ST. PETER, MINN. – Levi Minissale doesn’t hear the voice of God in his head anymore. The one that sounded like a TV news anchor. The one that commanded him to kill.
He shows off the ankle bracelet that gives him more freedom to walk the campus of the state’s St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, where a locked ward has been his home for the last two years.
He says he’s down to two medications a day now, and is no longer being actively treated for what is known as schizoaffective disorder, which produced the hallucinations that drove him to fatally stab a Mankato woman and injure her husband, and resulted in a jury finding him not guilty by reason of insanity.
“I feel like I’ve been learning more about my mental illness and how to deal with stress and anxiety and depression,” he said in a recent interview.
Minissale, 29, never testified at his 2015 murder trial, where his attorneys successfully argued that his battlefield experiences contributed to his mental illness. But in a series of interviews with the Star Tribune, he said he now accepts responsibility for his actions and that he often thinks about the victims, onetime girlfriend Yesenia Gonzalez and her husband, Galo Ruiz. He also says he recognizes his untreated mental illness drove him to kill.
“I don’t really understand my actions that day,” he said. “I’m not like that type of person to fight with people or cause conflict. I’m more of a peacemaker, normally.
“I prayed about it and tried to get in touch with my spirituality with what happened. It seems like a blur. It happened so fast.”
Minissale was 24 and a year removed from a tour of duty in Afghanistan when he stabbed and killed Gonzalez, 20, and tried to kill her 28-year-old husband at the couple’s Mankato home in June 2013.
Ruiz told investigators that he woke from sleeping to find Minissale on top of him. Before he wrestled the knife away, Gonzalez had been stabbed 10 times, Ruiz five.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Minissale knew what he did was wrong because he fled the house. He also had planned on killing another ex-girlfriend the day before, but reconsidered because she had been nice to him, they said.
In an unusual defense strategy, Minissale’s lawyers didn’t dispute that he attacked the couple, but instead argued that his Marine training and combat experience fueled his mental illness. An expert witness testified that Minissale’s “mental software” during his service had been altered to require him to obey the command of a superior, even if that superior was God and even if he knew what he was being ordered to do was wrong.
He displayed significant mental health issues even before joining the Marines and should never have been sent into combat, his defense team argued.
“He had schizophrenia emerging prior to this Marine service but it might not have manifested itself fully had he not had been through the incredible stress and trauma of Marine training as well as what he saw in the Sangin Valley” of Afghanistan, said Brock Hunter, Minissale’s attorney.
It took jurors only eight hours to agree. Before doing so, however, they heard evidence of Minissale’s multiyear slide into mental illness.
Minissale was described as a substandard Marine who began hearing angels while in boot camp. He apparently believed that time-traveling aliens had kidnapped his brother and others close to him and had taken them to the future, replacing them with impostors. He also believed that God was instructing him to seek revenge for their actions, asking for four heads on a wall. Minissale bought baby wipes, gloves and a dual saw blade in anticipation of beheading his victims.
On the day he fatally stabbed Gonzalez, Minissale said God spoke to him in a calm and reassuring voice. But the commands were direct and savage.
“ ‘If you don’t do this, I can destroy you and replace you with a new Levi,’ ” he recalls being told.
“You don’t disobey orders ever in the military,” he said recently. “You always do what you are told and when you are told to do it.”
After his arrest, Minissale never reported any mental health concerns and said he did not tell police about the real reasons for his actions.
“I couldn’t tell them the truth because that was for God to know. Not them,” he said recently.
Whether Minissale should have been in the Marines in the first place is open to debate.
A portion of his trial focused on how his service indoctrinated him to accept commands in a culture known as “military total institution.”
William Brown, a professor of sociology at Western Oregon University who studies veteran reintegration issues, has worked on more than 170 criminal cases since 2008 involving service members or veterans who have had trouble adjusting to civilian life. Brown said the issue may be particularly profound for those who have served during periods where more personnel was needed and recruitment standards lowered.
Minissale was sent to Afghanistan in 2011 during a surge in American troop activity.
“From looking at his training record, he was pretty much of a screwup all the way through training,” said Brown, who testified at Minissale’s trial. “He was just not all there, but they went ahead and took him. And they turned him loose.”
It has happened before.
Brown was a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War and dealt with a group of soldiers who were part of what was known as “McNamara’s 100,000.” The term is a reference to then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who once proposed lowering recruitment standards to allow 100,000 previously rejected soldiers to be inducted into the military during the height of the conflict in 1966.
Brown said the group was targeted for remedial training and often included enlistees who did not speak English, were overweight, had criminal records or had mental health issues. “We needed vacancies filled,” he said. “We took them in and we sent them to Vietnam. If we could redo this and Levi went to apply into the Marines today, I doubt if he could get in.”
In Minissale’s case, a Marine spokesman denied that enlistment standards were softened to meet the needs of the Afghanistan surge.
In response to written questions, the Marketing and Public Affairs Office of Marine Corps Recruiting Command said recruits are medically evaluated before joining. Applicants are required to provide any behavioral conditions or symptoms, but psychological tests are not performed unless the applicant is referred to further treatment or evaluation, the Marines said.
Marines complete a final medical evaluation as they approach enlistment’s end. Staff and medical officers are trained to determine if they are mentally and physically fit to serve, the Marines said.
“The Marine Corps encourages all Marines and applicants to seek medical assistance if they are suffering from a mental health condition,” the office said.
Tree Line Black
After interviewing Minissale and others and reviewing his military records, Ernest Boswell, a clinical psychologist who is considered an expert on post-traumatic stress and similar disorders, concluded that Minissale’s combat experiences most likely eroded his already-fragile psychological makeup and that the onset of his psychosis probably occurred during his time in the military.
Looking back, Minissale says he feels “good about accomplishing stuff,” and of winning respect while in the Marines. But he also says that the stress and anxiety he experienced “made things harder on me.”
In a follow-up interview, he said: “Part of me feels like they kept breaking me down, breaking me down. I never got a chance to build myself back up. In combat, I just wanted it all to end. When I was in Afghanistan, I didn’t want to deal with the patrols anymore, seeing people get hurt anymore.”
Minissale deployed to Afghanistan’s violent Helmand Province, a stronghold of the Taliban. The mission was to defend the Kajaki dam along the Helmand River, critical to irrigation in the valley.
Minissale’s unit, which conducted more than 100 combat patrols and was engaged daily by the enemy, took 12 casualties. In one incident, Minissale and another Marine opened fire on a group of Afghans along what was known as “Tree Line Black,” where the Taliban was suspected of planting roadside bombs. They discovered later that they had fired on local farmers and children.
In another incident, Minissale, who was designated an expert marksman, failed to fire his weapon and even seemed unaware that the cover on his scope was still on as he aimed at the target.
A Marine who served with him in Afghanistan testified that everyone in their unit knew something was wrong.
“We never thought he would willingly put anyone in harm’s way,” said Courtlandt Volker. “But it became pretty apparent, the first couple days he was there; he didn’t sleep, he didn’t go the bathroom. I think he was up 48 hours straight praying. He was just a total psychological mess, and that was without going out on one patrol. Immediately, I thought, ‘We’re going to have some issues.’ ”
Concerned about Minissale’s well-being, Volker stayed in contact after they left the service.
“I knew he would have a lot of issues adjusting to society because he had a lot of issues adjusting to the Marine Corps,” Volker said.
Minissale’s time these days is occupied by individual and group therapy. He is in a dual-diagnosis group for mental illness and chemical dependency. A group on mindfulness and meditation offers different skills to deal with negative thoughts.
Within six months he hopes he will move to a new program on campus with unsupervised trips to town and access to the internet. After another year, he said he hopes to move to a halfway house and eventually be reunited with his family.
His treatment team, not a court, will determine his fate.
Although it could not be independently confirmed by St. Peter staff, Minissale said that in January, his diagnosis was modified and he is now being treated for severe depression with psychiatric features, both in remission. He is also appealing a Department of Veterans Affairs denial of a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Minissale said he recognizes the courtroom verdict gave him a second chance. “At the end of the trial, my brother came up to me and said, ‘Justice was served. You had a problem you couldn’t control in your mind,’ ” Minissale said. “Other people can understand that I am a good person. They can see the good side of me and not the mentally ill side.”
Hunter, Minissale’s attorney and an editor of the book “The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court,” often speaks with him on the phone.
“Levi really is kind of a lamb and that’s another reason why he was so out of his element in the Marine Corps,” said Hunter, an Army veteran. “One of the ironies of this case is a guy who did this horrible, horrible thing really couldn’t be more different than that. It exemplifies when you have a serious mental illness just how stark a difference from your regular personality you can become.”
He added: “If the experts in St. Peter are confident that he is well enough to be discharged, I am perfectly comfortable having him walking the streets in my neighborhood.”