A court-ordered psychological evaluation of murder suspect Alberto Prece Palmer has been challenged by his lawyers, who have questioned the competency of the man charged with killing 18-year-old Brittany Clardy and suspected of killing Klaressa Cook. Both women's bodies were found stuffed in cars in Twin Cities impound lots.

Palmer, 24, was to have appeared in court in Anoka County on Thursday but had his competency hearing rescheduled for Oct. 11, at the request of his public defenders, prosecutor Wade Kish said Tuesday. Such a challenge is not uncommon; Palmer's lawyers want an independent examination of the man who is accused of fatally beating Clardy in February and is expected to be charged in Hennepin County in Cook's death.

"What kind of person could do such a thing?" Alvin Clardy, Brittany Clardy's father, asked recently.

Palmer's own family is wrestling with similar questions.

"My brother has a temper; there are certain buttons you just don't push," Tameka Palmer said from Chicago, where she and her brother were raised. "But the Alberto I know is not a killer.

"Something triggered him to do it. I believe it was the devil. Whatever it was, this is a person who is much deeper than the stuff people are reading on the Internet."

Palmer, 24, who has been in the Anoka County jail since his arrest in early March, declined to be interviewed for this story. But he told authorities that he bludgeoned Brittany Clardy with a hammer, according to court documents, and he is the lone suspect in the Cook killing, Brooklyn Park police say. He's also wanted in Georgia, where he is charged in violent attacks on three women.

Several family members, including his parents, acknowledge that Palmer has struggled with clinical depression and could become rageful if he suspected someone stole from him. But they also describe him as a loving father who strived to overcome an impoverished family life that began with his birth as a crack baby and included a jail term for car theft when he was a teenager.

A former employer said that Palmer was a talented cook and hard worker, but that he seemed to have "a chip on his shoulder" and would clash with colleagues.

"He was only 23, but mature for his age," said Bobbie Robinson, an Atlanta restaurant owner. "But sometimes he didn't know how to handle situations."

Birth and background

Albert Ford fathered four children before he and Katherine Palmer produced four more. The couple never married and drifted apart often, including during her pregnancy with Alberto.

Katherine Palmer said she left Chicago for St. Paul, where Tameka was born 11 months before Alberto, to escape the drugs she feared would ravage her life. She said she was four months pregnant with Alberto when she returned to Chicago and began smoking crack. Her son was born with cocaine in his system, she said.

Family members say that the parents' unstable relationship fell apart and that social services placed the children in the home of their maternal grandparents when Alberto was just beginning school.

Always hyper and soon taking Ritalin, Alberto suffered constant mood swings, his mother recalled. His sisters and Ceara Miller, the mother of his child, say he suffers from depression. His older half sisters, Nicey Richmond of St. Paul and Lorraine Major of Cedar Rapids, remember him as a "nerdy" kid who struggled to fit in as he approached his teens.

Desperate for friends, he hung out with the wrong crowd and was arrested at 17 for car theft. He never completed high school but earned his GED when he landed in jail again for violating probation, Tameka Palmer said.

"It may have been a blessing," Nicey Richmond said. "Alberto liked to cook and in jail he learned to be a great cook."

Palmer eventually landed a job as a cook at Harold's Chicken & Ice Bar in Chicago. When Robinson started a Harold's franchise restaurant in Atlanta, she recruited Palmer to cook and train other cooks.

A grandfather's ring

Palmer had struggled in recent years, after changing his medication for depression, family members said. His grandfather, who helped raise him, left Palmer a ring valued at $2,000 when he died in 2010, Katherine Palmer said. A year later, a female acquaintance stole the ring. Palmer was enraged like never before, say family members.

"If he thinks you've stolen from him, no telling what he might do," his mother said.

Palmer's daughter, Ava, was a year old when he moved to Atlanta 14 months ago. He'd send her $300 to $400 every paycheck and lavish her with clothes, but his life wasn't the same without her, Ceara Miller said.

Something else was missing. Miller said that Palmer had an insatiable appetite for sex. He told her he was soliciting prostitutes.

"I understood it," Miller said. "It seemed harmless."

In Georgia, there eventually would be warrants for his arrest; he is charged with violently attacking three prostitutes he met between September and December of last year through an Internet site, backpage.com. Anoka County authorities say Brittany Clardy, of St. Paul, was a prostitute whom Palmer met through the same website before killing her at his brother's house in Brooklyn Park on Feb. 11. The mother of Klaressa Cook told other media outlets that her daughter worked as a prostitute, although a sister firmly denied that to the Star Tribune. Cook's body was found in May in the trunk of a car that had been towed to a Minneapolis impound lot from a supermarket parking lot in Brooklyn Park.

Employer's recollection

Bobbie Robinson, Palmer's employer at the Georgia restaurant, said she never felt threatened when she drove him to his apartment each night after work.

She had other issues with Palmer. She said he often argued with the cooks he was training. He was going to anger management, Robinson said. Sometimes, he'd become so upset that he'd leave work in the middle of his shift, without notifying anyone.

Palmer and the restaurant parted "by mutual agreement" last December, Robinson said.

He moved to the Twin Cities. He has brothers in Brooklyn Park and Oakdale and a sister in St. Paul. He was arrested at an aunt's, in Woodbury, on March 6.

"He calls Ava every other day from jail," Miller said. "She walks around staring at his picture ID."

Palmer now shares something in common with Alvin Clardy.

"Alberto can't believe that he may never see his daughter again," Miller said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419