'The place of mortal danger'

Craig Tanner saw arson as his only option

By PAUL MENSER

pmenser@postregister.com


He believed jail would be better than being committed.

Last year, Craig Tanner went to jail for setting fire to his parents' Idaho Falls home. It was the low point of a long decline that began before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997.

He now is enrolled in the

Madison County Mental Health Court program. He is taking his medication, working and writing prolifically.

His parents, John and Martha Tanner, hope the fire was a turning point for their son and are buoyed by the progress he's making.

Only time will tell.

In a special three-day series starting today, the Post Register focuses on the Tanners' struggle in the face of schizophrenia.

Buying gasoline at the Chevron station at 17th Street and Woodruff Avenue, Craig was certain he had only two brain cells left in his head. The rest was boiling hydrogen.

Amanda Smith / Post Register - SAFEST PLACE IN TOWN: Martha and John Tanner sit in their backyard talking about the events that led to the fire their son Craig set in their house. "Better a Craig in jail than a Craig who's dead," is a phrase Martha and John Tanner have used several times since their son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997.

It was time to fight back against John and Martha Tanner, the dark forces bent on destroying him. The only other option was suicide.

For almost a year, they'd been after him with their court orders, doctors and drugs.

They said he was sick, that he had schizophrenia. All he knew was he was rolling in pain, and they were looking into his life like they always did, with their black faces and burning eyes.

Craig was willing to admit he was crazy. When he was a teenager, his brother even called him "Crazy Craig" because of his eccentricities.

In August, he'd tried committing suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol PM. All it did was make him sick and earn him a brief trip to the Behavioral Health Unit.

The previous night, he'd had another crisis, alone in his downtown apartment. The pain was unbearable. Going to jail would be preferable to being in John and Martha Tanner's power.

They were out of town, but he knew what would happen when they got back: have him committed.

Jail was preferable. They couldn't touch him there.

Amanda Smith / Post Register - DARK FORCES: Craig Tanner walks up the stairs of his parents' house. A little more than a year ago, Tanner threw gasoline and a burning match down these stairs during a state of psychosis in which he believed his parents were bent on destroying him.

He would be able to visit new levels of eternity with his friend Anne, the maker of mortal human life, whose name signified Grace.

Tori Amos was God and unapproachable, but Anne, also part of the godhead, was Mommy.

Craig giggled at the time they'd spent together. Though she was on the eighth level of eternity (where bones turn to gold) and he was on the seventh, there was prophecy and consciousness and even friendly kidding. It was the best time of his life.

"You ought to know better than to challenge someone's delusions," he'd once told John Tanner.

Since his diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1997, they had looked at him not as a person but an illness.

Their medications shut down human brains, and Craig didn't want that.

In India, also part of the godhead, he would be regarded as a spiritual seeker, an explorer, a pioneer, not someone to be persecuted, medicated and destroyed.

It was time to fight.

About 600 miles to the west, John and Martha Tanner had begun to relax.

With their daughter, Clare, her husband, and grandchildren following them, they were headed southwest in their red Jeep Cherokee on U.S. Highway 199, passing through the Smith River National Recreation Area.

The family was on its way to Berkeley, Calif., and the wedding of their oldest son, Bryce.

With an engineer's care, John Tanner guided the Cherokee along the Redwood Highway's hairpin turns. On the map, Crescent City, Calif., seemed a good place to spend the night.

It was calm but overcast.

Determined to have a good time, John and Martha gave little thought to Craig.

At 33, Craig was a constant challenge. He said he wasn't sick. He refused to take his medications. From there, the situation spiraled downward.

He had been invited to the wedding, but only if he took his meds. No meds, no wedding. He also had to come with his parents, not on his own.

John and Martha would not yield, and neither would Bryce.

The last time John and Marta had seen Craig was three or four days before they left for the wedding. Craig had been enraged when his friend Andre told him he'd met them and they didn't seem so bad.

Craig's parting words had been harsh. "I'm not angry with you," he told them. "You have to have a relationship with someone to be angry with them."

John and Martha resolved not to let that unpleasant scene ruin their trip.

None of Craig's inner turmoil that night, Sept. 27, 2006, appears on the Chevron station's security camera tape. Five frames, in grainy black and white, only show a disheveled man in his late 20s or early 30s, with long hair and a beard, paying for a red plastic jerrican and gasoline. The sales receipt reads 7:50 p.m.

From the station, Craig struck out for 2175 Tasman, seven blocks away. He had two books of matches tucked in the pockets of his olive green cargo pants.

The words of the angel David Michael careened through his brain: "The place of mortal danger is the safest place in town."

This was not an act of hate. It was survival.

If Tori was the creator of life, Martha Tanner was the destroyer. Her voice was like black widow venom mixed with rattlesnake venom pushed through a heroin syringe.

At the back of the house, he took the white hand towel he'd brought from downtown and wrapped it around a rock from the garden, then smashed out a basement window. He clambered through with the gas can, cutting his right palm on some broken glass.

Inside, Craig picked up the can. Climbing the steps, he splashed a trail on the carpet behind him. At the top of the landing, he pitched the can down the stairs.

His escape route would be down the hall, through the laundry and out the garage. He drew a deep breath, lit a match, tossed it on the stairs and fled.

Gasoline itself doesn't burn, only the mixture of gasoline and oxygen. When it ignites, the vapor does so at a temperature of about 495 degrees Fahrenheit. From that point, it forms a fireball with 10 times the heat released in the liquid state.

One gallon of gasoline contains the explosive force of 20 sticks of dynamite.

When Craig got to the laundry room, the vacuum created by the fumes' ignition slammed the door shut in his face. The heat behind him was rising as he opened the door and dashed for the garage. Inside, he could hear the fire roaring.

He left through the back door and walked back downtown to his apartment, elated about the attack.

Perhaps he would celebrate with a drink.

But by the time he got to Constitution Way, around 9:25 p.m., the adrenaline had started wearing off. And some concerns pierced his euphoric mind.

Had the fire spread to neighbors' houses? That wouldn't be good.

The cell phone on John Tanners' hip rang at about 10 p.m., Pacific Time. John was concentrating on the winding road, and handed the phone to Martha.

It was their neighbor, whose son was caring for the yard. There was a fire at the house. Firefighters wanted to know which door to go in.

Any door would be fine, Martha said. Keep us informed.

About a half-hour later, the neighbor called to report the fire was out. The Tanners were pulling into Crescent City, hoping to find a motel vacancy.

Along the road, a suspicion had formed in both their minds though neither said it aloud.

At the motel, the phone rang again. John answered.

This time it was Idaho Falls Fire Marshal Ken Anderson. It looked like arson.

No one was hurt, he said, but they had a suspect.

John paused for a moment.

"Would his name happen to be Craig Tanner?" he finally asked.

Deep down, he and Martha already knew the answer.

Outside the Bonneville County Law Enforcement Building, Officers Paul Murray and Ryan Nelson saw a strange-looking character in a hooded "Green River Wolves" sweatshirt strolling toward them. His long hair, wild, and his eyes had a strange cast to them.

"Has there been a fire reported on Tasman Avenue?" he asked.

Nelson said there hadn't, but pointed to the fire station on the east side of City Hall.

About three minutes later, the dispatch radio squawked out, "Structure fire on Tasman." Murray radioed dispatch to ask who'd made the report.

It had been Daniel Jewell, 2193 Tasman, who'd been out for a walk, smelled smoke in the air, then noticed it coming from the south basement window of the Tanners' home.

At that point, Murray and Nelson began regarding the man in the sweatshirt what is euphemistically called a "person of interest."

The two officers found Craig near the Bonneville Hotel.

"How did you know there was a fire over on Tasman?" Nelson asked.

"I know about it because I set it," Craig replied.

Murray noted the smell of gasoline and shards of glass in his clothing; also the cut on his hand.

"Are you going to arrest me?" Craig asked.

"We need to find out if you're telling the truth first," Murray replied.

"Well, the house is burning, isn't it?"

Murray asked him if he'd had anything to drink.

"(Tanner) said he had taken a shot of whiskey as a celebration for setting the fire and for freedom from his parents," said the report, filed the next day.

John and Martha went to the wedding. The house could wait. Craig could wait.

Bryce's wedding could not, nor would it be fair to make it wait. At least their youngest son was in jail, where he was safe.

Had this been their first experience with an out-of-control Craig, they might have driven straight back to Idaho Falls. But by September 2006, John and Martha Tanner were battle-hardened.

"Better a Craig in jail than a Craig who's dead," John had said to Martha more than once.

It could consume their lives if they let it.

In a way, it already had.

Warning signs

of psychosis

Refuses to take medication when experience indicates deterioration and harm are imminent

Verbally or physically abusive

Suicidal ideas or statements (e.g., "I wish I was dead," "I should just end it all," etc.)

Harms self (e.g., cuts body parts, bangs head, drinks soap, eats dirt, etc.)

Is destructive of property

Stalks others

Homeless, resulting in harm to self (e.g., exposure to extreme weather conditions without appropriate clothing, poor nutrition, neglect of essential health care, etc.)

Refuses or is unable to speak with anyone

Delusions of grandeur (e.g., has superhuman powers, is famous, knows famous people personally, etc.)

Talks to self excessively

Speech is unintelligible

Delusions of persecutions (e.g., being watched by government agents, possessed by the devil, fears loved ones intend harm, etc.)

Command hallucinations (e.g., voices that say, "You must kill yourself," etc.)

Significant deterioration in self-care and hygiene

Dangerous due to disorganization (e.g., starts fires unintentionally by dropping lit cigarettes, etc.)

Inadequate care of dependents

Poor judgment (e.g., uncharacteristically sexually provocative and/or promiscuous, stops paying bills, wild spending sprees, gives away all possessions, loses job due to "eccentric" behavior, fails to keep appointments, fails to follow procedures necessary to receive benefits)

Health is deteriorating (e.g., self-starvation, refuses to seek medical help for other serious illnesses, mixes prescribed medications with illicit drugs, etc.)

Source: I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help;

Xavier Amador (Vida Press, 2007)

Where to go for help

NAMI Idaho: (800) 572-9940

NAMI Upper Valley: Support group meets the second and fourth Tuesday of every month in the basement conference room of the Idaho Falls Recovery Center, 1957 E. 17th St.

Region VII Mental Health: 528-5700

EIRMC Behavioral Health Center: 227-2100; (800) 209-8405

New Beginnings Inc. Mental Health Center: 522-1904

Psychological Services Associates: 552-0490

Rehabilitative Health Services: 522-8899

Reliance Mental Health Services PC: 525-8339

Vista Family Services: 552-0355

CLUB Inc.: 529-4673

A to Z Family Services: 524-7400

Above and Beyond PSR: 521-7225

Access Point Family Services: 522-4026

All Star Counseling Services: 200-7377

Behavioral Reform: 524-4535

Beehive Rehab and Counseling: 612-5035

Child and Family Resource: 356-4911

Child family Solutions: 745-0150

Children's Center: 529-4300

Children's Supportive Services: 529-4300

Empowerment Counseling: 527-3344

Family Care Center: 552-4958

Family Resource Center: 552-1222

Family Solutions: 529-2920

Firm Foundations: 251-7885

Healthy Places Counseling: 524-4818

Human Dynamics and Diagnostics: 522-0140

Innovative Health Care Concepts: 528-8052

Joshua D. Smith and Associates: 524-5607

The Living Farm: 523-4858

A look at the disease

What should people know?

Although the word "schizophrenia" comes from the Greek words for "divided" and "mind," a person with schizophrenia does not have a "split personality."

Schizophrenia is a medical illness that affects more than 2 million American adults, which is about 1 percent of the population age 18 and older. It is a treatable medical condition.

Schizophrenia is not caused by bad parenting or personal weakness.

What does it do?

Schizophrenia interferes with a person's ability to think clearly, to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others.

When does it occur?

The first signs of schizophrenia typically emerge in males in the late teens or early 20s, often later for females. Most people with the disease contend with the illness chronically or episodically throughout their lives.

What causes it?

Schizophrenia seems to be caused by a combination of problems including genetic vulnerability and environmental factors that occur during a person's development. Research has identified certain genes that appear to increase risk for schizophrenia. The genes only increase the chances of becoming ill; they alone do not cause the illness.

What are its symptoms?

Hallucinations; delusions (mainly the fear that people are watching, harassing or plotting against the individual); disorganized speech; disorganized or catatonic behavior; reduction in emotional expression; lack of motivation and energy; loss of enjoyment and interest in activities, including social interaction.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

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