HealthMental Health


Mentally ill son kills dad after mom begged that he not be sent home

A Tennessee family reveals tragic failures in the mental health system.
John Hassey stands outside his home as it burns.
Posted at 7:06 AM, May 24, 2023

Elizabeth Frensley will never forget consoling her son after he learned he killed his father.

"He cried like for months ... they were best friends, and he just couldn't believe it. I mean, he was in shock," Frensley said.

Nearly two years ago, firefighters rushed to the Brentwood, Tennessee, home of James Hassey. He lived with his 26-year-old son John Hassey.

When firefighters arrived, John was outside looking at the burning home. Neighbors say they asked John if anyone else was inside, and he said there was.

"It was strange," neighbor Enoch Hartman told Scripps News Nashville. "He said, 'Yeah there's somebody in there,' but he wasn't trying to get him out."

John did not try to save his father because he did not believe any of it was real.

"He thought he was playing a part in a movie," Frensley said. "He was talking to cast members, and they were talking to him, and there were hallucinations. I mean, he was in severe psychosis."

Investigators determined John started the fire in his room, and it quickly spread through the house.

John was charged with murder, but a judge found him "not guilty by reason of insanity," which his family supported.

"It wasn't John. I think all I can do is support him, be understanding," Frensley said.

John is now in a mental hospital getting treatment for several mental illnesses including bipolar disorder.

It is treatment his family tried to get him for years.

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"It could have been stopped had the mental health system done what it should have done and intercepted this when the signs were there," said attorney David Raybin.

Raybin represented John and saw how he'd been in and out of multiple mental health facilities over the years.

"His mother begged them: 'Please don't release him, he's not ready to go.' 'Well ma'am, he doesn't meet the commitment standard any longer, take him home'," Raybin said.

He said there were so many warning signs.

A year before the fire, John's family called 911 desperate for help.

"My brother has a mental illness and he's just going ... he's going crazy right now," John's brother told the 911 operator in April 2020.

John was racing his Jeep at high speeds around the same house he later burned.

"He's bipolar. He has a mental illness, and he just got out of the mental hospital like a week ago," his brother told the operator.

His car finally crashed and caught on fire. This time, no one was hurt.

"He was delusional. He was thinking he was a race car driver. In other words, he was in severe psychosis, and that was after he was released from the hospital," Frensley said.

John was once again sent back to a mental hospital.

"How could you not see this was a sign that something even worse was going to happen?" Raybin said.

But once again he was quickly released and sent back home.

"Treatment is hard to get. It's just so understaffed," Frensley said.

John's family had money for treatment, and his mom is an ICU nurse who knows the health care system.

But even with all of that, John never got the help he needed.

"What is she supposed to do with her son when he comes back from the mental hospital and there's no care?" Raybin asked.

Metropolitan Nashville's Mental Health Court tracked people involuntarily committed to mental hospitals over a four-year period from 2019 until 2022.

Take "Nataly," not her real name.

She was committed and released 39 different times.

"Kane" was committed and released 28 times.

He also went to jail seven times.

And "Patricia" was committed and released 26 different times over the four-year period.

"In the hospital and out of the hospital. Those statistics don't surprise me at all. You have this revolving door," Raybin said.

"They just want to get them in and get them out," Frensley said.

That's why she is speaking out.

She knows there are others out there that the system is failing.

She said as lawmakers talk about mental health issues, they should address the lack of available care, and she hopes people will be more open to talk about mental illness.

John agreed to let his mom share his story for the same reasons.

The family hopes to end the stigma surrounding severe mental illness.

This story was originally published by Ben Hall at Scripps News Nashville.

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