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On Sunday, June 29, 2003, grocery bagger Joseph Hunter Parker, wearing a dark ankle-length trench coat and green beret, walked into his Irvine Albertsons store, raised a three-foot samurai sword over his shoulder and brought it down on the neck of Judy Fleming,a popular co-worker whose generosity and affection for others had earned her the nickname "Mother Hen." Fleming's legs buckled under the dead weight of her nearly decapitated body. When John Nutting, a 42-year Albertsons employee filling in for a friend attending church, rushed to intervene, Parker sliced him to death, too.
Within seconds, there was total pandemonium. Perfectly stacked rows of chips, sodas, toilet paper and coffee became a blur in the periphery of panicked shoppers and workers, as they abandoned their carts and registers and sprinted for the front doors.
Parker continued his rampage, slashing his way through early-morning customers Ryan Flanagan, Thomas Peters and Eva Marez as well as store manager Tony Fitzgerald. Some of their injuries were severe, but they survived.
Irvine Police Officer Michael Fender was the third patrolman to arrive on the scene, less than 10 minutes after the first 911 call was made shortly after 9:30 a.m. He found about 70 people scattered throughout the parking lot. One woman's arm was spurting blood; a man being helped by others was also bleeding profusely from an arm wound. Fender snatched a Colt AR-15 assault rifle from his patrol car and, along with the two other officers, entered the store.
"He's right there! He's chopping people up! Right there!" someone yelled, directing the officers to the back of the store. And there was Parker, standing with his blood-smeared sword against the sterile background of neatly stacked packages of chicken and steak.
Fender ordered him to drop the sword. Parker ducked behind one of the large meat cases and then popped back into Fender's gun sight; Fender fired and missed. After firing a total of six rounds, he hit Parker once in the chest.
Parker and two of his victims lay dead. The bubble of security over one of Orange County's safest cities had been pierced.
What followed was the usual litany of disbelief—not just at the scope and viciousness of the crime, but that the perpetrator was capable of it.
"I couldn't believe it. I had no clue. When I heard it was Joe, I started laughing," says former friend Dallas Farish. "I was like, 'No way. Joe wouldn't do that.'"
But while those close to him were stunned he could have done such a thing, one person may have seen it coming: Joseph Parker himself. On several occasions he had told family and friends that he "might become violent" and that voices in his head were "telling him to do bad things."
Parker had suffered from schizophrenia for years. He had sought aid from the local mental-health system, but never got the help he needed—partly because he didn't display any obvious signs of psychotic behavior that would lead to crime, but also because he strove to be a normal, nice guy. In the end, that desire is probably what killed him, Fleming and Nutting.
Joseph Hunter Parker was born in 1972 and grew up in the thick backwoods of Richmond, Virginia's Dinwiddie County. He spent much of his time exploring the lush forest. Surrounded by poplar, oak, pine, maple and sorghum trees, he hunted deer and squirrel, cooled off from the humid summers in the watering holes, and took fish from the lakes and ponds.
"I was always with Joe," recalled his sister, Heather Parker. "We were always hanging out and climbing trees together."
But Parker's seemingly idyllic childhood hid a secret he shared with other kids in the neighborhood: they were sexually assaulted by his great-uncle, Guy Crowe; in Parker's case, the abuse went on for six years. When the molestations came to light, Crowe was given just a five-day sentence and three years' probation.
"It's sad. More than anything I think it's really sad," Heather said. "He was an innocent child, and he didn't deserve to have those things happen to him."
But Parker's sister had no idea just how much the abuse affected him, that behind the mask of a grinning brother dubbed "Smiley" was a disturbed boy who was to evolve into a very sick man. Parker, whose mother and two aunts suffered from bipolar disorder, also had an aunt who suffered from schizophrenia. Given Joe's bloodline, the six years of molestation was like a fuse that burned steadily till it reached its end in the explosion in Irvine.
Parker (left) in happier times
The word "schizophrenia" comes from the Greek schizo, meaning "split," and phrenia, meaning "mind." It is a term professionals rue, many times confused with multiple-personality disorder, a completely different malady. Although the exact cause of schizophrenia remains a mystery, experts know that neurotransmitters, the message-carrying chemicals that serve as the brain's communication system, play a key role.
Maryellen Walsh, author of Schizophrenia: Straight Talk for Family and Friends, compares the brain to a telephone switchboard. "In most people, the brain's switching system works well," she writes. "Incoming perceptions are sent along appropriate signal paths, the switching process goes off without a hitch, and appropriate feelings, thoughts and actions go back out again to the world. In the brain afflicted with schizophrenia, perceptions come in but get routed along the wrong path or get jammed or end up at the wrong destination."