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Suspected killer is schizophrenic but stopped taking medication, police reports say

Andrew Wesley Downs in a San Luis Obispo courtroom during his arraignment on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010.
Andrew Wesley Downs in a San Luis Obispo courtroom during his arraignment on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010.

The Atascadero man accused of killing two women at Santa Margarita Ranch on Christmas Day is a schizophrenic who had stopped taking his medications and reportedly took a gun from his parents prior to the alleged crimes, according to statements made in police incident reports.

Andrew Wesley Downs, 20, appeared in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Wednesday morning. His attorney, Matthew Guerrero, entered a plea of not guilty while declaring doubt of his client’s mental competency to stand trial.

In court, Downs swayed in his chair. A mop of matted, light brown hair hung over his face as he waited for Judge Jacquelyn Duffy to address him. Downs opened his eyes only briefly to speak with his attorney.

Two doctors will examine Downs’ psychological state before submitting their recommendations to a judge, who is expected to rule Jan. 27 whether Downs is fit to stand trial.

Downs’ parents told detectives that their son was schizophrenic, according to a report filed by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. And at the time of his arrest, Downs told detectives that he was ready to go to the “mental hospital.”

Another report filed by the Atascadero Police Department, which responded to a separate attack Downs allegedly committed after the killings, states that “Downs kept (telling police) that he wanted to go to a mental hospital and that he ran out of his medication.”

The alleged weapon

Downs is accused of shooting Beverly Reilly, 64, and Kathy Yeager, 61, to death Saturday afternoon.

According to sheriff’s reports, Downs used his father’s rifle in the killings, not a pistol as previously reported.

Gary Downs — Andrew Downs’ father — told police that his World War II German Mauser rifle, which had been converted into a hunting rifle, was missing after the killings took place. The gun was kept in his attic, but the report doesn’t say whether it was locked up.

The 8-millimeter ammunition Gary Downs said he owns also is consistent with the bullet types of the spent cartridges recovered at the crime scene, according to the report.

The killings

The sheriff’s report echoes and adds detail to Dennis Reilly’s account of the incident as retold by family.

He and his sister-in-law Yeager returned home Christmas evening to the Santa Margarita property he was house-sitting for his son-in-law. They’d been feeding the animals while Reilly’s wife stayed at home.

Reilly told investigators he thought his wife was sleeping; Yeager went to check, and he heard her say “Bev.” He then heard a loud crack and saw “a flash of light” and Yeager’s body on the floor.

A man emerged, rifle in hand and charged at Reilly, screaming, before Reilly fled. After hiding in a vineyard, Reilly eventually made his way to West Pozo Road for help.

By the time police arrived at the scene, Downs had fled, surfacing hours later at a home in Atascadero, police say.

The arrest

Early the next day, Downs allegedly broke into the Atascadero home of Glen Johnson — a friend of Downs’ family — and beat him with a wrench.

Johnson said he was asleep beside his wife when Downs entered and attacked him, according to Atascadero police reports.

Johnson has known Downs since he was about 4 years old and was aware of his mental instability.

During the attack, Johnson told police, he was able to put Downs in a headlock and pin him on the ground. “Why are you doing this?” Johnson said he asked Downs. “Because I’m sick in the head!” Downs said, according to the report.

Struggling with illness

Downs’ parents tried to get help for their son, said Lori Swanson, a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who taught a 12-week course — Family to Family — that Madeline and Gary Downs attended two years ago.

“They were determined,” Swanson said. “Sometimes husbands don’t come to the classes because they have the mind-set that they can fix the family, but Gary came to the classes, and they tried really hard.”

The couple attempted to learn more about their son’s illness, said Swanson, whose course includes discussions on how to communicate with people who have mental illness and how to defuse situations rather than aggravate them.

“The family shed many tears,” Swanson said.

Mental competence

Andrew Wesley Downs’ plea of mental incompetence could have far-reaching implications on the outcome of the case.

As recently as February, Downs had been found mentally competent to appear in court on a felony charge of vehicle theft and a misdemeanor for trespassing. He pleaded no contest to the lesser charge and was put on probation. Officials wouldn’t comment on Downs’ probation.

Defendants are declared mentally incompetent to stand trial if they cannot assist in their defense.

Once declared incompetent, defendants are sent to Atascadero State Hospital, which performs the psychological patchwork needed — including prescribing medication and conducting counseling — to prepare the defendant for the court process. On average, it takes fewer than 100 days to restore competency, but in some cases it can take longer.

The last murder defendant found incompetent to stand trial in San Luis Obispo County was Stephen Deflaun, a drifter charged with murdering two people at Morro Strand State Beach in July 2001.

Deflaun, who had paranoid writings in his vehicle and a long history of mental illness, wasn’t found competent to stand trial and remains at ASH.

The Tribune attempted to interview Downs in the County Jail on Wednesday night, but Downs appeared heavily medicated and was unresponsive to questions.

Tribune staff reporters Tonya Strickland and Patrick S. Pemberton contributed to this report.

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