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Lawyer: 5-minute call could have saved children

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Ian Mascarenas, 9, left, Olivia Mascarenas, 6, right, and Elijah Mascarenas, 5, center. (Courtesy of the Mascarenas family)

With lights and sirens engaged, Albuquerque paramedics transported George Daniel Wechsler to the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center on Nov. 3, 2016, after he sent a text message to a friend, “My life is a mess. Dad has gun. He will not miss it.”

A month later, in the Four Hills neighborhood, Wechsler lay in wait with his father’s handgun as his ex-girlfriend Cheryl Lynn Mascareñas returned to her home with her three young children. Wechsler shot Cheryl several times, but she survived. Her children did not. Wechsler killed Ian Mascareñas, 9, Olivia Renee Mascareñas, 6, and five-year-old Elijah Mascareñas.

According to court records, Wechsler, 45, then made one last phone call to his

George Wechsler (APD photo)

brother before turning the gun on himself Dec. 5, 2016. “I killed them all. I killed the kids. I killed Cheryl, and I’m going to kill myself.”

While the New Mexico Legislature debates a controversial “red flag” gun law aimed at preventing such tragedies, Cheryl Lynn Mascareñas and the father of her children, Joshua Mascareñas, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that the University of New Mexico’s Psychiatric Center failed to properly evaluate and treat Wechsler a month before the murders.

“Had University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center done a proper assessment and evaluation, it would have been in a position to remove Wechsler’s access to firearms and to warn Cheryl Lynn Mascarenas of the danger she and her children were in,” the lawsuit alleges.

Less than two hours after he arrived by ambulance in November 2016, Wechsler was released from the Psychiatric Center. He was deemed to be at a “low acute risk of harm to himself and others immediately, and at a chronic moderate risk of harm to himself in the future.” No follow-up counseling was scheduled to try to disrupt his feelings for self-harm or violence, the lawsuit alleges.

Two medical experts are expected to testify that the UNM Psychiatric Center staff breached the standard of care by not following up with Wechsler’s father about the gun, court records stated.

Three angels holding hands are part of a growing makeshift memorial in honor of the 3 young victims involved in the murder suicide in Four Hills. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL)

“All it would have taken is a five-minute phone call to (Wechsler’s) father asking him to secure the weapon,” plaintiffs’ attorney Lisa Curtis said last week.

The lawsuit alleges that the failure to adequately evaluate and treat Wechsler “aggravated (his) dangerous psychiatric illness and contributed to cause the wrongful deaths” of the Mascareñas children and the injuries to their mother.

In court records, UNM and the Psychiatric Center deny any wrongdoing or negligence.

“Any and all damages suffered by Plaintiffs were caused by the intentional conduct of G. Daniel Wechsler and are not attributable to any acts or omissions by Defendant,” stated lawyers for UNM, which runs the 47-bed emergency psychiatric center.

This is the house where a man shot a woman and her three children a five year old boy a six year old girl and a nine year old boy and then turned the gun on himself. (Marla Brose Albuquerque Journal)

A year before the murder-suicide at the Four Hills home, UNM settled another wrongful death case involving the Psychiatric Center’s discharge of a man who notified center employees he was hearing “voices telling him to kill his mother.”

Within two days of his release in March 2009, the lawsuit stated, Christopher Barbera choked his mother, Juanita Kranshuler, to death. The state settled the case for $550,000 in 2015, records show.

‘Red flag’ gun law

A so-called “red flag” gun law, which has been adopted by 17 states and the District of Columbia, permits concerned law enforcement or family members to intervene via a court action to try to prevent a person deemed to pose an “immediate danger” from harming himself or others with a firearm.

A judge considers the evidence and, if warranted, issues a temporary “extreme risk firearm protection order” to remove the firearms. That order can be extended, depending on the circumstances.

Ian, Olivia and Elijah Mascarenas are carried from the Believers Center of Albuquerque following funeral services. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The current proposed law under discussion in the New Mexico Legislature has the backing of Albuquerque police and New Mexico State Police leaders. But most of the 33 county sheriffs in New Mexico, whose agencies would be permitted to seek such court orders, are among the most vocal opponents.

The sheriffs have contended the firearm owners involved would lose their due process protections, and some sheriffs’ officials have vowed in the past to ignore the law if enacted. There has also been criticism that permitting former intimate partners or former relatives to apply for such an order would be too broad.

While faulting UNM in the ongoing lawsuit, Curtis said she believes red-flag protection legislation could have “stopped the killing of Ian, Olivia and Eli in two different ways.”

“The police would have been able to secure the gun used to kill them and had their Mom been properly told of Wechsler’s dangerousness, she would have been able to get an order to secure the gun used to kill her children,” she said.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said last week that the extreme risk protection bill he is co-sponsoring in the House “probably” would have applied in the Mascareñas case.

As currently worded, former intimate partners such as Mascareñas would be eligible to seek such an order from a judge.

The proposed legislation applies to those posing an “immediate danger” who are believed to have custody of or who control, own or possess firearms.

Wechsler’s text message in November 2016 made it appear he had easy access to his father’s weapon, but it isn’t clear from police or court records reviewed by the Journal when he retrieved the handgun from his father’s garage.

But Curtis said her understanding from police interviews was that Wechsler had possession of the gun in his home before the shootings.

Ely said he believes such a law would “save lives.”

Despite the sheriffs’ opposition, Ely said, “The complaint we are getting from law enforcement is they know this (issue of potentially dangerous people with guns) and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Breakup

Cheryl Mascareñas, 39, has avoided the spotlight as she has tried to recover from her serious physical injuries from the shooting, the trauma of what occurred, and the loss of her children. She has been divorced from Joshua Mascareñas since 2015, but they remain friends.

In a deposition last year, she told UNM attorneys questioning her that she had no idea Wechsler, whom she met on a community volleyball team, owned a gun or was dangerous.

She said she didn’t know he had contemplated suicide in the past. He had never threatened her or her children. They dated for about a year, and he didn’t live at her house.

Cheryl Mascareñas said she broke off the relationship in late August 2016 after an incident in which he called her an obscene name and refused to allow her to retrieve her belongings from his car. She said he could be “intense.”

After the breakup, he showed up at the accounting firm where she worked. She could see he was “struggling,” and “I told him I thought he could benefit from talking to someone … (but) I had no interest in resuming a relationship with him.”

Mascareñas couldn’t recall any further communications with him until Dec. 5 – the day of the shooting – when he texted her asking if could bring Christmas gifts for her children. Initially, she told him he could, then changed her mind. “I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea,” she testified in the deposition. “He said okay.”

About 6:30 that evening, Mascareñas pulled into her driveway but noticed the garage door was stuck, partially open. Then Wechsler emerged from the porch of her home, saying he had backed into the garage door. He apologized and said he would fix it.

“Did he make any other statement to you that night you can recall,” Curtis later asked her client at the deposition.

“He told me I was going to be sorry. That I made a big mistake.”

The attorneys at deposition avoided asking about the details of the shootings.

But Albuquerque police reported that, although shot in the abdomen and hand, a bleeding Mascareñas was seen crawling under the garage door to pull her dying young sons out of the house, one by one.

Her daughter was found shot dead on the stairs inside. Police discovered Wechsler barely alive on the living room couch, still gripping the gun.

Stalking history

Curtis said the Mascareñas case points to the need for both legislation to curb gun violence, and “we need a mental health system to do its job.”

Court records show one Colorado psychiatrist slated to testify for the Mascareñases concluded that the Psychiatric Center failed to use a structured violence risk assessment tool to ascertain Wechsler’s dangerousness, contending that was a breach of the standard of care.

Wechsler also wasn’t sufficiently questioned about his breakup with Cheryl Mascareñas or his recent loss of a job, the psychiatrist has concluded.

“And there was inadequate inquiry into his prior suicidality and criminality, which may have raised more concerns about his risk to others,” according to another expert’s expected testimony.

Wechsler, a former corrections employee, had been convicted of stalking at least one previous girlfriend and had been arrested for battery against a household member.

In 2002, one woman reportedly called police after she found him parked outside her workplace, carrying a gun, binoculars and a video camera after their relationship broke up.

Another ex-girlfriend told police in 2009 she feared for her life because of his actions and threats and had sought a restraining order against him.

UNM Health Sciences Center had been Wechsler’s health care provider for years, “and it was well-known that (he) had a prior suicide attempt,” the lawsuit alleges.

APD assessment

A friend of Wechsler’s called 911 on Nov. 3, 2016, to report receiving Wechsler’s troubling suicidal text.

APD officers who responded did an initial risk assessment, then called for the Albuquerque Fire Department to transport Wechsler from his Prospect NE apartment to the Psychiatric Center. The fire department’s Lt. Javier Renteria accompanied Wechsler to the center.

In an assessment form Renteria filed with the Psychiatric Center that evening, he stated that Wechsler had suicidal “thoughts by means of using a gun.” Renteria wrote on the form that Wechsler sent the text stating, “My life is a mess. Dad has gun … and he will not miss it.”

UNM has said in court filings that the lawsuit should be dismissed because its health care providers “possessed and applied the knowledge and used the skill” necessary in evaluating and treating Wechsler.

Journal calls seeking comment from the Roswell-based law firm hired to defend UNM weren’t returned last week.

Curtis said the Mascareñas children were “good students and little athletes.” Their former elementary school teachers and Ian’s T-ball coach are listed as potential witnesses if the case goes to trial.

Cheryl and Joshua Mascareñas are also on the witness list.

“They’re parents,” Curtis said. “But there are no children.”

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