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Side Streets: Mental illness at the root of violent Colorado case

By: Bill Vogrin
May 18, 2014 Updated: May 19, 2014 at 7:49 am
photo - Ben Poynter in an undated family photo.
Ben Poynter in an undated family photo. 

Ben Poynter turned 29 in prison Sunday.

He likely will turn 39 in prison, too, after being sentenced to 18 years for attempted murder of his girlfriend during a drug- and alcohol-fueled rage in June. He also was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated animal cruelty.

At sentencing May 5, prosecutors described Poynter as a monster who brutally attacked his girlfriend and tried to choke her to death, abused her 4-year-old son and tortured their little dog. They called him evil and compared him to serial killer Ted Bundy - a sadistic sociopath who convinced those close to him that he was a nice guy.

They dismissed as "in denial" his family and friends who voiced support and requested a reduced sentence, citing his diagnosis of bipolar disorder aggravated by self-medication and substance abuse and the lack of affordable mental health treatment available.

The family argued that he needed help for his mental illness and addictions, not years in a prison with limited treatment opportunities.

In 30-plus years as a journalist, I've covered a lot of cases like this. Often, I wondered how anyone could stand behind a relative or friend accused and convicted of such a violent crime. I shook my head when supporters testified that mental illness or substance abuse was to blame. I wondered how they could be so fooled by an obviously dangerous person.

Well, call me a fool.

Today, I'm shaking my head at myself.

I've known Poynter for more than seven years. I've been his friend and trusted him to work alongside my wife and kids. He had keys to our family business and access to the safe and cash register.

Count me among those who never could have imagined Poynter being capable of the things he did. I don't recognize the man prosecutors described as a monster.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not doubting one word of the arrest warrant signed and sworn by a district attorney investigator. I'm not challenging a thing the victim or witnesses said happened. It was a terrible crime, and I make no excuses for Poynter's behavior. Clearly, he deserved to be convicted and punished.

Still, I'm shaking my head.

I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character. I quickly recognize con artists, liars and thieves.

Could I have been completely wrong about Poynter, a stocky man who loved to ride his bicycle, play guitar and who was known to family and friends as Gentle Ben?

Was I blinded by his good nature, his warm smile and his willingness to help others? Maybe I was in denial because I've known his mother, Joy Harper, for years as a colleague at The Gazette.

Or was he mentally ill and able to hold everything together at work by managing his mood swings through alcohol and drugs until the wrong cocktail triggered a rage that nearly cost an innocent woman her life?

For help sorting it out, I contacted Vince Bruno, a licensed professional counselor and state-certified domestic violence treatment provider.

Bruno doesn't know Poynter and commented in general based on the facts in the case, the personal interactions I described and the history provided by Harper and her husband, Michael Poynter.

Harper told me her son was diagnosed as bipolar after he started drinking and getting into alcohol-related trouble in middle school. Bipolar disorder also is known as manic depression and is a mental illness characterized by episodes of mania followed by severe depression.

According to medical websites, about 3 percent of the population is bipolar. The extreme mood swings can cloud a sufferer's judgment and impair his ability to function. In extreme cases, the mood swings can last months and lead to erratic, impulsive behaviors and distorted thinking that results in a break from reality and full-blown psychosis.

"People with bipolar disorder swing from fairly serious clinical depression to a manic phase where they exhibit narcissistic characteristics and are capable of making decisions that are grossly inaccurate and dangerous," Bruno said.

They tend to cycle between the phases, often seeking medical help to lessen the highs and lows. Harper said the family tried to get treatment for her son after, at age 17, he took the family car, got extremely drunk and went driving wildly through Teller County, crashing into things until he flipped the car and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Colorado Springs.

That's when, Harper said, he first revealed he had struggled for years with low self-esteem and had been drinking to silence the "demons in his head."

"We brought him home and tried to get him help," she said. "He voluntarily submitted himself for inpatient evaluation at Cedar Springs. Doctors diagnosed bipolar disorder and alcoholism due to his attempts to self-medicate."

Poynter then agreed to check himself into an in-patient treatment facility in Pueblo. But Harper said doctors never found a medication that seemed to work. When prescribed medications failed, Poynter turned to alcohol and illegal drugs for help.

"He would find his balance and then an episode would hit and he couldn't cope," she said.

Bruno said that when someone with bipolar disorder layers on alcohol and drugs, the results can be shocking.

"They are capable of doing things wildly out of character," he said.

I wondered why someone diagnosed as bipolar would touch alcohol or drugs.

"They are fighting their own brain chemistry," Bruno said. "When they are manic, they might use alcohol thinking they will cut it a little bit. Or use depressants to moderate their mood."

Instead, however, they can flip a switch in the brain and trigger dangerous behaviors.

"You really can't predict, no matter how well you know the person, how they are going to react," Bruno said. "When you introduce that wild card of alcohol or drugs, there's no way to predict how someone might behave."

Still, Harper struggles to accept that her loving son is capable of such horrible behavior.

"You live with this person all their life and you don't see that in them," she said, quietly crying at the thought. "This is not the person I ever knew. Ben has always gone out of his way for every living thing - person, animal, whatever. He's funny, intelligent, loving and kind. He's not a freak. I can't reconcile the person they describe with the Ben I know. It's like a completely different person."

That's exactly what alcohol and drugs can do to a bipolar sufferer, Bruno said.

"They can go for years, cycle slowly and cover it with self-medication until they reach that perfect storm of stress and self-medication," Bruno said. "They have no way, no capacity to manage their mood, and it can result in this kind of rage."

He compared it to people who have a few drinks and start shooting off their mouths or acting in ways they wouldn't consider when sober.

"In my experience, people who are mentally unstable will do all kinds of things completely out of character," Bruno said. "They get depressed and angry enough to lash out and hurt someone."

Perhaps I didn't misjudge Poynter. I never saw him drinking or using drugs. He worked hard, generally showed up on time and stayed late if necessary. He wasn't perfect - and neither am I - but he certainly wasn't a monster. And Bruno bristled at the use of that word to describe someone with mental illness.

"This is a sad story," Bruno said. "It's really unfortunate to hear this happened and in such a way that Ben has such a huge consequence to pay. But it's inappropriate to call him a monster. We don't have a diagnosis of monster."


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