ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — For 20 years, Paula Frey had warm memories of high school. She had lots of friends, was on the drill team, and kept in touch with classmates over the years. When her 20-year Pattonville High School reunion came up, she was happy to plan events to reconnect.
She went to a barbeque in 2010 to sort out the final details of a big reunion party. Someone brought a classmate they happened to run into that day, Brandon McCormick.
“I just said, 'Hi, how are you?' Like, good to see you again. And then carried on with mine, whatever we were doing,” Frey remembers.
For the nine years since that chance meeting, Frey said her life has changed completely.
That’s because soon after, Frey said McCormick started coming to her house uninvited, leaving gifts addressed to her young daughter and sending her messages through social media. According to her, McCormick’s unwanted attentions became unnerving enough that she filed for an order of protection in 2012. That’s when the worst of it began.
“What I know now is that I've had a very false sense of security thinking that he would not bother us,” Frey said. “When [the orders] are in place, he can't openly and outwardly be in my space. He cannot knock on my door. He cannot stop by the house. He cannot follow me. He does anyway. We've found out later.”
Frey found out because she just got several years’ worth of letters from McCormick that showed she was in more danger than she knew all along.
Where did you go to high school?
Frey doesn’t really remember McCormick from high school. She said he had a reputation as a quiet, shy person.
The first time McCormick appeared at her house, Frey said, he was parked in her driveway when she came home. She said he invited her to his art show.
“I was like, 'OK, great. You know, good for you,'” she said. “You know, just trying to be kind, just trying to be dismissive, but not rude. I probably should have been just rude from the very beginning.”
The gifts started appearing after that: a scarf, a wallet, boxes of “Rescue Detox” tea, feminine hygiene products. McCormick left them at Frey’s house and at the houses of other people who ended up filing protection orders of their own.
McCormick’s family wrote in an application for evaluation with the state Department of Mental Health that he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Since 2012, Frey has held a protection order against him almost all the time.
Maryland Heights police reports requested by the I-Team show Frey called on them to enforce the orders. In June 2017, one order lapsed before McCormick had been served with the next.
“We were on our way to the grocery store,” Frey remembered about that day. “And I get in the car and my girls are upset. I'm like 'What's going on?'“
She got an answer from one of her older daughters.
“She's crying, crying, crying, and I'm like, what is it? And she's like, 'Brandon's outside.' And I was like, what? And I turned, I looked and he was taking pictures of my home. And he had taken pictures of the girls.
“I got out of my car, I'm like, 'What are you doing here?' And he goes, 'I can be here today. Today. I can be here.' So he knew it. He knows what he's doing.”
The police report of the incident shows that the officer who responded got a copy of the new ex parte order served that day. An ex parte order is a protection order that the court can issue before hearing from the responding party, which would be McCormick in this case.
Frey feels that the police response has been lacking, though.
“It's always, ‘It won't stand up in court. He hasn't done anything to cause you harm,’” she said.
She added that police originally assumed that McCormick was more than a stranger. A statement provided to the I-Team by Maryland Heights Police said that a 2014 police report characterized McCormick as Frey’s ex-boyfriend. Frey denies having any relationship with McCormick.
Lt. Jamison White, the department’s support services commander, told the 5 On Your Side I-Team’s PJ Randhawa the same thing in an interview: “We haven't seen anything in this particular case that would give us a reason to believe that he could become violent.”
That was before Lt. White saw the letters that have been in the hands of the courts for two years.
"Dear judge ... I have several things to tell you"
McCormick has admitted to the family court handling Frey’s protection order that he’s been to Frey’s house and reached out to their mutual friends to get messages to her while the protection orders were in place.
Frey knows about this because her lawyer discovered dozens of letters addressed to the family court judge from McCormick in the protection order case file. The letters, dating back to 2017, are addressed to the judge and were entered into the file as correspondence. Frey finally got to see them in September 2019.
“There are things mentioned in there that are your greatest fears, that are parent's worst nightmares,” said Frey.
The letters include admissions of molesting a young relative and “becoming rough” with women at a fraternity party. They say that McCormick believes that he hears people communicating with him telepathically. The letters ask the judge about Frey’s gender identity and whether she is related to him.
One of the most recent letters to the court, sent in December, said that McCormick saw that Frey was no longer living at her original address and demanded to know where she would be living and working.
You can read some of the letters at the bottom of this story.
A Maryland Heights Police report says that the department received a similar letter from McCormick in 2013 that resulted in a voluntary admission to a hospital.
Impartiality and safety
But according to St. Louis County circuit courts, the judge overseeing Frey's protection order never knew about the letters. Rules for Missouri courts prohibit judges from receiving communication from one side of an active legal dispute without the other side present.
“They have to remain neutral,” said Christine Bertelson, director of strategic communications for St. Louis County Courts. “This is why it's important for a victim to have an attorney so they can keep up with whatever's in the case file, whatever is going on and they can advise their client about the best way to stay safe.”
Lt. White with the Maryland Heights Police told the I-Team that his department has never seen the letters sent to the court. Now that 5 On Your Side provided them, White says they’ve begun an investigation.
“Sometimes there's a disconnect between the court systems and our criminal justice system being as large as it is,” he said. “I think it would have been nice to have an idea that this was continuing to the level that it was.”
Advocates are familiar with the impact of the disconnect between the courts and police.
“I know that we cannot do a good safety plan with a victim without having all the information,” said Jessica Woolbright, children’s program coordinator at St. Martha’s Hall. “And one of the key pieces to always know is, what are the triggers? What causes the violence to escalate?”
“If you don't have all that information, there's no way you can stay ahead of that,” she added.
In August, McCormick’s family filed a request for a mental health warrant, writing that McCormick stopped taking his medications in April and recently became more unpredictable.
The family writes McCormick drinks only detox teas and burned potatoes. They say he repeatedly left food on other people's porches, urinated on his neighbor's laundry, and sent at least one photo of his genitals to a female relative.
With the context of the letters, Frey was able to require McCormick to be enrolled in electronic monitoring as part of the protection order case. The judge also requires McCormick to attend bi-monthly court hearings.
The I-Team approached McCormick to ask for his side of the story. He and his father declined to comment.
5 On Your Side also reached out the special prosecutor assigned to the protection order case to find out why that office never saw or requested action on the letters. She has yet to respond.
For Frey, knowing more about her case hasn’t been a comfort. She still feels the effects every day.
“I can't go out in public really. I like to be alone more,” she said. “I am not the same person that I once was, and I know that I will never be her again.”
Maryland Heights Police Chief Bill Carson released the following statement after 5 On Your Side's coverage of this story:
'Our department understands the severity of mental health issues and we take them very seriously, as we did involving this case. We have responded following our policy guidelines and state law in this particular situation. Our officers receive yearly training and we have policies and procedures in place that guide our response in handling orders of protection and stalking incidents. While the stalker in this particular case is being actively monitored by the courts, we continue to conduct our investigation of the evidence recently presented in order to determine what additional actions can be taken to protect our residents.'
In a statement, Anne Heinrich, vice president of development at Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri, wrote that the stigma surrounding mental illness can also harm people who need help. MHA-EM sent these facts about schizophrenia and mental illness:
• Schizophrenia is a serious disorder which affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Someone with schizophrenia may have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary; may be unresponsive or withdrawn; and may have difficulty expressing normal emotions in social situations.
• The vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent and do not pose a danger to others. Schizophrenia is not caused by childhood experiences, poor parenting or lack of willpower, nor are the symptoms identical for each person.
• While there is no cure for schizophrenia, many people with this illness can lead productive and fulfilling lives with the proper treatment.
• The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.
• In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime.
If you or a loved one need help dealing with mental illness, there are resources available. These 24-hour Access Crisis Intervention hotlines are available to Missourians in these counties:
For St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Jefferson County, and more, call Behavioral Health Response at 1-800-811-4760.
For St. Charles County and more in our region, call Compass Health ACI Hotline at 1-800-833-3915.
You can find a list of Community Mental Health Centers on the state Department of Mental Health website.
Illinois residents can reach their nearest Community Mental Health Center by calling 1-800-843-6154. The Illinois Department of Human Services also offers a list of crisis mental health partners arranged by city.
Warning: Some of the details in the letters are disturbing.