Pain, fatigue and frustration poured into the texts Ilmiya Yarullina pounded out to her son after his latest drug relapse. She was kicking him out after cycling him through schools, psychologists, psychiatrists and drug treatment for nearly a decade.
Yarullina hoped the ultimatum might push Gordon Casey, 19, toward rehab and break the cycle of mental health and drug issues that kept pulling him down.
“Before you snort, smoke, inject … remember to pack up. All leftovers will be donated to Salvation army,” she texted in mid-April. “ENOUGH.”
By Wednesday, April 20, Yarullina hadn’t seen Casey in days and was regretful.
She was driving to report him missing when she heard a radio report: U.S. Secret Service members had fatally shot a man allegedly wielding a pole at the home of Peru’s ambassador in Northwest Washington. He was not identified.
“Poor soul,” Yarullina thought.
That poor soul turned out to be her son.
As the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General and others have warned of a major crisis in teen mental health, Yarullina shared the story of Casey’s final days, his mental health evaluations and school records to provide an intimate and unvarnished look at what many families are facing.
The proportion of high school students suffering from persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased 40 percent from 2009 to 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate among youths increased by 57 percent between 2008 and 2018. A survey released Tuesday showed 7 in 10 public schools are seeing a rise in youth seeking mental health treatment, but only half were able to provide needed services.
Schools are struggling to meet rising mental health needs, survey shows
Yarullina, a single mother, blames herself for Casey’s fate. But she said she was also stymied by an underfunded and uneven mental health system in which quality care is often too hard to access and schools are ill-equipped to handle teens like her son, whose brain was “wired differently.” She said families often receive too little support to navigate such complicated terrain.
“I’m going through his texts and it’s awful what I did. It was the cruelest thing a mother can do,” Yarullina said of the messages she sent her son telling him he had to move out. “As a parent going through this, you need a lot of support. I didn’t have that support. I was always alone.”
Yarullina cried at the kitchen table in her Germantown home, surrounded by family members and pieces of Casey’s short life. They included family photos, reports of diagnoses and one final item: a freshly printed certificate that listed Casey’s manner of death in black block letters, “HOMICIDE.”
She said the quiet, skinny teen with blond hair struggled at school but thrived in his job working for a cafe near the Watergate complex in Washington. He threw himself into running the shop, a jack-of-all trades who rang up orders, washed floors and made pizza on any given day.
The problems that ultimately led Casey to the ambassador’s residence began about seven years earlier, his mother said.
Yarullina said Casey had done well through elementary school, but by seventh grade his A’s and B’s turned into C’s and D’s, and he started missing classes. Yarullina said Casey was anxious about school, and records show it was bad enough that he would come home with stomachaches.
By eighth grade, Yarullina said, Casey discovered drugs and was smoking marijuana to soothe the apprehension. At the end of the school year, she said, Casey was badly beaten and robbed by teens while trying to buy pot. Yarullina said — and evaluations show — that Casey’s anxieties only worsened. He feared leaving home and had flashbacks to the attack.
Yarullina resolved to home-school Casey for ninth grade, taking leave from her job as a drug safety physician at a pharmaceutical company. Casey grew even more withdrawn. Yarullina said her son sat in his room all day and played video games. She said she tried mightily to engage him.
“A typical kid on a good day has to go get a haircut, has to meet up with friends, has to be able to go shopping with the family for food,” Yarullina said. “The door was shut and he did not come out whatsoever for anything, even for family gatherings.”
When Casey was 15 in 2018, his issues came into sharper focus.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to the assault, as well as generalized anxiety disorder, which causes debilitating anxiety around routine activities that in Casey’s case was severe enough to manifest into physical symptoms, according to a psychological evaluation. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance-use disorder diagnoses were eventually added to the list.
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Casey spent his middle years of high school in special-education schools, which Yarullina thinks only worsened his issues. At one school, Yarullina said therapy was of such poor quality that Casey’s progress sputtered. Yarullina said she pleaded for daily therapy sessions, but officials told her Gordon was only entitled to one hour of individual therapy a week.
Yarullina, who has a medical degree, said she often struggled to find private psychologists for Casey, too.
Experts say one of the contributing factors to the nation’s mental health crisis among teens has been the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, and Casey struggled, too. Yarullina said virtual learning was difficult. Casey’s anxiety made it hard for him to show his face during Zoom sessions.
Things worsened in the summer of 2021.
One night in June, Casey and his best friend, Kennedy Merritt-Millet, 18, were out in Burtonsville, Md., when an altercation broke out among a group of teenagers. Merritt-Millet tried to intervene and was shot, police said, by an 18-year-old.
Yarullina said Casey held Merritt-Millet in his arms until his friend was taken to a hospital, where he died. The alleged shooter and another teen were charged in the incident, which is pending in court.
Pair of 18-year-olds charged in fatal shooting of teen
Emma Schultz, 18, Casey’s girlfriend, said the death exacerbated his mental health and drug issues.
“He didn’t really care about anything in life anymore,” Schultz said.
Casey started what was to be his senior year of high school at Rockville’s Sheppard Pratt School for teens with emotional disabilities in the fall of 2021, but it quickly unraveled.
Casey was also cited for a number of minor rule violations and suspended for having a cellphone and violating rules by giving a fellow student a ride, according to records. Frustrated by the school’s approach, Yarullina and Casey reached a mutual agreement with the school to withdraw. He lasted just a day at his next school.
A spokeswoman for Sheppard Pratt said federal law prevented the school from commenting on Casey’s time there, but she said, “Our educators, therapists and behavior specialists ensure that each of our students receive the optimal, most appropriate education possible to grow and achieve to their maximum potential.”
In late November, Yarullina said Casey began exhibiting signs of paranoia. He told her one night that neighbors were spying on them through an air vent, and another time that he had searched the attic for intruders. Then, one night, she heard loud voices coming from Casey’s room.
Yarullina banged on the door and a friend of Casey’s ran out in a panic, she said. Casey had previously purchased a gun, and he had been holding it when, in a fit of paranoia, he accused the friend of having a relationship with his girlfriend. The friend’s mother said the teen was forced to wrestle the gun away from Casey.
Yarullina said she got an order for an emergency mental health commitment for Casey. He had taken cocaine and was diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis, a condition in which an illicit substance can cause delusions or paranoia. Following a period in mental health treatment, Casey went for drug counseling.
He returned home for Christmas and his birthday in December. He promised his family he would continue therapy, and Yarullina said a new psychiatrist warned him to stay away from stimulants — they might trigger an even worse bout of drug-induced psychosis.
Yarullina said things were looking up for a couple of months. Casey started talking about going to rehab and college. He seemed to be turning a corner.
But then he texted Yarullina on Friday, April 15, telling her that he had taken ecstasy because he and his friends planned to go to a concert. Yarullina said she was tired after so many false hopes. She unleashed a torrent of texts the next day telling him to move out.
One text included a story from a parent whose son died of a fentanyl overdose.
“I put every effort into you not turning out this way,” Yarullina wrote.
Casey did not return home, but went to work the next three days and texted with Yarullina. On Tuesday, Yarullina said, she got a strange call from Casey. He said someone had drugged him and he couldn’t work. Yarullina said Casey thought he was going to be fired from the job he loved.
Casey called Schultz that night and told her he was confused, had been drugged and wanted to jump off a building. Schultz said she told him she would help, and they met at a Safeway supermarket in Maryland around midnight. She noticed Casey had bought $100 worth of food.
“He said, ‘I don’t care. I’m spending all my money, every last penny. I got kicked out and I’m fired,’” Schultz said.
Schultz tried to persuade Casey to come home with her, but he threatened to leave her unless they went to buy ecstasy, she said. Scared for him to be on his own, she said, she agreed.
Schultz said Casey bought the ecstasy, which he told her was laced with bath salts, synthetic drugs that have been linked to paranoia and delirium in some users. Casey took the drug and started to act strangely by the time they parked near Schultz’s home in Northwest Washington, she said.
Casey accused her of recording their conversation for the FBI, Schultz said. They went for a walk, but Casey eventually bolted away from her and began laughing and dancing in the middle of the street. She returned to the car around 4 a.m. to wait for him.
She never saw him alive again.
Shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Secret Service Uniformed Division, tasked with protecting diplomatic embassies and residences across the D.C. area, answered a report of a burglary in progress at the home of the Peruvian ambassador on Garrison Street NW, the Secret Service said in a statement. It was reported that windows had been broken out in the residence.
The officers encountered Casey armed with “a long metal pole,” the statement said. The officers commanded Casey numerous times to drop the pole and then repeatedly used their Tasers to try to stop him, but he “continued to charge toward the officers,” the statement said.
D.C. police said two Secret Service officers fired at Casey and struck him in the torso. Casey died on the scene. D.C. police investigate all homicides in The District and have turned the investigation over to the U.S. attorney’s office, which declined to comment on whether charges might be filed.
The Secret Service declined to identify the officers who fired on Casey, but a spokesman said they were trained in handling people suffering mental health crises. Secret Service officers do not have body cameras, and D.C. police said there is no video of the incident.
Secret Service fatally shoots man at Peruvian ambassador’s residence
The day after the shooting, two D.C. police detectives showed up at Yarullina’s home. She thought they were there to start the missing-person investigation, but instead they showed her a photo of Casey and asked whether she had heard about what had happened at the ambassador’s residence.
A cold feeling came over Yarullina, then devastation.
Yarullina said she is waiting for the investigation to conclude before commenting on how the Secret Service handled the shooting, but she keeps thinking about why schools, psychologists, psychiatrists and she herself failed to reach Casey.
She thinks schools need to invest in more preventive mental health counseling, and that teenagers like Casey who don’t thrive in traditional learning environments need more alternatives. She said instead of lecturing her son, she simply should have hugged him more.
“It’s our kids,” Yarullina said, “and we are losing them.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.