Dashcam: Mental illness drove their son into the wilderness. They say police abandoned him to die
A man walked the double yellow line of Sulphur Bank Drive on the east edge of Clear Lake, shoeless and in pajamas.
When a California Highway Patrol officer arrived, responding to a concerned driver’s call, Jesse Cavagna told him his name was Free Willy. He said he was from “Texas, California,” and on a spiritual journey to “the Ark.”
Officer Joel Skeen appeared to recognize that Jesse was having a mental health episode on CHP dash-cam video of the Sept. 13 encounter. Several times, he offered to take the 33-year-old man somewhere safe. But after about 10 minutes, Jesse broke free from Skeen and disappeared down a steep embankment. The officer sent a photo he had taken of Jesse to Lake County Behavioral Health officials that day.
Jesse’s body would be found 46 days later, about a mile from his encounter with Skeen.
The Lake County Coroner’s Office estimates that Jesse died “within several days” of the Oct. 29 discovery of his body, meaning he was likely alive for more than a month after the CHP encounter. An autopsy determined he died from his schizophrenia, with contributing factors of exposure to the elements and starvation.
How he came to be lost in the wilderness, and who is to blame, is the subject of a lawsuit his parents have filed against the California Highway Patrol, Skeen and Lake County Behavioral Health Services, as well as Lake County, the city of Clearlake, its police force and one of its officers, Brittany Shores. The civil action alleges they failed in their duties to protect Jesse by bungling that critical lead from the CHP encounter and violating almost a dozen state laws as well as Clearlake police and CHP policies.
Kim and David Cavagna say the photo Skeen took of Jesse, along with other information about the incident on Sulphur Bank Drive, was not shared with family or local law enforcement. That misstep, they say, caused the Cavagnas to spend most of September and October searching for Jesse miles from where he was last seen.
All along, the Cavagnas say, police only halfheartedly looked for their son, writing him off as a mentally ill drug user.
“Each defendant here is charged with special duties to protect Jesse, a severely handicapped person,” alleges the lawsuit, filed April 7 in federal court. “Each defendant failed to protect Jesse, thus, leading to Jesse’s long and painful death by way of being exposed to the elements.”
His parents believe Jesse’s case was handled improperly because of his mental illness. He should have been rescued, they say.