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Questions on the Palouse 

An apparent murder-suicide raises questions about Idaho's mental health spending.

click to enlarge Ernesto Bustamante and Katy Benoit
  • Ernesto Bustamante and Katy Benoit

Along with his body, police found Ernesto Bustamante’s Moscow hotel room filled with guns, bullets and pills. There were drugs to ward off depression, to take care of bipolar disorder and epilepsy, to treat anxiety, to help him sleep.

It’s unknown if any of these prescriptions were in Bustamante’s system hours before, when, on Aug. 22, police believe he shot and killed Katy Benoit, a recent University of Idaho graduate with whom he had had a romantic relationship.

What is known in the wake of the former UI assistant professor of psychology’s apparent suicide the next day is that the incident represents a worstcase scenario in a state that has slashed mental health funding to nationally low levels.

According to Moscow Police, Benoit filed a sexual harassment complaint against Bustamante on June 10 and spoke with Moscow Police Lt. Dave Lehmitz the same day. A relationship between Benoit and Bustamante had deteriorated in March, and a court affidavit filed against Bustamante shortly after Benoit’s murder goes on to say that Bustamante had repeatedly pointed a gun at her, and once put it in her mouth.

Moscow Police and university officials say they urged Benoit to take safety precautions as they investigated the complaint, including avoiding her own apartment. University officials last spoke with Benoit on Aug. 22, the day she was killed, to inform her that Bustamante had resigned.

Around 10 that night, officials believe the former professor shot her 11 times on the porch of a friend’s house while she took a break from baking cookies to smoke a cigarette. Bustamante is thought to have shot himself in the head early the next morning in room 213 of Moscow’s University Inn- Best Western. (The university has not released any records related to Bustamante, citing privacy laws, but is petitioning a district court to interpret how Idaho’s privacy laws relate to deceased employees.)

According to court records, Rowdy Hope, described as a close friend of Bustamante, told police that Bustamante had multiple personality disorder. One of these personalities was called a “psychopathic killer,” Hope told police, and another was “The Beast.”

Multiple personality disorder is often marked by a person changing their mannerisms, speech and personality without warning, but it’s not common for it to make a person violent, says Anil Coumar, director of mental health at the University of Washington’s student health center.

“One of the personalities can be violent, in some cases,” Coumar says. “[But] it’s not correct to say that multiple personality is anymore dangerous of a diagnosis than any other diagnosis.”

University of Idaho Benefits Manager Niki Jones says the school does offer faculty mental health coverage through their health insurance, as well as a call-in line for those who need counseling. It’s unknown whether Bustamante used any of these services.

But for Idahoans outside the university system, those sorts of resources may not be available.

Idaho spends less than any other state on mental health. In fiscal year 2011, it spent $27 per capita on mental health, according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses. Montana spent $129 per capita. And Washington, with a much larger population than both states, spends $42 per capita.

One of the programs that University of Idaho officials say they encouraged Benoit to contact, Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, has already felt the impact of budget cuts on its Moscow office.

“I’m sitting here doing my budget now with a huge Idaho gap,” says Christine Wall, executive director of the agency, which focuses on domestic violence and sexual assault. (Wall would not say whether Benoit ever made contact with the agency.)

Wall says she can’t point to a direct connection between the budget cuts and Benoit’s murder.

“However, it does make one wonder,” she says.

“When we look at Moscow and Latah County, Idaho, clearly there are more services in Whitman County, and there have been less fatalities [in Whitman],” Wall says.

“In general, student mental health is in much sharper focus on most campuses,” says Anne Frankie, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who is chairing a committee on disabilities for the American Association of University professors.

“[But] we have to remember that, fundamentally, these are educational institutions. They can’t solve all kinds of problems of everybody,” Frankie says. “I don’t think it is [an institution’s] domain to diagnose people, and speculate about people’s mental health.”

University of Idaho president M. Duane Nellis addressed the university community shortly after the apparent murder-suicide. “We value all of our students and seek to give them the best in education in the safest environment possible,” he wrote. “Sadly, there’s no way to protect them from everything.”

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