation, but is also thankful to be alive.
“I want to just say I think they showed great restraint because they didn’t shoot me.”
‘Things just started closing in’
Wood, 55, worked for years as a sound engineer in Minnesota and California. He toured with a range of ’80s and ’90s rock bands such as Anthrax, Lo-Pro and Five for Fighting, a band whose hit song “Superman,” about a vulnerable, self-destructive hero, might be Wood’s anthem.
Wood was about 13 when his parents divorced. His mother said she struggled to raise five children on her own and some got involved with drugs and alcohol. Wood's depression was diagnosed in his teens. He briefly married, and had a daughter.
At some point, he said, “things just started closing in.”
Instead of joining the crew after work, Wood started hiding on the tour bus. It became harder to get back on an airplane for tours. He had developed agoraphobia — a fear of open or public spaces — and would get physically sick before flying. He had other health problems.
Eventually he had to quit working.
“I loved being in that business and to be not able to do it for something as silly as being scared really screwed with my psyche and my self esteem … and my finances,” he said. “I went from making $1,500 a week to $945 a month on Social Security.”
Wood fought to hold his life together. He was hospitalized several times. A thin scar snakes across his arm from another time he thought life wasn’t worth the battle.
But he’s still the artistic man Donnelle Burlingame first met decades ago in Twin Cities music circles. He was the one who got away, she said. They got engaged after reconnecting a few years ago, and moved into the upper half of a white house in St. Paul’s North End with their dogs. Wood’s movie collection covered one wall of the tiny living room.
Burlingame tried to help Wood as he began a downward slide in late 2014. Estranged from his family, he was consumed by the loneliness of the holidays. He was drinking.
That Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, Wood woke up talking of death. Fortunately, he was scheduled to go to an occupational therapy group that had been a lifeline. He felt safe and accepted there, made friends, did wood burning art and set goals with a counselor.
The sessions kept him out of the hospital, Wood said, but state budget cuts in 2011 had slashed the number of sessions that insurance would pay for. That shrunk the service to just once a week for 12 weeks. Wood tried to be strategic, scheduling them for Minnesota’s bleak winter months.
The therapy group was where he was headed that January day, as temperatures hovered just below 30 with snow on the ground. As Wood left to catch the bus, Burlingame called Wood’s longtime psychologist Paul Novotny for help.
Then Wood missed the bus. Upset, he returned home.
Burlingame was hanging up as Wood walked in. He was angry she was talking to his psychologist and they began arguing. Wood fixated on killing himself.
He began drilling a hole in the frame above the bedroom door to string a rope, while talking to Novotny on the phone. They all agreed he needed to be hospitalized again.
At 1:16 p.m. Novotny called 911 and told the dispatcher that he had an agitated, suicidal patient who needed to go to the hospital. Novotny declined to comment for this story. But a transcript of the 911 call shows he warned the dispatcher that his patient might invite “death by cops,” and may have what he described as a BB gun. He made sure the dispatcher had his cellphone number and offered to help. He drove to Wood’s house.
‘Don’t kill him, please!’
Over the next three hours more than two dozen St. Paul police officers converged on the block, including a K-9 unit and a SWAT team in an armored vehicle.
Three St. Paul police officers were the first to show up. One of the first on the scene was officer Jamie Sipes. Sipes had not taken crisis intervention team training for handling mental health emergencies, but he was a trained crisis negotiator.
Burlingame urgently explained to officers that Wood was sick and needed to go to the hospital. She warned them that he would try to provoke them, that he had knives and had lashed one onto the end of a walking stick.
Before any negotiations could start, Sipes said, Wood lost control.
He had been expecting his psychologist for a trip to the hospital, Wood said. Not police. He felt abandoned. Wood whipped out a knife stuck in his waistband and screamed an expletive.
Wood said he decided to end his struggle by making the police kill him. He climbed upstairs to get the .25-caliber pellet rifle he had purchased online a year earlier, during one of his manic phases.
Then he pulled out the screen from the second floor window facing the street and started firing. He shot at a drain pipe, a fence post. Officer Sipes could hear the pellets “dinging” around him.
Sipes and officer Mike Talley took cover behind a silver van parked across the street. Then Talley yelled out: “I’m hit!” A pellet had struck his right cheek, about 3 inches below his eye. He was bleeding.
Sipes had his 9-millimeter handgun drawn, but said he couldn’t see Wood or Wood’s weapon well enough to take a shot.
The cops called for backup.
Alone, watching the scene unfold from the back of a squad car, Burlingame became frantic. The door was locked. She felt trapped. Hearing officers on the radio discussing taking a shot at Wood, squad video shows her screaming. “Don’t kill him, please! He’s just sick! Please stop!”
She heard the ping of a pellet striking the roof of the squad car, she said. But no one shot back.
Eventually an officer took Burlingame toward a black truck parked a block north of the house where Sipes was negotiating with Wood over the phone.
Burlingame spotted Novotny, Wood’s psychologist, outside pacing on the corner. She kept thinking: “This is who we needed to get to Robert. He knows him the best.”
Meanwhile, an armored SWAT vehicle pulled up in front of their house.
Somewhere inside Wood’s chaotic mind that day, he decided that he wanted to live.
Wood recalls screaming over and over that he wanted to talk to his psychologist, but officers wouldn’t let him.
Sipes said he doesn’t recall such pleas, except toward the end of the ordeal. St. Paul police protocol prohibits third parties from getting involved in negotiations because officers don’t know the true relationship between the subject and the other person, Sipes explained.
“We avoid that third person intermediary as much as possible because you can’t control it,” said Nash, the police senior commander.
Nash and SWAT team commander Tim Flynn were in charge. It was a barricade situation, and the strategy was to talk Wood out unarmed.
For at least two hours, Sipes tried to coax Wood over the telephone. Sipes counted 36 calls back and forth.
Sipes said he told Wood that he would look bad as a professional negotiator if he couldn’t successfully resolve the standoff, and thinks that helped develop a small emotional link with Wood.
Wood described being terrified. Police were yelling through loudspeakers. Wood stormed out of the house hollering and went back inside. He threatened to shoot the dog. He said he yelled that he wanted to go to the hospital.
The afternoon trudged on. Searching for options, police finally gave the phone to the psychologist.
A naked surrender
It wasn’t a conversation. Sipes instructed Novotny to tell Wood to come out peacefully and then they could talk.
Novotny spoke for only seconds.
Wood called it a turning point.
“I heard his voice — he seemed to be on speaker phone — but he said ‘It will be all right, Robert. Just give up and we’ll get you the help.’ His voice was kind of like … a voice of reason through the static. It just was like an awakening, I guess.”
Wood said he went downstairs and opened the front door to surrender.
But the sheathed knife was still in his waistband. The SWAT team formed a phalanx and advanced toward Wood blasting beanbag rounds. Two of them hit Wood and he fell on his back. The dog, Vito, came at him and started biting. Projectiles smashed through the door.
Police said Wood was trying to stab the dog. Wood said he wasn’t, that he was just sliding the sheathed knife into Vito’s mouth so the German shepherd couldn’t get a good bite on him.
Vito and the SWAT team retreated; Wood went back upstairs to his apartment and called Sipes.
“Why’d you sic the dog on me?” he demanded.
Wood said they told him it was the knife.
Wood nursed his wounds and drank a couple of hard ciders.
The cops switched negotiators, but nothing changed. Finally, Wood made a decision.
“So I thought ‘Well, if I’m going to give myself up, I’m going to make them shoot an unarmed naked man.’ And that’s when I stripped all my clothes off and went outside naked.”
It was about 4:30 p.m. Three hours has elapsed since police first arrived. Wood lay down on the frozen sidewalk. Police handcuffed him, hauled him to Regions Hospital and booked him into jail.
In February, Wood pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree assault — with an aggravating factor because he shot an officer in the line of duty. “There is a piece of shrapnel that will forever be in officer Talley’s face,” Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Cory Tennison told the judge.
Ramsey County District Judge Joy Bartscher said she will accept Wood’s plea and consider the circumstances at his July 18 sentencing.
Wood’s family and friends say they can’t believe he’s been jailed. They accuse police of overreacting that day. Police should have allowed Wood to talk to his psychologist right away, they said.
“They treated him like a criminal, and of course he ended up being one,” Burlingame said.
The St. Paul police say it was Wood who escalated the confrontation. Police did not have their weapons drawn when they first arrived. Wood drew the knife. Wood started shooting.
“The biggest thing that’s going to help police and law enforcement throughout the nation is resources for people with mental illness,” said commander Nash. “Until society says we’re going to do something better than this … this is going to happen.”
Wood insists he only meant to hurt himself that day. He offered a deep apology for hurting officer Talley.
“It’s really hard for me to comprehend because I’m such a peace-loving guy. I’m like an old hippie, like ‘Peace and Don’t Hurt People.’ ”
Wood now has a more hopeful vision for his life. He wants to enroll in a faith-based treatment program at Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, and pursue a new interest in Christian rock music. He wants to rebuild his relationship with his daughter.
He and Burlingame dream of opening a kennel to train therapy dogs for people with PTSD.
But he faces the possibility of 10 more years behind bars, with credit for time served.
His attorney Chris Zipko said he’ll fight for probation and treatment.
Either way, Robert Wood faces a host of new challenges. His fiancée, who landed a new job at Como Zoo, is being evicted from their home because she can’t pay the bills without Wood’s disability check.
And when Wood gets out of jail, he won’t only be a man struggling to live with mental illness. He will be a felon.