By Jean Cole
Mary Barksdale still lives in the one-story home on Horton Street where her son gunned down two Athens Police officers one afternoon in 2004.
The shooting stunned the community and forever changed the lives of those who knew Officer Tony Mims and Sgt. Larry Russell.
Like others, 69-year-old Mary often wonders what could have been done to prevent the tragedy. She believes better mental health resources for her son, and others with mental illness, could have helped.
That day in Athens
Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 24, Mary’s 29-year-old son Farron was living in an apartment in Decatur owned by the mental health home, though he sometimes stayed with his mother in Athens and was doing so at the time of the shooting.
On the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2004, Farron had called police twice that day asking for either the FBI or the police to be sent to his mother’s home. Farron was in the throws of a psychotic event, was not taking his anti-psychotic medication and had been drinking vodka at the time, officials said.
After calling police, he lay in wait near a window inside his mother’s home with an assault rifle he bought in Huntsville a few days before.
Mary, who was at work when the nightmare transpired, said her son “thought he was battling aliens.”
Earlier, Farron had torn cable from the home to prevent police, the government, gangsters and aliens from using the wires and TV to tap into his brain, Mary said.
When Officer Mims arrived at the Barksdale home to assist, Farron fired multiple rounds through the windshield of Mims’ cruiser, piercing his vest and striking him in the chest, neck and head. The officer was found dead in his cruiser, with his seat belt still fastened and his cruiser not yet in park. Within a minute, Sgt. Russell, 42, arrived, stepped from his vehicle and was also ambushed. He died later at Huntsville Hospital.
“This was never reported, but Farron called back 911 and said ‘don’t send any more officers because I can’t tell the difference between the real and the fakes,’” Mary said.
Farron was able to pass a background check and buy the rifle and ammunition because the federal database did not list his prior mental commitments and because Farron lied about his illness on the form provided by the gun dealer.
Mary thought the gun was at his father's house.
Farron was found competent to stand trial in January 2007, and five months later, agreed to plead guilty to multiple counts of murder after families of the slain officers agreed he should receive a life sentence rather than the death penalty.
Two days after his trial, Farron was transported to Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery. Three days later, he was found comatose in an isolation cell. He died 10 days later at a Montgomery hospital after being taken off life-support. Mary said the cause of her son’s death was lost in the media reports and headlines.
Although there was evidence that suggested Farron had been beaten, she said that was not the cause of his death. He died of neuroleptic malignant syndrome, she said, a life-threatening neurological disorder most often caused by an adverse reaction to neuroleptic or antipsychotic drugs. The medication coupled with the extreme heat in Kilby that summer — in the 100s — made Farron heat-intolerant and his organs shut down.
Not a day passes that Mary does not think of Farron, who she said was a caring, nurturing person as a boy.
“He brought home stray animals to care for,” she said, “Not just dogs and cats, but turtles snakes, tadpoles. He also defended other children against bullies.”
Mary believes she did her best with Farron. She had him committed to mental institutions five times between September 2001 and June 2003.
“I believe I did everything I could,” she said. “The system should have been better.”
She believes Alabama and other states should use assisted outpatient treatment, or AOT, to prevent seriously mentally ill people who are being released from hospital, jails or prisons from relapsing.
In a 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center of Virginia titled “”More Mentally Ill Persons Are In Jails And Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey Of The States,” the center recommends that states use assisted outpatient treatment or AOT. This requires select people with mental illnesses to take medication under court order as a condition for living in a community. The taking of medication is supervised and monitored. In New York, using assisted outpatient treatment, the percentage of mentally ill people arrested decreased from 30 percent to 5 percent. In North Carolina, the number decreased from 45 to 12 percent, according to the study.
Preventing relapse instead of reacting to it would cost the state of Alabama less, Mary said.
“With a conservative estimate, it cost the government well over $1 million during the 3 1/2 years (following the shootings) Farron was in jail,” Mary said, citing court costs, court-appointed attorneys’ fees, psychological exams, medication and the cost of housing him in jail.
In addition, Mary was awarded $750,000 from the state Department of Corrections in the wrongful death suit she filed following her son’s death. The lawyers she said, earned 40 percent.
She also believes prescription medication should be kept affordable for people with mental illnesses.