Dan Morain

An anniversary of a rampage, spent bearing witness and advocating

Nick and Amanda Wilcox hold a photo of their daughter Laura Wilcox at their home in Penn Valley. Laura was killed in 2001 by a mental patient who went on a shooting rampage at her Nevada County workplace.
Nick and Amanda Wilcox hold a photo of their daughter Laura Wilcox at their home in Penn Valley. Laura was killed in 2001 by a mental patient who went on a shooting rampage at her Nevada County workplace. lsterling@sacbee.com

Had events not conspired on Tuesday, Amanda Wilcox and her husband, Nick, would have hiked up Buttermilk Trail to a special spot above the Yuba River.

They would have sat on a bench, remembered their lovely young daughter, Laura, and contemplated what might have been if she hadn’t been working on that awful day a severely mentally ill and heavily armed man named Scott Thorpe arrived at her office 16 years ago.

Instead, on Jan. 10, they found a different way to honor their daughter. They drove from their home in Penn Valley to the Capitol to bear witness, and to witness the confirmation hearing for Xavier Becerra, Gov. Jerry Brown’s nominee to be the next California attorney general. The hearing had been going on for two hours, and the room was emptying when Amanda Wilcox stepped to the microphone.

“I shouldn’t be here today,” she said as Becerra listened.

Laura had been on winter break from Haverford College and earning a little extra money by working as a temp at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health. Thorpe had been amassing weapons, habitually smoking marijuana and becoming ever more paranoid when he showed up at the old mental health care office on the outskirts of Nevada City on Jan. 10, 2001.

“She was killed in a rampage shooting in Nevada County in 2001, shot four times at point blank range,” Wilcox told Becerra. “I should be home. But I came because the position of attorney general is so important.”

A few minutes after Amanda Wilcox spoke about the attorney general’s vital role in combating gun violence, Kent Thorpe, in the hallway of his home in Sacramento, noticed the time, 11:28 a.m., the minute his brother started firing.

In 2001, Kent Thorpe was a Sacramento police officer who specialized in hostage negotiations. He put those skills to work in a way he never could have imagined by helping Nevada County cops coax his brother out of his barricaded house.

Scott Thorpe is housed at Napa State Hospital, having been judged not guilty by reason of insanity in the deaths of three people on that terrible day. Kent Thorpe gets by the same way every Jan. 10 now: “Just wait until the day is over so it’s not the anniversary anymore.”

I met the Wilcoxes and Kent Thorpe in 2011 as I tried to comprehend California’s crazy system for caring – or not caring – for severely mentally ill people. I’m still trying.

Because of the Wilcoxes’ efforts, California lawmakers in 2002 approved Laura’s Law, which allows counties to opt to more aggressively treat severely mentally ill individuals. Laura’s Law undoubtedly helps many people and probably saves lives. But even though most large counties have adopted Laura’s Law ordinances, and mental health courts have expanded, too many people go untreated, as is evident on any street in any city in the state.

The Wilcoxes have become semi-regulars at the Capitol, where they are volunteer advocates on behalf of gun safety measures, generally for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Among the bills for which the Wilcoxes advocated is one that authorizes family members and law enforcement officers to petition courts to issue Gun Violence Restraining Orders. If the bill had been in place in 2001, Kent Thorpe could have sought a court order requiring his brother to relinquish his arsenal.

Over the years, California has limited the size of magazines, banned military-style assault weapons, prohibited cheap handguns and restricted gun ownership by people who commit acts of domestic violence. Because of legislation and an initiative last year, California will require background checks of people who buy ammunition, in addition to guns. It’s all threatened.

The National Rifle Association spent $52 million to influence the 2016 election, $30 million of it to elect Donald Trump. Gun advocates have high hopes for Trump. The incoming president says “the government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own,” and advocates a “national right to carry’’ law that would allow gun owners to carry conceal weapons without having to go through the process of obtaining a special permit.

Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation last week that would impose so-called reciprocity. The bill, co-sponsored by 109 Republicans and two Democrats, would require strict gun control states such as California to recognize concealed weapons permits granted by any other states, no matter how lax their laws are.

Becerra vowed to battle such incursions, telling the Assembly committee on Tuesday: “If we have laws in place, we have every right to protect those laws. ... The federal government has to prove that what it’s doing is federal in nature and isn’t violating the 10th Amendment and the states’ rights to enact laws that help and improve the welfare of their people.”

The Wilcoxes were heartened by Becerra’s promise to defend California’s gun control laws, and they thought it was important to bear witness to the toll a gun in the hands of a mentally ill man inflicted on one family, on two parents who would give anything if their daughter had lived to join them on that Buttermilk Trail.