Lisa Gossett was home in Alaska when her sister called about a YouTube video.
Gossett’s son had climbed an 80-foot sequoia tree in downtown Seattle, stayed there for 25 hours and inspired an international hashtag, #manintree.
“I was shocked, heart-broke,” she told KUOW’s Bill Radke from Wasilla. “My daughter and I were watching it and shed a lot of tears. This is not the kid we knew.”
Her son is Cody Lee Miller, 28. Last Gossett knew, he was living in Oregon. He was clean cut – he didn’t have that infamous bushy beard – but he was growing increasingly paranoid.
It wasn’t always like this.
“He was a rambunctious little kid,” Gossett said. “He was always outside playing and climbing to the top of trees. He was picking up every lizard and spider – just a kid that loved nature and that was pretty happy.”
Miller had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but his mom said he didn’t have many behavioral problems. Mostly, he had a lot of energy.
She started noticing a shift in her son’s behavior about six years ago. That’s when Miller was staying with Gossett and her husband after fishing in the Bering Sea. Gossett was alarmed when she found knives under his pillow.
“I would ask him, ‘Why you got knives under your pillows?’” she said. “He would say, ‘Just to keep us safe.’ And I would say, ‘We are safe.’”
When they went downtown, Miller refused to enter stores. When he did, he pulled up his hood, convinced people were staring at him.
Once in the night, he cried out for Gossett. “There’s an evil presence down here,” he told his mom. “It’s terrible. It’s evil and it scares me.”
He ended up moving into a motorhome on his grandmother’s property in Roseburg, Oregon. But he quickly unraveled further, painting a large X at the edge of her property.
And then, more worrisome behavior:
Miller walked down the street in high socks and clown glasses. He spread deer bones on the road. He hit a guy who had a flat tire. He did cartwheels in the field.
“Every other month he was in jail,” Gossett said.
Miller had dreams of killing his grandmother. He set her woodshop on fire.
Although it pained her, his grandmother got a restraining order.
“His grandmother cries to me all the time that she had to put him out on the streets,” Gossett said.
Gossett called everyone she thought could help – the Alaska governor’s office, mental health evaluators, probation officers. Sometimes she would travel to meet her son but miss him because the jail would have released him.
“They just put these people back on the streets,” Gossett said. “I feel hopeless. It’s so frustrating because I see his brothers and sisters crying for him. People are scared of him. He’s paranoid and violent. I’ve pretty much prepared myself for his death.”
Gossett said she wants laws to change. It doesn’t help her son – or taxpayers – to have him cycle through prison and the streets, she said.
“He gets in trouble for not checking in with his parole officer – he doesn’t even know the time of day,” she said. “How is he supposed to check in once a month? So he goes back to jail, gets thrown out back on the streets. It’s just a Band-Aid. Let’s fix this problem.”
Because Miller is an adult, Gossett doesn’t have access to his files – or any information about him. She said that if she did, she might be able to help him.
“He's my son; I gave birth to him,” she said. “I'm frustrated about not being able to do anything. It’s not like I can take him somewhere. I've got to get help.”
For the system to intervene, she said, “Someone has to be killed pretty much.”
As for the sequoia tree in downtown Seattle, Gossett said she was sorry it was damaged.
But she hopes that when people walk past it, they see the damaged branches and think of her son – and other mentally ill people.
“It will be a monument for a long time of my son – of my sick son up in that tree,” Gossett said. “Maybe because of him, there can be some changes made.”
Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.
This story originally aired March 31, 2016.