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Mother’s mental illness blamed in tots’ deaths

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Charlene Dorcy leaves the courtroom. The mother confessed to shooting her two young daughters and burying them in a rock pit on June 12.

Charlene Dorcy leaves the courtroom. The mother confessed to shooting her two young daughters and burying them in a rock pit on June 12.

Janet L. Mathews, Associated Press

VANCOUVER, Wash. — When her daughters' toys came tumbling out of the closet, Charlene Dorcy didn't rush to pick them up.

She told her husband not to worry: "They're going to be thrown away anyway," Robert Dorcy recalled, in what has become for him one of many omens of what was to come.

On the morning of June 12, Charlene Dorcy loaded 2-year-old Brittney and 4-year-old Jessica into her white Toyota and drove them more than 80 miles to an abandoned rock quarry. She made them sit on the ground and then shot them with her husband's .22-caliber rifle.

That same evening, she drove back to Vancouver, called 911 from a pay phone and turned herself in. She led detectives back to the quarry where they found the children's bodies.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Robert Dorcy described the last days of his family's life together, a life of loving warmth marred and eventually destroyed by mental illness.

"What I want the public to know is that my wife was a devoted mother," Robert Dorcy said as he sat in a room crowded with his dead children's toys. "But mental illness makes people do things — things that are completely out of character."

Charlene Dorcy awaits arraignment next month on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, a charge that could carry the death penalty.

Similar killings by mentally ill mothers happen as many as 100 times a year, said forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, a consultant to the prosecution in several high-profile cases, including that of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub.

The Dorcys met 10 years ago when Robert answered a personal ad describing "a Christian who likes hiking and hugs." On their first date — a hike in the same wilderness where their children would die — Charlene told him she had a secret.

Beginning at age 13 she began a repeated pattern of failed suicide attempts.

In 1997, she was interviewed anonymously by The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver for a feature on the stigma of mental illness. The story called Charlene a "success story" because she had managed to keep her schizophrenia in check through medication.

But soon after the article was published, Dorcy — with her husband's encouragement — stopped taking Tegretol, an anti-psychotic drug.

"The side effects included liver damage and losing your eyesight," Robert said. "I said: This isn't good."

Instead, she switched to St. John's Wort, an herbal remedy commonly used to treat depression. Studies suggest the herb can exacerbate psychosis in schizophrenics.

"She had threatened to kill herself at least six times in the last year," he said. "But then there was always a calm."

Neighbors noticed that something was not right.

She had difficulty coping with noise or with anything being out of place, a condition she described in the 1997 newspaper interview.

"Everything needed to be just right, or she would fly off the handle," said next-door neighbor Marcus Cates, 29, who had a run-in with Dorcy last year when she complained about the noise he was making building a fence.

"She basically lost it, and told us that it would be my fault if she killed her kids or jumped off the Morrison Bridge," he said, referring to a bridge that spans the Willamette River in nearby Portland, Ore.

Lately, financial worries had become a trigger for Charlene's illness since the family filed for bankruptcy last year, Robert said. Last week, she took out a "For Sale" ad in The Columbian, advertising her children's toys, including Brittney's slide.

"She wanted to sell the slide for $41. But the children still enjoy it," he said, pointing to the red and blue contraption in the family's living room.

On the night of June 11, Robert read "Winnie the Pooh" to his two children. Then, as always, Charlene took Brittney on her lap and cuddled with her in the rocking chair.

"I cuddled Jessica — and then we switched," Robert said.

Usually, the couple ended the evening by going to bed together. But that night, Charlene closed the bedroom door and her husband slept in a separate room, Robert said.

In the morning, she left the wooden puzzles where they had fallen on the floor of the closet. Before leaving for work, Robert made each of the girls a tent out of sheets — draping them over their dressers and chairs. He hugged each of them before leaving — but when he said "Bye" to his wife, she replied in a sarcastic tone: "Yeah."

At work sorting papers that afternoon, Robert said he felt a strange chill. Later, when detectives said that his wife was at the police station but his children were not with her, he knew right away.

"She was always with them," he said.

Sitting next to two tiny blue chairs in his daughters' toy kitchen, Robert Dorcy said he still loves his wife.

"I forgive her," he said. "I know that many people won't be able to understand that."