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.”
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.
Because he didn't fit the profile of a violent mentally ill person—one doctor calls schizophrenics “the lepers of the day”—he was never institutionalized. He was kicked back into the center ring of society over and over again.
“The law only allows us to hospitalize a person against his or her own will up to three days without a court order,” says Dr. Gerald A. Maguire, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UCI. “Beyond that, we need a court order and a judge to approve it for another 14 days. Beyond that, it's even very difficult to get the six-month chronic stays for those who present an acute danger to others.”
After the barricading incident,Parker lost his job at Orange Lock and Key. He lost his car and was unable to pay rent, so he went to live in Irvine with April Hart, the girlfriend of a former co-worker. He now kept CD headphones in his ears almost constantly in an effort to muffle the voices he heard. He pleaded with Hart to take him to Hollywood to purchase potions that were supposed to extinguish the demons' voices.
Heather said it was mid-2001 when Parker got a job as a bagger at an Albertsons in Irvine. He didn't make nearly as much money as he did as a locksmith, but he was proud he could take care of himself. He was seldom absent from work and, in fact, could be counted on to cover other shifts. He donned a customary red-velvet Santa hat during the holidays.
Parker's southern accent and impeccable manners once again earned him the admiration of co-workers. But behind the rural charm, he continued to mentally fall apart. While he gave the impression of workaday normalcy at work, phone calls to his mother back in Virginia were shorter and stranger. “He kept telling me, 'I hear voices, Momma, telling me to do bad things,'” Susan Davis said.
He tried reading the Bible aloud in a vain attempt to stifle the beckoning voices, and he spoke with the demons, telling them he refused to do bad things. But Bible verses simply confused matters, and soon he was claiming that prophets were talking to him—trying to get him to join the worshipers of Isis, the goddess of fertility and motherhood. Phantoms haunted Parker's sleep. In one graphic nightmare, a demon appeared in a mirror and touched him on the shoulder.
With Hart's help, Parker continued his tour through a maze of mental-health organizations, most so underfunded they could only provide a short-term fix. Hart told reporters after the attack that Parker could appear as if nothing was wrong in the presence of professionals, an unfortunate but common trait of schizophrenia.
The contradictory mental states he displayed undermined his best efforts to be taken seriously and get help. But Parker did want help. In November 2002 and again in January 2003, he called 911 and said he needed to be hospitalized before he became violent. Parker ended up at UCI Medical Center again, where he was prescribed medication. But he soon quit taking the drugs because, he complained, they made him nearly catatonic.
“There are options to try and force patients who aren't compliant to take medication,” said UCI's Wu. “However, well-intentioned but misguided individuals with organizations like the ACLU and the Church of Scientology really badmouth medication and badmouth legal compliance. I think we need to find some healthy middle ground.”
Parker's claim that he mightbecome violent was probably the last clue that something terrible was about to happen, but like all of the other signs it was largely ignored. Hart asked him to move out. He went to live in Santa Ana, where he paid $150 per month to sleep on a sofa in the garage of Ofelia Bernal. His life had become steeped in rituals. When he wasn't trying to exorcise demons that had already invaded his sanctuary, he was trying to block more from entering. One morning, Bernal found him encircled in a ring of salt he had spread on the floor to ward off demons. When Parker told her sons he had seen the devil, it frightened her so much she gave him 30 days to vacate her residence.
The world was running out of places for Parker and his spiritual entourage.
On June 27, 2003, two days before the attack, he bought a samurai sword at Musashi Martial Arts in Stanton.
On June 29, 2003, he woke up helmeted by chanting headphones, surrounded by the gritty remnants of another circle of salt. Looking into the mirror of a medicine cabinet stocked with partially filled bottles of anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs, he prepared to head to Albertsons, where he had not shown up to work for a month.
Joseph “Smiley” Parker then dressed himself and his demons in a dark full-length coat with a long sword hidden underneath and set out, pushing against a warm June breeze for the bus that would take him to Irvine for the last time.