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Under the Bridge 

The story of a young man's lonely death and his family's struggle to help him overcome his mental illness

click to enlarge Flowers adorn the bridge in Spokane's East Central neighborhood where Joe Weller died. - MITCH RYALS
  • MItch Ryals
  • Flowers adorn the bridge in Spokane's East Central neighborhood where Joe Weller died.

Paper coffee cups and smashed beer cans litter the space under the bridge at East Main Avenue and North Altamont Street. Graffiti, too. Train whistles and the far-off clank of steel from the railroad tracks overhead disappear into the big blue sky. Dust flies on breezy days, and the air smells of tar and diesel exhaust. But under the bridge there is shade. This is where Joe Weller spent his final moments, alone.

The couple in the white house overlooking the bridge are the ones who found him. He looked to be asleep at first, Bob Peeler says.

It was a little after dinner time. Joe's backpack and bedroll rested on the ground next to him. He was wearing a light jacket and Adidas gym shorts. Brown hair, glasses and a little scruff on his face. When Peeler approached, Joe was already stiff. That was July 17.

The medical examiner has ruled the death a suicide, but beyond that, the circumstances that led to Joe's death remain a mystery for Peeler, who has worked with the homeless population for 35 years as a housing specialist for SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs).

Joe's family — his sisters and mother who live in Montana — can offer some details and speculation, though the 32-year-old's death came as a surprise to them. They didn't even know he was in Spokane until the medical examiner called and confirmed what doctors had told the family long ago: Joe's mental illness was severe. There likely wouldn't be a happy ending.

As a kid in Great Falls, Montana, Joe Weller wanted to be a firefighter. He had one of those big metal trucks you could pedal around. Climbing trees, swimming, rollerblading — they were always outside, his sisters recall.

In high school, Joe was a three-sport athlete — soccer, basketball and during his final year, football. He was in the marching band, too. He could play almost every instrument. The trombone was among his favorites.

As he got older, Joe wanted to be a lawyer, his older sister Arienne Konesky says. The family didn't have much money growing up — sometimes dinner consisted of crackers and ketchup — and for years they were the target of their father's physical and emotional abuse (which eventually led to a restraining order). The four kids forged a bond in defiance.

Joe's troubles started around age 17, about the time their parents were going through a nasty divorce.

The Joe they knew — the smiling, never-standing-still little brother — turned inward. He grew sullen. They thought it was a reaction to the family turmoil.

"He became what I thought was depressed," Konesky says. "He was not my Joey."

The family mostly avoided talking about his strange new behavior. They hoped it would go away. His mother, Karen Cox, says her son got into drugs and alcohol, and a doctor would later tell her those things probably fueled his mental illness. He began hearing voices. Then the police got involved.

Joe was in high school English class, and the voices started talking. He yelled at them to stop. He thought people were making fun of him, Konesky says. He'd had similar outbursts at home.

"Shut up! Shut up!" he would say. "Stop talking about me!"

"No one's talking, Joey," Konesky would tell him.

His English teacher had to call the police that day. Joe got physical with the officers and was arrested.

In court, an officer told the judge that Joe needed help, not punishment. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of jail. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed medication.

The pills made it easier to ignore the voices, he told his family, but they never completely disappeared. Plus, he didn't take the meds consistently. He would slip back into paranoia and delusion, and the cycle would start again.

Though it all, Joe's family was left to largely sit back and watch. He refused to sign over his guardianship rights to his family, which would have made it easier for them to help him.

"I feel like we failed him," his sister Rebecca Schneckenburger says. "I have to believe he's happier now. I know how miserable he was. He didn't like being sick."

On top of that, his medication was extremely expensive. His family estimates it cost about $900 a month.

"The deciding factor for everything that had to do with Joey's care was money," Konesky says. "I'm a teacher and my husband is a diesel mechanic. If my child had to take that medication every month, we'd lose our house. We had no way to pay for the help he needed."

After his first time at the state psychiatric hospital, the family learned about programs and benefits to help pay for Joe's meds. He enrolled in disability insurance, but that created another problem.

If Joe worked too many hours, he would lose his benefits.

That means he was forced to choose between leading some semblance of a life and controlling the voices in his head.

It was during one of his stays in the state psychiatric hospital that Konesky and Cox talked with the doctor, who gave it to them straight.

Joe suffered from a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia. His meds were very powerful, and still, he heard voices. Eventually, the medication would cause liver damage and affect his neurological function.

"He told us that with how severe Joey's illness was, there wasn't going to be a happy ending," Konesky says. "And up until that moment we were all just praying for the miracle, like maybe he's going to wake up and be OK."

When Cox got a call from the Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office in July, it had been about a year since she'd seen her son. She'd been trying to call for months, as she did about once a week to check in, but he didn't answer. His family still doesn't know why he ended up in Spokane, but they started to put the pieces together after receiving news of his death.

Joe's social worker in Missoula told Cox he stopped taking classes at the University of Montana, where he was studying computer programming, and he stopped attending group therapy sessions.

Recently, he took a trip to Colorado. Cox believes he was going to see his father. When he returned to Montana, he quit his job and left.

"His boss said he was a totally different person when he came back from Colorado," Cox says. Then a conversation with a Spokane police detective all but confirmed Cox's suspicion that her son had stopped taking his medication again.

The detective told her Joe had confessed to a murder. But the police could find no evidence to corroborate his story, police spokeswoman Officer Teresa Fuller says. Joe was released. About a week later he was dead.

Joe's family scattered his ashes in the mountains near Monarch, Montana. He loved the wilderness and told his mother he wanted to live off the "sun and rain."

"He was a good kid — attending college, he had plans," Konesky says. "He was definitely not the person he turned out to be. This shouldn't have been his story." ♦


LEFT BEHIND

Under the bridge where Joe Weller was found, the family who lives nearby keeps a memorial. The sign reads: "To the gentleman who felt so lost and alone that he took his life on 7.17.16. May you find the peace, love and light that you were looking for. May those you left behind find peace and understanding in your choice.

"Suicide is never the answer. If you are feeling lost, alone and helpless please think of those who love and cherish you. No one is truly alone in this world. All those who you have shared stories with, laughed with and cried with are going to be left empty and asking what if's.

"You are loved and you are important. Even if right now you feel like your world is falling apart.

"Please don't leave your friends lost and broken in this world. There is already enough ugliness. Don't make them go through it alone."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or struggling with mental illness, there are places to get help.

In Spokane, call: First Call for Help: 509-838-4428

In Idaho, call: 208-769-1406 or 888-769-1405 in Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone counties.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Look for these warning signs:

• Talk of hurting or killing themselves.

• Increased drug and/or alcohol use.

• Increased anxiety or agitation, unable to sleep.

• Feelings of hopelessness, withdrawal from friends, family and society

• Dramatic mood changes.

For more information, visit the Spokane Regional Health District's website at srhd.org or Frontier Behavioral Health at fbhwa.org.

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