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Originally published Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Shooting-rampage suspect described as deeply troubled

On good days, Isaac Zamora could be charming, warm, creative. But mostly, he was scary, say family and friends. In some ways, residents of his close-knit neighborhood in rural Skagit County were living under Zamora's shadow.

Seattle Times staff reporters

On good days, Isaac Zamora could be charming, warm, creative. He could be strange, too — aimlessly walking the streets alone at all hours, causing trouble by grabbing a fistful of paper towels from the gas station and letting them trail out his window as he drove off.

But most recently, however, Zamora was scary, say family and friends. In some ways, residents of his close-knit neighborhood in rural Skagit County were living under Zamora's shadow.

Over the past decade, he showed increasing signs of serious mental illness, ranging from suicide attempts to auditory hallucinations, from smashed windshields to outright threats. He racked up dozens of criminal charges, and while none of them were particularly violent offenses, they were enough for him to draw extra scrutiny from the state Department of Corrections, which supervised him in the community under a special program for offenders with mental illness.

Meanwhile, those who know Zamora best say that for years he was left wanting for the psychiatric help he so obviously needed. His mother, Dennise, said that despite his family's urging, Zamora wouldn't agree to ongoing mental-health treatment, and the law prevented them from forcing it on the 28-year-old.

In recent weeks, he went from sleeping in the woods to sleeping out on neighbors' lawns, after his parents told him he could no longer spend the night in their Alger home. Last week, he told neighbor Shirley Wenrick, "I am going to get even with them."

On Saturday, however, Dennise Zamora said the family had its first ray of hope: He agreed to the first of two evaluations he needed to qualify for state mental-health programs.

Three days later, he would be accused of killing six people, including a Skagit County sheriff's deputy.

"This happened because of the law and because of Isaac's choices," Dennise Zamora said. "The major difficulty is ... when you're mentally ill you don't think anything is wrong."

A "mama's boy"

Isaac Zamora was a quiet, unremarkable kid, said neighbor Christie Howard. At worst, she recalls, he "was one of the kids who rode his obnoxious motorcycle through the property."

From the outside, his upbringing appeared relatively ordinary. Zamora's father took him to Boy Scouts; his mother home-schooled him.

"I remember a sweet, sweet, sensitive mama's boy," said Rachel Brown, who grew up with Zamora.

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Then, when Zamora was about 14, the family home burned down and they lost everything. They struggled both financially and emotionally.

"It's all we can do to keep the electricity on," Dennise Zamora wrote as part of the family's bankruptcy petition.

A doctor diagnosed Zamora as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and said that his problems would likely subside after puberty.

"By the time he got to be 18," Dennise Zamora said, "we thought, 'He's gone past the junction here.' He was never the same."

The family stayed in the neighborhood, putting a triple-wide mobile home on the property. Around the same time, Zamora stole his mother's gun to sell to another teenager, but was later charged with filing a false report after telling police a stranger had stolen it.

Ex-girlfriend Connie Hickman met Zamora around 2000 when they were both working at a health-care facility. At the time, Zamora had trouble holding jobs.

Still, Hickman said, he had a lot of promise. "He was kind," she said. "He was easy to talk to, easy to get along with."

But every so often, signs of trouble popped up. He would make threats and start fights over "things that never happened," Hickman said. Initially, she attributed it to Zamora's drinking and drug use — he has arrests for cocaine and marijuana possession.

Zamora attempted suicide several times and told her at one point he was hearing voices. Hickman said Zamora was diagnosed over the years with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In 2003, Hickman and Dennise Zamora took him to a Whatcom County hospital, saying they feared for their safety. People with mentally ill family members say it's often difficult to meet the threshold for involuntary psychiatric treatment. Washington law says that to hold someone, an imminent threat of harm must exist. What constitutes imminent danger, however, is open to interpretation.

This time, he qualified and was held for a few weeks. But the treatment wasn't quite enough, Hickman said.

"The night after he was released, he called me and said, 'I want to go back,' " she recalled. But when he showed up again at the hospital, it declined to admit him.

Eventually, Zamora was admitted to another hospital. During that stay, court records show that he bit an orderly who was trying to restrain him. Criminal charges were filed, then dropped for reasons that are unclear.

"The next day, they discharged him," Hickman recalled. "How could they put him out on the streets when it was obvious the man had some issues?"

Zamora took his medication in the hospital, but when he was released he stopped, Hickman said, partly because "he didn't have a job so he couldn't pay for medication."

Eventually, Zamora's volatility got to be too much and Hickman took out protection orders. She changed her phone number, but he was able to track her down through friends.

One night, after she bumped into him on the street, a wine bottle came flying through her apartment window. Another time, her roommate's windshield was smashed.

Eventually, she packed up her car and left the state. He later tracked her down, leaving rambling messages on relatives' answering machines. She said she has had no contact with him for about three years.

Family's efforts to help

Over the years, said Dennise Zamora, the family tried everything they could think of to get him to agree to ongoing treatment. "We've all tried to influence him, to threaten him," she said.

And Zamora's troubles with the law continued: malicious mischief, drugs, theft.

In 2001, for example, Zamora and an accomplice were investigated by the Mount Vernon Police Department for stealing an outboard motor. Zamora refused to cooperate. But Dennise Zamora crawled through an open window of a house trailer where her son lived on their property and found the outboard motor and turned it over to police. Zamora pleaded guilty to second-degree theft and served three days in jail with 17 days of community service.

In May 2007, he flew into a rage when a friend refused to go hiking, hurling a concrete block into the friend's car. In a statement to the Skagit County Court officials, the friend described Zamora as "devious and vengeful." Zamora was charged with second-degree malicious mischief.

On May 15, he signed a guilty plea and agreed not to possess or own firearms, although neighbors said at some point he had a collection of six or seven guns. He was released on Aug. 6 and the Department of Corrections (DOC) said he checked in regularly and passed a drug test on Aug. 21.

Chad Lewis, a spokesman for the DOC, said it wasn't able to know whether Zamora needed to be treated for mental health issues because he hadn't had a mental health evaluation.

Because Zamora had no money to pay for one, Lewis said the DOC was working with the state Department of Social and Health Services, which has a fund to pay for evaluations for the indigents such as Zamora. It hadn't been scheduled because Zamora had only been out of jail for a few weeks, Lewis said, adding that because mental health resources are limited in Skagit County, it could take months to get the evaluation. He couldn't say what it would cost.

The DOC says it is scouring its records to see what else it could have done.

Dennise Zamora isn't making excuses: "I'm not one of those people who say he's not guilty by reason of insanity. He is guilty by insanity."

Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green, Steve Miletich, Jennifer Sullivan, Peyton Whitely, Ron Judd and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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