state hard to interpret
By TOM MARSHALL
Friday December 14
BRATTLEBORO -- What happened to Robert Woodward?
More than a week after the 37-year-old Bellows Falls resident was fatally shot by police in a Brattleboro church, friends and relatives are no closer to understanding how the "Woody" they knew as calm, peaceful, and drug-free could be transformed into someone described by witnesses as agitated, suicidal, and psychotic.
Psychiatrist Lesley Fishelman said it was highly unlikely that Woodward could have experienced a complete mental breakdown or "psychotic break" without warning signs, unless drugs were involved.
"It would be very unusual for someone to wake up Sunday that way," she said. "The one thing that might precipitate this would be drugs -- LSD, PCP or hallucinogens. That would be the only circumstance in which someone would go from perfectly normal to that kind of state in that amount of time."
Fishelman, director of outpatient psychiatry at the Brattleboro Retreat, cautioned that she never met or counseled Woodward, and could offer only general observations from her 30-year practice.
To some friends and observers, the fears Woodward expressed in the moments before he was shot seven times -- that he was being pursued by the FBI or CIA and needed sanctuary from the government -- cannot be discounted, even though officials say there is no evidence of federal involvement.
"It seems to me that the only fair thing to say is that Woody was afraid for his life for some reason, that he only expressed this during the last day of his life and that this was not a theme he'd expressed before then," wrote Tova Gabrielle of Amherst, Massachusetts. "There is no mismatch between the peace-loving person and his actions if he was telling the truth."
Relatives said Woodward had no history of mental illness they were aware of.
"If the officers felt that Robert could have hurt them, and had to retaliate with seven shots, I can only comprehend that they were sorely overcompensating," said cousin John Rudis of Kansas City, Mo., challenging the need for deadly force in response to a pocket knife. "Robert was alleged to have been talking incoherently. Robert was well educated and was very articulate."
But Fishelman said it was possible friends missed some of the subtle signs of an impending breakdown -- sleeplessness, anxiousness, and an extra sense of alertness or vigilance -- particularly if Woodward hadn't been forthright in talking about them.
"A trained observer is much better at picking up these more subtle signs of anxiety than someone who's just trying to be supportive," she said. "He might not have been letting out any of this stuff he was anxious about."
For such people, Fishelman likened the process of increasing vulnerability to a walk on thin ice. "That ice can get thinner and thinner or weaker. It still looks OK, but you put your feet on it and you fall through."
Once someone falls through that neurochemical wall of protective psychological buffers the resulting "psychotic break" can be traumatic, flooding the victim with thoughts that might have lingered beneath the surface, she said.
"There is a moment where it does break and people get extremely agitated and upset," Fishelman said. "If we get sleep-deprived, have a biological vulnerability, or use drugs, we can erode that wall. It's kind of a biological Achilles heel."
None of the friends or relatives interviewed in recent days could point to solid evidence of such symptoms in Woodward. But several mentioned his tendency to bottle up feelings or problems, and others said he may have experienced sleeping difficulties.
Many witnesses at the Unitarian church spoke of the difficulty in calming Woodward, and at least two trained mental health workers in the crowd described his behavior as psychotic. Fishelman said victims of a psychotic break were often difficult to console.
"When somebody gets psychotic, they don't have the ability to quiet that anxiety," she said. "It's so toxic for the person experiencing it that you can't talk people into a state of calmness. It's very difficult to do that."
Whether Woodward experienced such a breakdown may be very difficult to piece together, even with the aid of modern forensic toxicology, Fishelman added. Such tests normally reveal only the presence of drugs or other foreign substances.
Other pathologies such as a brain tumor or an endocrine imbalance could produce psychotic behavior, she said, but almost never without warning symptoms.
Dr. Paul Morrow, the state medical examiner, declined to comment even in broad terms about forensic procedures in Vermont. But his colleague in New Hampshire, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Andrew, confirmed that his efforts focus mostly on the presence of foreign toxins or drugs.
"If it's some sort of intrinsic chemical abnormality in the brain, that's not likely to be picked up on a routine toxicology screening," he said.
Some advanced testing could be done for blood chemistry, Andrew added, but such an approach is difficult without some clues to narrow the search.
"You can't just go on a goose chase seeking abnormalities," he said.