A cruel and tragic end

Bartlesville police officers outside the home on Mark Aldridge after he was found dead on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016.

Bartlesville police officers outside the home on Mark Aldridge after he was found dead on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016.

This is a first-person account of the events leading up the the death of Mark Aldridge; the author both knew Aldridge and was involved in discovering that he was dead on Jan. 15, 2016.

 

Mark Aldridge, a man who had a promising career as the chief executive and chief financial officer of several hospitals in Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois – rising to become a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives – was found dead Friday in his home in Bartlesville.

The apparent cause: A self inflicted blast from a shotgun in his own bedroom, which he had closed off in an apparent effort to spare his long-haired miniature dachshund, Dex, trauma.

Aldridge was 43 years old.

Mark Aldridge in March 2016

Mark Aldridge in March 2015

He appeared to be spiraling into mental illness that had never been treated and that had escalated since the Bartlesville Police executed a search warrant at his home on March 6, 2015. His apparent suicide came less than 24 hours after Washington County District Court issued a felony warrant for his arrest, charging him with two counts of “impersonating another in execution of an instrument.”

“I’m not going to be taken alive,” Aldridge said in an hour-long roller-coaster of a conversation with me on Monday night that prompted me to call law enforcement after it ended – an act on my part that he never would have forgiven. “I’m not going to kill anyone but I’m not going live if that’s how it goes.

“There is a cesspool of corruption here. It’s just psychopaths running amok.”

I knew Mark, and had been in communication with him since March 8 of last year, when I interviewed him in Barnsdall – his hometown – about the search warrant.

To me, his mental illness – and his sad end – are the embodiment of so much that is wrong in our society. He was intelligent, a certified public accountant who was the CFO or CEO at various hospitals including the one in Pawhuska; his last job was as Surgical Services Business Manager at Jane Phillips Medical Center, an institution with which he ran afoul about six years ago.

Stoning by Internet

He was a bright and educated man whose career was totally derailed by his mental illness for which he never got any help, in a country and state that offers very little psychiatric care. It was an illness that left him isolated and alone.

And instead of receiving the outpouring of sadness that accompanied the suicide of, for instance, the comedian Robin Williams, Aldridge was ridiculed and belittled, by everyone from a New York City police detective with a radio show and a “media accountability” law enforcement group, to folks – some hiding behind clearly false Facebook profiles – in a group called Bartlesville Off the Cuff.

He was a difficult person, as a lot of people who are mentally ill are. I suspect he suffered from schizophrenia, but he had never been diagnosed and, before last Monday, he had never appeared inclined toward violence toward himself or toward others. He was merely obsessed with his own truth, a prisoner of his own mind. He needed help, but anyone who broached that subject would be quickly shut out of his life, a traitor.

He shut me out a lot, but somehow, we always reconnected. Probably because I, like several lawyers to whom I showed that initial search warrant, agreed that police lacked probable cause to enter his home and seize his computers and other electronic equipment, searching for evidence that he had mailed several unpleasant letters to people that falsely purported to be from his former employer, Jane Phillips Medical Center.

Echoing several other lawyers, James Hankins, an Oklahoma City defense attorney and editor of Oklahoma Criminal Defense Weekly, told the Bigheart Times in August that the affidavit  was “exceedingly weak.”

“Particularly troubling is the affiant’s reliance on the fact that Aldridge videotaped him and refused to discuss the allegation at all when confronted,” Hankins wrote. “The affiant described this behavior as suspicious, but that is exactly what I would do in that situation.

“Taping the encounter and refusing to make any statement about it is the only legally sensible course of action for anyone with knowledge of their rights and how the system works … It is his right to refuse to be interrogated in his own front yard, and I am a little alarmed that the magistrate would approve a warrant based on such a consideration.”

Prank letters, or threats?

I’ve seen several of the fake JPMC letters and read about others in probable cause affidavits for the search warrant and arrest warrant: They were clear fakes that I would have shrugged off as pranks, not felonies. The ones I saw were unsigned letters that accused patients who complained of maltreatment at JPMC of being disruptive drug-seekers. Letters to property owners near the hospital that claimed it was expanding and was legally allowed to pay property owners less than the value of a home. Collection letters threatening to sue. A letter to Dr. Michael Souter informing him he was being placed on probation and would be canned if he received another patient complaint. And perhaps most ominously, a letter to JPMC President Mike Moore – another Barnsdallian who had mentored Aldridge earlier in his career – in which the writer accused Moore of destroying lives to attain the top hospital position, with the caution that, “YOU ARE ON A COUNTDOWN. JUSTICE IS COMING.”

The arrest affidavits filed Monday, Jan. 11, say that Detective Mikka Mooney of the Broken Arrow Police Department performed a forensic analysis of Aldridge’s two Toshiba laptop computers. Mooney, the affidavit says, found “fragments” of the letters sent to Moore and Souter as well as fragments of templates for the collection and property acquisition letters.

Aldridge vehemently denied having anything to do with those letters.

I don’t pretend to know if he did or if he didn’t. I am not privy to the evidence the police found, and there never will be a trial where that evidence could be introduced  as evidence – and challenged in a court of law.

I do know that I have never known Aldridge to lie, and I am adept at detecting liars after 35 years as a reporter everywhere from New York City to Barnsdall.

At the same time, I know he was terribly paranoid and capable of persuading himself of all manner of things that were probably not true – and of a lot of things that probably were true.

He manifested his opinions and his paranoia in dozens of YouTube videos attacking the Bartlesville police, the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, and the Washington County court system on his YouTube channel, The Police State Ends with Me. Sometimes, a police officer, Steven Silver, or assistant district attorney, Will Drake, would respond with a snide remark – which would get Aldridge riled up, more paranoid, and angry enough to start a barrage of emails to me. I don’t know what purpose a lawyer or a cop would seeks with such actions; I thought they’d be more circumspect, less rash, in interacting with a an obviously mentally ill man they intended to arrest and prosecute,

‘This is the End’

Aldridge posted his last video, “This is the End,” on Jan. 12, Tuesday, at 9:58 a.m. In it, he denounced the judge, police, the district attorney’s office, and other officials as corrupt and tyrannical. He didn’t know the basis for the charges; he never saw the information or the affidavits. He told me he thought they were accusing him of forging checks.

“They will come kill me,” he said on the video. “That is what is going to happen.

“…This is the end. I wish everyone luck. You have your police state. I won’t have it. The police state ends with me. Goodbye.”

And those, apparently, were the last words he spoke.

Misguided, he posted links to these videos in the most hostile of forums that he could have picked: A vitriolic Facebook group called Bartlesville Off the Cuff, where he was belittled and bullied unrelentingly, before and after his death.

‘Off the Cuff’

After that last video, the group took on a mob air, wondering when police would move in to make the arrest.

“Anyone know when Mark is expected to get his s*** rocked?” wrote “Scott McDonald,” a particularly aggressive poster who appears to be using a false profile, and whose language is so foul that it is hard to find a usable quote from him.

“I noticed he has a small white led strobe flashing in his front room window and his other window is plastered with aluminum foil.”

Justin Branstetter, a profile that returns to a real bank vice president in Meridian, Miss. – another person who often employs crass language involving canine or human genitalia – responded: “I have heard allegedly at 2 o’clock this afternoon. It was supposed to be 1 but got pushed back due to a luncheon scheduled at China Palace that will make them sleepy…”

Two hours and 40 minutes after Aldridge was found on Friday, Branstetter posted “RIP.”

About an hour and a half later, I saw that post and ensuing references to Aldridge. To stem the thread from spinning offensively out of control, I posted, “Please just show at least a modicum of respect in comments.”

“McDonald” soon stepped in to call me a “Weirdo tattle tale” because I had successfully filed legal complaints with Facebook about him using my news photo of Aldridge as his fake profile photo – a photo use I viewed as being nothing more than intimidation and fraud.

Then, he ungrammatically lapsed into one of the racist (and even more often, sexist) rants that Bartlesville Off the Cuff so often does: “Look Red Cornhole just because you 2 drumb beating land thieves hunted down a insane desperate looser for a story dont make you a hero or anything for that matter. You are very pathetic. Zip!

“…To bad frank Phillips wasnt still alive. He wouldn’t allow you to talk to a white man like this. You are nothing but a nasty seeping racist drunk.” (sic.)

Blue Justice

Aldridge was also repeatedly belittled on an internet radio show called Blue Justice Radio, the brainchild of a former New York City Police detective named Michael Chianese, who heads a group called Law Enforcement and Supporters for Media Accountability, or LESMA. On Wednesday, two days before Aldridge’s body was found but the day after he killed himself, Chianese and three others on the show snickered at Aldridge.

Some snippets from Chianese – often accompanied by laughter from his co-hosts and guests, give some insight into the tenor of the show:

“Mental illness is a problem. It ain’t my problem but it’s somebody’s problem,” Chianese said.

“… They [the government] let these people walk around and abuse everyone else’s rights and somehow that’s OK: Make thousands suffer for the happiness of one who’s living in a delusional world to me doesn’t seem in any way shape or form seem fair.”

Early on in the show, discussing the video Aldridge posted the morning of his death, Chianese said, “He doesn’t have the balls to shoot it out with the police. He doesn’t have the balls to resist to the point of death, because he doesn’t have the balls to fight me.

“I’m going out on a limb and I might be wrong.”

Further into the talk show, the discussion became graphic.

“Best case about having a shotgun is, you know, this guy tries to gauge the width of the barrel by enclosing his mouth around it and then checks on the dexterity of his big toe by putting it in the trigger guard,” said Chianese, eliciting some big chuckles from his fellow panelists.

Toward the end, the group made reference to Aldridge’s obsession with the fact that before the search warrant was executed March 6, they had gone through his garbage can – he repeatedly insisted while it was in his back yard, where they would have needed a search warrant.

“I hope to God when this is all over, if they do end up having to shoot this mother f*****, I hope the garbage cans are metal and I hope that when they’re done they go back … and stand around the precinct parking lot and set that bitch on fire and roast some s’mores over it – that would be awesome,” Chianese said, to more laughter.

Welfare check

On Friday, Aldridge’s grandmother called me. Elsie Long is 84 years old, a tiny and sweet woman who largely raised Mark and his brother when they were small children. She was beside herself. One of Aldridge’s neighbors had called to say he hadn’t been out to walk his dog, and he hadn’t taken out his trash or picked up his mail in several days.

I suggested we meet in Bartlesville and go to his house to check on him. I informed Bartlesville police, with whom I had been in much contact since Monday night after Aldridge had called me and launched into his emotional, post-warrant roller coaster.

The police asked us to be careful, for fear that, if he was alive, he might harm us. They asked us to not enter the house for fear that he might have laid booby traps. (He hadn’t.) The cops had no intention of swooping down to arrest him by busting into his house; in the larger scheme, his warrants were for a non-violent, minor crime that wasn’t even ongoing since the JPMC letters had stopped in February of 2015, nearly a year ago. If we could talk to him and get him to seek some mental health help, that would be best, they said.

When we arrived at 2 p.m., it was clear we wouldn’t be talking to Mark Aldridge. We knocked. We could hear his dog Dex barking, and nothing else. Aldridge’s bedroom window, tin-foiled on the inside, had four projectile holes that had clearly come through the window from the inside out – errant shotgun pellets.

While I went to ask the neighbor permission to go in their backyard to see what I could see, Aldridge’s step-grandfather opened the storm door and knocked. The front door was unlatched and opened. The dog ran out and into Elsie’s arms. You could see dog feces in the living room – in a house that Aldridge kept meticulously orderly and clean.

We retreated and called the police to do a welfare check.

They did.

Mark Aldridge was dead. He was in his bedroom with the doors shut apparently so the dog, for whom he had left plenty of food and water, couldn’t get into bed with him.

As Elsie Long wept uncontrollably, Bartlesville officers unfurled crime-scene tape in front of Aldridge’s little brick house on a dead-end street. Then they backed off to wait for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to arrive from Tulsa to conduct an investigation – the right thing to do, given Aldridge’s claims over the past 10 months.

In the interim, Detective Anthony Lein, Aldridge’s perceived arch-enemy, drove off to get a crate, leash and collar for the dog that Elsie held in her arms.

We finally left when the OSBI arrived.

There was nothing for us to do.

It was too late to help.

But that didn’t stop the nasties on Facebook from going into tasteless feeding frenzy that offended many. “Scott MacDonald” posted a photo of a cremation urn for sale, claiming he had mistaken it for a urinal.

Some who were offended and hurt struck back at malicious Facebook posters I can only describe as non-humans.

“He stood up for what he believed and that was very noble of him,” wrote Aldridge’s niece, Ashlee Henley.

“He is finally at peace. The nasty things people write on here are awful. I pray for these people and have been daily.

“It may be a big joke to the people saying these horrible things, but his family is mourning the loss of a son, grandson, etc.

“He was in desperate need of help and instead of support people bashed him and antagonized him, some people anxiously waiting for scanners going off so they could hear chaos they thought would take place with him.

“It’s sickening.”

Yes, it is.

By Louise Red Corn

louise@bighearttimes.com

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