By Eric Stevick and Diana Hefley Herald Writers
EVERETT — Gina Latshaw long ago accepted the heartache and turmoil that came with raising a child with mental illness.
The Everett woman did so willingly, although the troubled boy was not her own.
She was his advocate, ever in search of the right counselor, doctor, medicine, school or therapy to help him better cope with his dark thoughts. She’d recognized early on that his problems were more than she alone could fix.
There was a bond between the two that Latshaw, 37, would not break despite his often erratic behavior.
Detectives believe it was the boy, now 16, who ultimately broke that bond. Prosecutors on Wednesday charged Brad George with first-degree murder in Latshaw’s death. He pleaded not guilty Thursday. He’s accused of striking her in the head with a dumbbell while she slept in her bedroom on Feb. 7.
They were drawn together in 1999 when Latshaw began a relationship with an Everett man who, at the time, had custody of three of his four children. George, the youngest, was in diapers.
Latshaw kept a journal of the dysfunctional interactions between the biological parents, the hardship it created for the children and their on-again, off-again tug-of-war for custody.
In straightforward prose, she documented the friction within a fractured family and her growing affection for the youngest child. The children’s father — Latshaw’s boyfriend at the time — was sentenced to prison in 2002, and five more times since then. Starting in 2004, and every year after, Latshaw filed for restraining orders to keep the methamphetamine addict away.
Their children’s biological mother, meanwhile, drifted in and out of their lives, often scrambling to get a roof over her head.
In court papers filed in spring 2003 seeking custody of George and one of his sisters, Latshaw told a judge that she had been raising the children for five years.
“Neither parent can give the children a stable environment,” she wrote. That’s what she set out to do when a judge awarded her custody.
With George, it proved a daunting task.
By early 2003, when he was 5, she had him assessed for therapy at a local mental health office. He had been showing disturbing behaviors.
Latshaw was worried about the boy’s growing aggression, something that his teachers also noticed.
He had been hitting, kicking and banging his head on walls. He’d bitten himself hard enough to draw blood. Latshaw told a mental health clinician that the boy had talked about killing himself and threatened to kill her.
He was aggressive toward animals and told graphic, violent stories.
His teachers said the 5-year-old’s behavior was preventing him from making friends.
“They feel that he treats people as inanimate objects,” court papers said.
His behaviors, the clinician concluded, were consistent with those seen among children who have been abused or neglected as infants. She recommended therapy and concluded the boy should stay with Latshaw.
“She appears very committed to him, as evidenced by continuing to parent him when he is not biologically hers, seeking treatment for him and following through with treatment,” the woman wrote.
Around the same time, Latshaw enrolled the boy in a preschool program at the Everett Community College Early Learning Center. When he would have a hard time, the instructor gave him Play-Doh or paints to express his feelings.
“He consistently paints pictures of (Latshaw) — he calls her ‘Mom’ — as the center of his artwork,” the teacher wrote. “She is always painted with a smile.”
Even so, Latshaw understood that George’s problems were deep-rooted and profound.
That year, in papers she filed to gain custody, she wrote that “Brad has many social-emotional problems and behavior issues; has problems with transitions, and possible separation disorder stemming from infancy.”
She added: “(He’s) currently in therapy, works with a mental health specialist at school and is on a waiting list for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome testing.”
George’s behavioral problems persisted. In 2010, he was admitted to a hospital with hallucinations, court records show. It was during this stay that George was diagnosed with homicidal ideation. He made a clay sculpture of Latshaw, beheaded. He also pulled off the wooden arm of a chair and threatened a nurse. Two security guards disarmed him after the nurse screamed for help.
When he was 12 and 13, he ran away — first from a mental health counseling session, then from inpatient treatment. He went missing for two days the first time; four, the next.
At 15, George’s behavior resulted in a criminal conviction. He assaulted a female staff member last year while attending Overlake Specialty School in Bellevue. The school, affiliated with Overlake Hospital Psychiatric Services, serves students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Latshaw wouldn’t surrender to the hardships of the boy’s illness.
“That’s not my daughter,” her father, Joe Latshaw, said. “She wouldn’t give up.”
She did, however, take safety precautions, installing a security bar on her bedroom door.
George described for detectives how he slid a coat hanger beneath the doorway, disabling the security bar so that he could reach Latshaw. He told police he’d quit taking his medications a week before the killing. He told them he believed the woman he called “Mom” was poisoning him with bleach. He then allegedly tried to cover up his involvement by staging a break-in before heading off to school.
George now sits in a cell at Denney Youth Center, without the woman who so often came to his rescue.
Latshaw grew up in Snohomish County, spending most of her life in Everett and Mukilteo. Her given name was Georgina — a family tribute to her great-grandfather whose first name was George.
As a youngster, her family called her Georgie, but she shortened it to Gina when she went to school. Georgina seemed too long to write on her assignments.
Latshaw’s lifelong compassion for others began in childhood, her father said.
Her journal entries described how she tried to bring stability to the lives of George and his siblings. Several excerpts shed light on her efforts to help the youngest child.
February 2001: “I am currently living with a friend, still looking for an apartment. Brad is now with me and I take him to a preschool I went to as a child. We are doing really well together and he is falling into an early morning routine very well.”
March 2003: “Brad is finally caught up on his immunizations. This has been quite trying; he was never immunized as a baby so it’s been catchup for a while now; often times seeming like torture to him. No more shots until JR high … A relief for both of us.”
April 2003: “I sat with Brad today and we talked about different types of Moms (biological, foster, adopted and ones out of love). Then about what a mom is. I let him do most of the answering on that one. He had a really long list and tried to put things in like ‘gives out ice cream when the kid asks for it.’ Always trying …”
Carolyn Hetherwick Goza first met Gina Latshaw through a six-week class she leads for parents and guardians of children with mental health issues. In the spring of 2011, they had several heartfelt conversations.
During that time, George, then 13, ran away from the McGraw Residential Center in Seattle, where he was getting inpatient care. For four days, Gina Latshaw worried, but didn’t sit still. She reached out through traditional and social media for help finding him. Her father remembers putting up posters on telephone poles.
Goza helped Latshaw search for George.
On the fourth day, a report came in from Darrington about a boy matching his description.
Latshaw called Goza at midnight. They drove together in Goza’s SUV. Goza was struck by how deeply concerned Latshaw was, knowing that the boy needed his seizure medicine and was afraid of the dark.
“Darrington?” a perplexed Latshaw said more than once.
The family didn’t know anyone living in Darrington.
They crisscrossed the mountain town at 1 a.m., stopping late-night dog walkers to see whether they might have seen George. A convenience store clerk said the teen had stopped in to buy candy. Latshaw looked for spots where George might have tried to catch some sleep.
Then, the trail grew cold.
A few hours later, as they studied menus in an all-night diner in Arlington, the police called. George had been found, exhausted, well outside Darrington on the North Cascades Highway. He was taken to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where Latshaw tried to soothe him, softly stroking his leg while hospital staff prepared to evaluate him. He was lying on his stomach atop a gurney in an emergency room hallway.
“She was just so devoted to him,” Goza said. “He was her baby, her little boy.”
Goza admired the work ethic of the single woman who had taken on two children who were not her own but loved them as if they were. She learned that Latshaw had gone to college to try to improve her life, graduating in business from Everett Community College in fall 2005 before transferring to a four-year university. She worked for the Everett Parks Department while attending college and later landed an IT job with an Everett aviation company.
“She was just such a doll,” Goza said. “I would be proud to call her my daughter.”
Gale Springer, a registered nurse, heads the Mental Health Patient and Family Advisory Council at Providence. Latshaw was one of the council’s founding members in 2011.
Mental illness can bring a long, complex spectrum of emotions from patients and their families.
To Springer, Latshaw was level-headed, pragmatic and ever willing to share the encyclopedia of resources she kept in her cellphone.
“Her motive on the committee was really to help others find a path,” Springer said. “I would want people to know how wonderful she was, how committed, dedicated and focused she was to improve the mental health services for others.”
Without complaint or fanfare, Latshaw opened her heart to the vulnerable, Springer said.
“She could have ignored the issue from Day 1,” Springer said. “She could have not taken the kids in, but she did. She was the Good Samaritan. She lived that example. Could you imagine what it would be like if we had a community of people like her?”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.