"Danger to Children"

Why did Kelly Blake douse her kids with gas and set them on fire? She's seriously mentally ill -- and she was deserted by the system charged with protecting her and her family.

The county's mental-health system was in more turmoil than usual at the time, which is saying something. Months earlier, the Arizona Department of Health Services had assumed control of ComCare after the nonprofit firm had run aground, leaving many seriously mentally ill people without a safety net.

Already concerned with containing costs, the system was stretched dangerously thin when Blake sought help. Still, Southwest Behavioral officials that night ably documented Blake's status as a seriously mentally ill woman who posed a "danger to children" -- even though she'd understated her psychiatric history.

It's commonplace for incoming patients to fib about their mental-health history, says Valley psychiatrist Dave Coons. "People who are trying to hold it together don't generally walk in someplace and say, 'I have a schizoaffective disorder.'"

Blake, left; Raymond, next to her; and Venessa, across from her mother; at a Phoenix restaurant shortly before the fire.
Blake, left; Raymond, next to her; and Venessa, across from her mother; at a Phoenix restaurant shortly before the fire.
Kelly Blake and her three children, clockwise from top, Johhny, Raymond and Venessa.
Kelly Blake and her three children, clockwise from top, Johhny, Raymond and Venessa.

Records show psychiatrist Bill Sbilris spent about 15 minutes with Blake that night, then scribbled his assessment of her, simply drawing a line through questions about the patient's possible suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

Says Dave Coons, "If you've got five or 10 minutes to evaluate someone as a psychiatrist, you know you're not getting the straight poop -- I don't care if you're Sigmund Freud.... This guy [Sbilris] never had the chance to be a good psychiatrist."

Sbilris sent Blake home with a prescription for her sleep problems, and gave her phone numbers to call in an emergency.

Eight days later, on March 3, 1998, Blake returned to the clinic, saying the medications weren't working. "Patient feels as though she will go crazy if she can't sleep," a nurse noted on Blake's assessment form that day.

This time, Blake told of her 1991 commitment at the county mental ward, but insisted she'd been treated for "insomnia," not her true, more severe diagnosis -- bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

But officials at Southwest Behavioral knew -- as they had known during Blake's first visit -- that she was fibbing about her lack of a psychiatric track record. They knew this because their computer listed her as seriously mentally ill.

The following day, March 4, Blake went alone to St. Luke's Medical Center. A doctor there examined her briefly, then prescribed a new set of meds for stress and insomnia. Again, she skipped her appointment with a crisis counselor a few days later.

The mental-health professionals again left Kelly Blake to her own sick devices -- but with good reason, an attorney for Maricopa County (one of the defendants) claimed in court papers filed last month.

"In reality," wrote deputy county attorney Maria Brandon, "[Blake] sought medication for treatment for insomnia, never displayed any psychotic symptoms, and never stated any suicidal or homicidal ideas or intent."

"I am afraid of my own thoughts. Help me to pray about these things that bother me."

-- undated entry from Kelly Blake's diary

The day before Kelly Blake killed two of her children was unremarkable. Her son Johnny recalls no fights or bickering, nor ominous comments from his mother.

It was a school day for most Valley youngsters, but not for the home-schooled Faustos. Johnny would tell police that the family rode their bicycles on North Mountain before going to work at the condo complex where Blake and the kids worked part-time.

They went home after work, ate dinner, and went to bed without incident.

Johnny awakened around 9 a.m. on Friday, March 20, 1998. It was a chilly Phoenix morning.

Less than two hours had passed since the fire started. Phoenix police detective Dave Swine sat with Johnny Fausto at Maricopa Medical Center, and began an extraordinary interview.

The boy seemed eerily focused, first describing his home life.

"She wanted to be a Christian, but we didn't want to," Johnny said. "'Cause they make you dress a certain way that they want you to dress, and talk a certain way they want you to talk."

Swine asked him if his mother had been seeing a doctor.

"She has, about a week ago."

"Okay. Was it for an illness?"

"No. It was a nervous breakdown."

"Do you know where that doctor was that she saw?"

"It was at Southwest Behavioral Clinic. I saw it on the caller ID.... She didn't even tell us she was going. She said, 'Oh, I'll be back in a couple minutes,' and she was gone for, like, four hours."

"Did you notice if she's taking any kind of medication?"

"Yeah, they gave her medication."

"Do you know what it was?"

"Something to help her sleep.... And she said that wasn't working. That was making her dizzy. So she went to the health-food store and got something."

Swine asked about that morning. Johnny said his mom first had borrowed $5 from him to buy cereal and milk. Later that morning, his grandmother left for a doctor's appointment.

Just after 11 a.m., Johnny continued, his mother asked him for another $20:

"I said, 'For what?' She said, 'Oh, nothing, but can I just borrow $20?' I said no. And she said, 'I'll give you $10 interest.' So I said all right.... Then I said, 'Where you gonna go?' 'Oh, I'm just gonna run out.' She went up and got gas."

"She went up and got gasoline?"

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