What The Devil Told Joe Parker

Nobody paid much attention to the terrifying voices Joe Parker heard until he slashed his way through an Irvine supermarket.

Hallucinations are common, as are voices schizophrenics hear in their heads. When the images and voices are threatening—when the person is beset by images of demons, for instance—behavior can become violent because, to the schizophrenic, the images and the voices in his head are real.

"Hallucinations appear to be as real to a schizophrenic patient as any of our perceptions would be, and they can hear things as clearly as I hear you and you hear me," says Joseph Wu, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine. "Schizophrenics can see visual hallucinations with the same apparent intensity and apparent reality as we see the real world."

Treatment is difficult; the disease can lie dormant for years, only to be triggered by outside events—say, an incident that brings on the memory of six years of sexual abuse.

In his case, while the disease festered quietly, Parker found a special place in the hearts of those closest to him.

"Joseph would imitate the church lady from Saturday Night Live, and it was hilarious," Heather said. "Joseph was a comedian. We would go for drives out by the rock quarries and down by the falls and a lot of these beautiful country places. Those were some of the most enjoyable times."

After graduating from high school in 1991, Parker took a full-time job at Precon Inc., a Kevlar-manufacturing facility in Petersburg, Virginia. He joined the local volunteer fire department in the nearby small town of Ford, where he became a well-liked, reliable firefighter.

"Joe was an outstanding firefighter when he was here. There were times when he went in single-handedly and put fires out," said Fire Chief Alvin Langley. In 1994, Parker was named Firefighter of the Year when, on his own, he saved a two-story house from burning down. In another incident, former neighbor Bill Cheek remembers Parker "running down the road, changing into his fire clothes as he went," in an effort to save another home.

Parker left his job at Precon, seeking better pay. He tried his hand at forklift repair and, through a correspondence course, became a locksmith. He grew restless and yearned to experience life beyond the borders of Virginia. Heather had moved to California; in the summer of 1998, he visited. He liked what he saw so much he decided to make Southern California his new home. He found a job as a locksmith at Orange Lock and Key in Old Towne Orange and rented an apartment.

Parker's southern drawl and old-fashioned etiquette earned him instant popularity. He seemed to thrive in his new position. He was a motivated worker in the shop and was responsible for driving a company truck to make house calls.

Everything seemed to be falling into place.

But soon, Parker began to act bizarrely. He played a continual loop of Barber's Adagio for Strings on the company stereo, saying the music calmed him. About that time, his mother and sister say, he began hearing voices.

"A man that Joe worked with looked just like my uncle who abused him. That's when he started going off the deep end," said Susan Davis, Parker's mother. "I didn't hear anything abnormal until he started experiencing the flashbacks of the sexual molestation. That's when it started."

Joe grew paranoid and claimed his bosses were out to get him. He said the devil was using the TV to speak to him. It was an unfortunate coincidence that seemed to trigger the madness he experienced from then on.

His behavior grew steadily stranger. Heather said he burned his bed because demons were in it.

"That is one of the things that I remember the most," she said, "because when I went over he had practically nothing left in the apartment."

Yet Parker's devils survived the flames, and from the ashes they rose to continue torturing his mind. He was at work on March 13, 2000, when he suddenly screamed, "It's a matter of life and death!" Pushing all of the customers out of the store, he barricaded himself inside. When officers found him, he claimed a voice told him demons were killing women and children.

Following the incident, Parker was taken to UCI Medical Center for observation. His sister insisted he be allowed to stay until his condition improved.

"I was heartbroken that day when I saw him. He was not the brother I grew up with," she said. "He was just lethargic and sad."

Within a week, he was on his own again. After a couple of days, he called police and told them he was under a lot of pressure and wanted to kill himself. They took him back to UCI Medical Center, but he soon bounced back onto the street. Clinics private and public would never keep him for more than a few days.

Parker was an anomaly in the community of the mentally ill. He tried to live a virtuous, productive life; ironically, that was his mistake. Had he acted out in any obviously criminal way, he might be in a prison today and his victims might still be alive. But he held a steady job and paid rent, proof to medical professionals and insurance companies he wasn't that sick.

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