Crying Shame

Carl Gholson was a gifted sax player. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic. He became another victim of Phoenix’s scorching heat

"He called me his dad again, just like he used to in the old days," Womack says. "Then he went his way."

In an earlier era, Carl Gholson probably would've spent his life in a state mental ward after schizophrenia grabbed onto him.

Gholson died in the front yard of this downtown Phoenix apartment complex.
Peter Scanlon
Gholson died in the front yard of this downtown Phoenix apartment complex.

For generations, the seriously mentally ill (or those thought to be) were warehoused inside dreary, dangerously overcrowded hospitals like the one depicted in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But new antipsychotic drugs, the advent of the human rights movement, and budget cutbacks in the late 1960s led to the wholesale release of most state hospital mental patients in Arizona and elsewhere.

In 1970, for example, Arizona State Hospital housed about 2,000 patients. Within a few years, that number dropped to about 300. These days, the state hospital has just 345 beds.

But freedom for many of those released came at a painful price. Then and now, lack of accountability at state and local levels has meant that services for the seriously mentally ill often are unavailable.

One immediate result was that Phoenix's homeless population mushroomed.

No one knows precisely how many homeless suffer from serious mental illness, though studies published by the American Journal of Psychiatry suggest it's at least 25 percent in this country and probably more. Many homeless mentally ill also abuse alcohol and drugs.

Another byproduct of "deinstitutionalization" was the emergence of Maricopa County's jail system as the largest de facto mental institution in Arizona.

In mid-2004, county jail officials estimated that 20 percent of the inmates, or about 1,700 on a given day, were seriously mentally ill clients of ValueOptions. That number didn't include hundreds of mentally ill inmates not in the ValueOptions network.

Carl Gholson apparently was homeless much of the time in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in the Phoenix area. He had become addicted to crack cocaine, and often found himself arrested for disorderly conduct and other misdemeanors.

His disease, paranoid schizophrenia, is one of the most insidious of all mental disorders; it's not the Jekyll-Hyde, split-personality image of popular lore. Schizophrenia causes its victims to suffer from terrifying hallucinations and intense delusions that make life unbearable most of the time.

Self-medication by schizophrenics in the form of illegal drugs isn't unusual. Powerful, ever-evolving prescription medications may provide relief, though there is no known cure.

"He was always pretty much at his worst when I saw him," recalls Maricopa County jail social worker Joe Hill, who first met Carl in the 1980s. "Off his meds, he was not a guy to be trifled with. On his meds, he was still crazy. But when he would get better, he was very entertaining and, my God, he was bright as hell.

"Carl really stood out. He probably was close to genius IQ. He had very complex thoughts about things that were going on in the world and going on in his head. And he could sing great jazz. Amazing! The man had perfect pitch, I swear. He'd always tell me: 'Got to get with the good, get with the good.'"

But Carl just couldn't stay out of trouble and, in October 1988, a Superior Court judge sentenced him to five years in prison on a theft and burglary rap.

He served part of his sentence at Fort Grant, where he had spent time as a juvenile offender. He was reunited there with his brother Dwayne, then serving a long sentence for armed robbery.

Dwayne recalls, "We got to talk about a lot of deep stuff there. He told me, 'I know you can't be evil, you weren't born that way.' I never worried about Carl. God was going to take me before He took Carl."

It didn't work out that way.

Dwayne Gholson was released from prison in 1990, and hasn't been in trouble since.

Carl spent the 1990s on Maricopa County's mental-health treadmill after his own release in February 1992. He bounced from supervised group homes over to the jail, back to the state hospital, then out into the community for another stretch.

Phoenix attorney Jim Park represented Carl as a public defender during one criminal case in the mid-1990s and says he was "one of my favorite and most memorable clients ever. He was a good guy even with his wild looks and mental-illness issues. He had these great musical talents. I wanted him to have a decent life because he was a decent guy who happened to be very sick. "

A state hospital psychiatrist proved prescient in his September 1995 analysis of Carl's broken mind. Dr. Steven Pitt first wrote that Carl might be better off in a "less restrictive setting," such as a residential group home.

But Pitt added that "it must be underscored that Mr. Gholson will only do as well as the program he is placed in. That is to say, Carl Laroy Gholson suffers from a serious, chronic mental illness. He has no insight into his mental illness or need for continued treatment."

The doctor was saying that, without diligent oversight, Carl surely would slip back into the familiar territory of drug abuse, going off his meds and committing petty crimes.

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