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Hearing details unraveling life of former foreign service officer

By: LANCE BENZEL
May 11, 2012
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photo - William Gooch Photo by
William Gooch Photo by  

A Black Forest man who drew sheriff’s deputies into a fiery standoff in 2010 is a retired Foreign Service officer whose experiences in war-torn Africa left him with a “death wish,” his family members say.

William Anthony Gooch, 52, was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison – the maximum he faced under a plea agreement in the Nov. 7, 2010 episode, in which Gooch rammed a Jeep into his estranged wife’s home before setting it ablaze.

The woman, Carolyn Michael, escaped unharmed. Prosecutors described the attack as a botched murder-suicide – an allegation that Gooch and his relatives deny despite his guilty plea in the case.

“He’s a phenomenal man, but he’s got a death wish,” said his sister, Judy Gooch, a law professor in Denver. “He gets in these depressive states where all he wants to do is die.”

For family members, the sentencing marked a new chapter in the long, sad story of Gooch’s deteriorating mental health — and raised questions over whether Gooch, formerly with the U.S. State Department, will be adequately treated for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress they tie to his government service.

“It’s horrible — I think he should be admitted to a mental institution for treatment,” said Anna Sotela of Washington, D.C., his first wife. She said their marriage began to unravel in the early 2000s after Gooch’s emotionally damaging assignments as a State Department security worker in Kenya and other regions.

Gooch was arrested in Black Forest after starting the fire at Michael’s home in the 1600 block of Great Smokey Avenue, east of Colorado Springs. The blaze leveled the $280,000 home and put neighboring houses and El Paso County sheriff’s deputies at risk, authorities say.

Michael ran to a neighbor’s house and was uninjured — though she said in a letter to the court she fears reprisals by Gooch.

The standoff came to an end when Gooch, brandishing a shotgun, exited through a window and crouched against an outside wall, refusing to move — forcing deputies to brave the fire in a bid to subdue him with a Taser.

Gooch was hospitalized for severe burns and released to the El Paso County jail, where he has remained.

At the time of the incident, Gooch was separated from Michael and living in Atlanta. Prosecutor James Ahern said Gooch booked a flight to Colorado Springs earlier that day and instructed a cab driver to cut his lights before he pulled into the woman’s driveway – suggesting Gooch was intent on harming her as well.

Family members said the incident was only the latest in a string of self-destructive acts by Gooch, who they say drank heavily to supplement his prescription medications for depression and anxiety.

In 2005, while visiting Roswell, Ga., Gooch broke into his brother’s gun safe and ended up in a standoff with police where he begged to be shot, prosecutors said.

Three years later, Gooch shot himself in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. The suicide attempt led to a period of sobriety, and a seeming improvement, relatives said. The following year, however, Gooch was involved in another standoff with El Paso County sheriff’s deputies, which ended without injuries.

According to the family’s account, Gooch served in the Navy and the U.S. Agency for International Development before his 1998 transfer to the State Department, where he worked in the security office.

Within months of accepting the new post, Gooch and his family were assigned to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tensions were mounting between warring factions, according to his son, Andy Gooch, a private first-class in the Army National Guard and senior at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The six families in their compound were eventually moved out of Kinshasa as violence ramped up, Andy Gooch told the court, describing how they were driven past the dead and wounded on their way to the airport.

His father remained behind to help evacuate other Americans and nongovernmental aid workers, he said.

Gooch told his family that he was detained and beaten by Congolese police during the ensuing choas. He said a fellow Foreign Service officer secured his release.

Later that year the family was sent to Nairobi, Kenya, where according to Andy Gooch’s account, his father helped identify victims in the wake of a 1998 bombing that killed hundreds at a U.S. Embassy.

In Nairobi, the family survived an attempted car jacking when William Gooch shouted for his wife and children to get down while he drove around a road blockade past men armed with AK-47s, Andy Gooch said.

“When I was 10 or 12 years old, I saw things most people don’t see in their whole life,” Andy Gooch said. “If I got that little piece, I can’t imagine what my father saw.”

Said Sotela: “His mental health was deteriorating through the years that he was exposed to that situation.”

Gooch’s career with the State Department ended with a medical discharge in the early 2000s after he suffered a breakdown during an assignment in Kingston, Jamaica, family members said.

A State Department spokesman confirmed Thursday that Gooch had been employed as a Foreign Service officer but couldn’t provide additional details. A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development was unable to corroborate details of his work history when contacted Friday by The Gazette.

Dr. Richard Martinez, director of forensic psychiatry at the University of Colorado-Denver medical center, testified that he reviewed a medevac report from Nairobi and evidence of Gooch’s hospitalizations in Kingston, Jamaica, at a hospital used by the State Department.

Ahern, the prosecutor, suggested in court that Gooch exaggerated his experiences in a bid for leniency.

Ahern said Gooch’s behavior has worsened despite being in and out of treatment programs.

“It keeps escalating,” Ahern said. “This is a dangerous individual.”

Addressing the court in a soft voice, Gooch apologized and said he never meant to hurt anyone except himself – by swallowing pills, shooting himself and trying to get “someone else” to shoot him.

“Jumping off a bridge is about my last resort,” he told Judge Greg Werner, before ending his comments with a pledge to take treatment seriously.

In handing down the maximum sentence, Judge Werner said Gooch’s self-destructive streak appeared poised to harm others, too. The judge also cited a history of failed hospitalizations and Gooch’s lack of regard for whether he lives or dies.

In tears afterward, Judy Gooch said the sentence would only postpone her brother’s fate.

“There’s no treatment option,” she said. “He’s going to be medicated for 12 years, and when he gets out, he’ll do the same thing.”

Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel

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