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A Picture of Tragedy

The family of Mark Herczog, a father killed by his son, pleads for compassion as a court trial looms

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In November of 2011, Mark Herczog wrote a short, desperate note on his calendar for the week of the 21st. It was about his son.

"It said, 'Get help for Houston,'" his sister Annette Keys recalls.

It had been an increasingly difficult year for the Herczog family, during which 21-year-old Houston seemed to have been replaced by a different person. He had always been shy, but according to his aunt, he now shunned social interaction, waiting until after 11pm to go to the gym so he could work out alone. He stole his mom's Adderall. He said strange things with an empty, vacant gaze that his family now refers to as "the look." In early November, when he crashed his dad's green Caravan and smashed his head into the windshield, he didn't check to make sure his passengers were OK. Instead, his aunt, who was in the vehicle at the time, says he asked her about the sandwich he'd placed between them, in the center console of the car.

Houston's family knew something was very wrong, but they didn't know what it was. They didn't know that three psychiatrists would eventually diagnose him with schizophrenia. They didn't know that two of them would be appointed by Sonoma County Superior Court.

Around 1am on Nov. 21, Houston Herczog stabbed his father in the kitchen of his Rincon Valley home, using at least four knives to gash and puncture his body 60 times. He tried to cut off his head. He would later tell a court-appointed psychiatrist that he'd thought he was performing an exorcism with a cardboard version of his dad. When police arrived, he told them flatly, "I killed him."

Mark was declared dead at 2:52am by Memorial Hospital, his face so tattered that, according to the coroner's report, his right ear was barely attached.

He was never able to help his son.

Houston's defense has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that would likely allow him to be sent to a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane, such as Napa State Hospital. Three psychiatrists have backed up this claim. On the eve of Houston's juried trial, however, the district attorney called for a rarely requested additional opinion, which contradicts the others' assertions of insanity.

Herczog faces a possible murder charge that could land him in prison, where his family worries he won't have access to the treatment they believe he needs.

Tragically, the Herczog family has landed in the criminal justice system partly because of their initial reluctance to use it. In 2007, Sonoma County police shot and killed 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass and 30-year-old Richard Desantis during psychotic episodes. Mark Herczog's daughter, sister and ex-wife all say Mark refused to call police despite signs of Houston's escalating violence for fear that officers would shoot his son.

As a judge prepares to sentence Houston in a Sonoma County courtroom, Mark's surviving family is not crying for blood. Instead, they want treatment for Houston and changes in a system that too often criminalizes—and even kills—the mentally ill.

'I'M SCARED'

Cameron McDowell, Mark's oldest daughter, remembers a chilling moment of foresight soon before her dad was killed. At her home in North Carolina, she'd just gotten off the phone with her aunt, who'd described the vacant look that would slip over her half-brother sometimes, saying it almost seemed like he left his body and someone else came in and took his place.

"I told my husband, 'I'm scared Houston is that kid who's going to walk into a supermarket and open fire,'" she recalls.

This was in mid-November, but she'd suspected something was off for roughly a year and a half. The brother that she describes as shy, creative and gentle as a child had become quieter and more distant. He'd quit his band and instead spent hours playing guitar alone. McDowell's dad once told her jokingly on the phone that her brother was such a loner, he wished Houston go out drinking if it meant he'd be with friends. On her son's third birthday, McDowell received a card from the family that Houston had signed, "I hope you have a shitty birthday."

McDowell wasn't alone in her concern. Her aunt, Annette Keys, noticed him changing in 2010, after he graduated from Santa Rosa High School's ArtQuest program and began taking classes at SRJC. He read Kant and Nietzsche obsessively. He would begin a movie with the family and then get up 30 minutes later to go sit by himself at the computer without explaining why.

Keys lives in Ohio, but she came to Santa Rosa to visit her brother Mark in early November, when she was in the car accident with Houston. On Nov. 11, the day before she flew back to Ohio, she asked Houston about the change she noticed in him.

"I said, 'Honey, I feel like something happened to you. Did something happen that you're not telling us about?' And he gave me this sideways glance and said, 'Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime.' It was the creepiest thing."

In March of 2011, Houston's mother and Mark's ex-wife Marilyn Meschalk-Herczog began taking her son to see a private psychiatrist, Dr. Dennis Glick. Like other family members, Marilyn was increasingly concerned about her son. He was argumentative. He couldn't keep a job. He would act out in bizarre ways, like refusing to follow his employers' dress code.

The three psychiatrists who assessed Houston in jail reviewed Glick's notes, which suggest several possible diagnoses for the then-20-year-old Houston—major depression, developmental issues and schizoaffective disorder. According to Dr. Alan Abrams' review of Glick's notes, the initial psychiatrist did not recognize that Houston was suffering symptoms of schizophrenia, despite his early note on schizoaffective disorder, and focused instead on his depression, prescribing him an antidepressant.

Glick also noted Houston's substance-abuse history, which he writes included Adderall that Houston stole from his mom, along with alcohol, LSD, marijuana and other prescription medications. In his interview with Dr. Abrams, Houston said that he only took LSD once, in the ninth grade, and in his interview with Dr. Donald Apostle, he said he smoked pot in high school but stopped in the summer of 2009 because it made him feel psychotic. According to the review of Glick's notes, Houston stopped taking Adderall—after being prescribed an antidepressant—until June, with sporadic use through September.

A BROKEN HEART Houston Herczog's mother, Marilyn, holds a photo of Mark and Houston Herczog at Houston's 2009 graduation. - RACHEL DOVEY
  • Rachel Dovey
  • A BROKEN HEART Houston Herczog's mother, Marilyn, holds a photo of Mark and Houston Herczog at Houston's 2009 graduation.

Because Houston continued to steal his mother's Adderall, Marilyn eventually told him he needed to leave her Forestville home and live with his dad. But on Nov. 19, she says, two days before he killed Mark, Houston came back to her house.

"He had that look in his eye, and he said, 'I feel really violent,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Are you afraid you're going to hurt me?'"

Marilyn says that she followed Houston through her home, out to the attached garage. As she descended the steps leading into the garage, her son grabbed her by the arm and threw her. Then he locked her in, asking her through the door if she was afraid of him.

"I said, 'No. You're my child. I love you and I trust you, and I don't think you're going to hurt me," she recalls, crying.

"I had told him, 'If you're feeling violent, go out and run. Run around. It's dark out and nobody will see you. Just run as fast as you can. Go up the hill. Just run.'"

He unlocked the door and ran outside the house. In an interview with Dr. Abrams recounting the same night, Marilyn says that when she checked her purse, more Adderall was gone.

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