Remembering KariHonoring a daughter, and calling attention to mental-health issues
Kari Osterhaug grew up in Edmonds, graduating from old Edmonds High School in 1989.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Washington in 1994, where she starred on the women’s crew team and was co-captain her senior year.
“Oh, she had so many friends and was involved in so many activities,” said Ingrid Osterhaug, her mother. She and her husband, John Osterhaug, president of the Edmonds Senior Center board of directors, have lived in Edmonds since 1961.
In 1999, Kari married Thomas Gergen, a fellow UW zoology grad she did field work with. They lived in Shoreline and expected their first child in March 2003.
But something snapped inside Gergen.
In January 2003, in a haze of psychotic paranoia he later admitted to, Gergen shot Kari and her unborn baby – her name was to be Hazel – five times.
Kari was dead at 31.
Gergen shot himself in the jaw, but survived.
Ingrid Osterhaug, who just turned 80, will never get over the pain of losing Kari. She can barely mention Gergen’s name. But she can’t let go. That’s one reason why, this year, she self-published “Kari’s Bog: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Life, Brutal Death and Legacy.”
“I originally approached this as a tribute to Kari,” Osterhaug said. “She was loved. Her friends created tributes, and the UW named a shell on campus after her.”
The book’s title refers to a parcel of land in Redmond her former employer, King County Department of Natural Resources, named after her. Kari had done some field work there.
But as she poured her feelings out in words while writing the book, Osterhaug realized it must be more than simply a tribute. She must write about her daughter’s husband, too. As she dug into information from King County about her daughter’s death, she began to see major flaws in the state’s mental health system.
Thomas Gergen pled not guilty to the double-murder charge by reason of insanity. Prosecutors agreed, and Gergen was committed to Western State Hospital, the inpatient psychiatric hospital in Lakewood.
Over objections from prosecutors and the Osterhaugs, the state ordered Gergen released after just five years. The Osterhaugs believed Gergen was still a threat – the day before the murder, Kari’s parents, worried about his instability and tried to have him committed. Instead, he was sent home with a prescription.
Ingrid Osterhaug said Gergen is now back at Western State Hospital, but would not elaborate.
Osterhaug has learned a lot about the state’s mental health system. Western State has experienced its share of troubles, most noticeably in April when two violent inmates escaped and were later captured. That incident led to the firing of Western’s CEO.
(The Associated Press reported in May that more than 185 patients have escaped or walked away since 2013.)
“The problems have gone on for years,” Osterhaug said. “But it’s finally come to the point where they’ve been told they have got to change a lot of things at the hospital because they were so negligent in so many ways.”
Osterhaug stresses in her book that there needs to be more funding for mental health.
She’s upset that, in June, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed portions of a bipartisan legislation that would have taken steps to reform Western State Hospital. It would have included more staffing, steps to change the ways patients are discharged, and an attempt to move to more community focused clinics.
Inslee said he wants to hear more from consultants on how to fix Western State. Osterhaug said Inslee was swayed by Western State’s local union, which opposed parts of the bill.
Meanwhile, Western State – overseen by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) – withdrew from an accreditation process as it attempts to solve its problems. That means it could lose federal funding.
“We need to fix the mental health system. There needs to be programs to educate the public what mental health really involves,” Osterhaug said. “What the problems are, what the myths are, how they should be corrected, how to treat family members. We need to help people with problems before they become violent.”
Throughout “Kari’s Bog,” the reader realizes just how special Kari Osterhaug was.
“She had unconditional regard for everybody,” Ingrid Osterhaug said. “It didn’t matter what problems they had, where they came from, what their thinking was. She respected them. She had a charisma that just drew people to her. She was a very positive person no matter the situation. She always saw her cup as half full. She was just a joy for us to know and to raise.”
You can purchase “Kari’s Bog” at the Edmonds Bookshop or through Amazon at http://amzn.to/2d4eqeY.