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A sheriff's deputy died by suicide. His widow is on a mission to help others with PTSD
Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 2/10/2019
Feb. 10--Cindy Lannon instantly knew something was wrong.
Returning home from a medical appointment the Monday after Thanksgiving, Lannon expected to find her husband's brown loafers on the front mat.
They weren't there.
"Your head tells you one thing, but another side of your mind says 'No, no, no,' " Cindy Lannon said. "His truck was in the driveway. I looked around the house, and I went up to our bedroom. The bed wasn't made -- he always made the bed when he got up -- and he had taken his cellphone and propped it up on his pillow. It was almost like he was leaving a goodbye note."
She called her brother Craig Pittman, who lives nearby, and he found Jerry Lannon's body on the trail that runs behind the couple's house near Big Carnelian Lake in northern Washington County. The veteran Washington County sheriff's deputy, SWAT team member and firearms instructor had shot himself in the head. He was 58.
Nationally, law-enforcement officers are more likely to die by suicide than to be killed in the line of duty. At least 159 officers in the U.S. took their own lives in 2018, more than the estimated 145 who died while on the job, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that tracks officer suicides. Lannon was one of three officers who died by suicide last year in Minnesota; four died by suicide in Wisconsin.
"It's a startling trend," said Sgt. Tim Harris of the Washington County sheriff's office, who is leading a new mental-health initiative for the department. "We're very hard on ourselves, and we're not getting help when we need it. We need to figure out how to change the stigma of seeking help."
Cindy Lannon, 58, is on a mission to help. She is working to raise awareness about officer suicides and mental illness, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's crucial, she said, that officers seek treatment.
"This is one way I can honor my husband," she said. "It's really hard for many in law enforcement to go out and get help. They feel like they shouldn't because they are cops -- they're supposed to be able to withstand all this stuff that nobody should be able to."
During his 30-year career, Jerry Lannon "saw a lot of things that a person shouldn't have to see," she said.
"You never deal with it," she said. "You just hop back in your squad car after you cut somebody down from a rope or watch them burn up in a car, and you go home and eat dinner with your family and go to bed at night. "
HOW PTSD HAPPENS
Cumulative exposure to trauma, accidents and shootings can lead to mental-health struggles that too often go untreated, said Tom Ellis, a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Paul who specializes in treating law-enforcement personnel.
"There's this message that they are there to protect and take care of others and that they need to be strong and unflappable in their work," Ellis said. "That is setting up these professionals for failure when they are exposed to ... a shooting or a suicide or anything that causes some PTSD reactions."
The sooner someone who is exposed to a traumatic experience gets help, the better they are going to do, Ellis said. "The longer they wait, the stronger the trauma reactions can become," he said. "It's this negative snowballing loop that is very predictable. It's going to happen."
RELATED: Months after a fatal police shooting, a Wisconsin officer turns his gun on himself
Officers may avoid seeking help for fear they might be considered weak, found unfit for duty or passed over for promotion. If they do get help, they generally pay out of pocket to avoid submitting an insurance claim because they don't want a record of it, Ellis said.
"Oftentimes the insurance that they do have for mental-health coverage ... is not good, so that sends a message that this is not important," he said. "It's yet another barrier for access to mental-health services."
In Washington County, mental health and employee well-being are being made a priority, said Sheriff Dan Starry.
"We have to take care of the employees who work for us," Starry said. "Going to these devastating scenes is not normal. Seeing people in tragic situations, whether it's as a result of bad car crashes or homicides or suicides -- that wears on a person."
The department's new mental-health initiative, County Occupational Resources for Employees (CORE), will help, Harris said. For instance, he said he asked employees working on the CORE initiative to use the services of the county's employee assistance program, so they could share their experiences.
"It really has to become a culture shift," Harris said.
A TOTAL PERSONALITY CHANGE
Jerry Lannon loved nicknames. He called everybody "Buddy" or "Mister." His nickname for Cindy was "Bunny." He loved road trips. He was a competitive trap-shooter. He watched "Bonanza" and "Dragnet." He collected patches from law-enforcement agencies around the world. His signature catchphrase: "You're a fine American."
Lannon grew up in Burnsville, went to elementary and middle school at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Savage and graduated from Burnsville High School in 1978. He got his associate's degree in law enforcement from Normandale Community College.
Before being hired by Washington County in 1999, Lannon worked for 11 years as a police officer in the Iowa towns of Huxley, Colfax and Pleasant Hill.
In Washington County, he served as a patrol deputy, investigator, school resource officer, court security officer, firearms instructor and TASER instructor and was a member of the SWAT team. He received commendations for exceptional service in 2003 and 2008.
Starry, a longtime friend, said Lannon was always the first to greet someone in the hallway. "He was very engaged, very friendly, always outgoing," he said.
One of Lannon's favorite assignments was working as the resource officer for the Mahtomedi school district, Starry said.
"He had a positive impact on those students," Starry said. "He was always somebody that you could look up to. He was very kind, and he was very gentle."
In 2017, while working on court security, Lannon began seeing a counselor. He was diagnosed with depression and PTSD.
"Things just started changing for him," Cindy Lannon said. "He started feeling stressors from everyday life, and then the job stuff, too. He became so withdrawn. It was a total personality change."
In July 2018 Lannon threw his back out. He suffered nerve damage and numbness down his left leg. The injury caused his left foot to "flop" when he walked.
He was scheduled to start a medical leave on Sept. 21, 2018, to treat his drop foot, when the couple were seriously injured in a head-on crash on Minnesota 244 in Mahtomedi. Cindy Lannon was driving.
A young man driving the opposite direction suddenly turned in front of their 2011 Honda CRV.
"There was nothing I could do to prevent it," she said. "Our car started spinning. I thought we were headed straight down into the lake."
The Honda was totaled. Both airbags deployed.
"I was so grateful to hear Jerry say, 'Bunny, we've got to get out of the car right now,'" she said. "I thought, 'Oh, thank God, he's alive and I'm alive.'"
The couple was taken by ambulance to Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater. Cindy Lannon, who had a broken sternum and several broken ribs, was admitted overnight.
After the crash, Jerry Lannon's PTSD "went into overdrive," Cindy Lannon said.
"The accident spun everything out of control for him," she said. "He never wanted to drive by the crash site. He'd put his head in his hands and say, 'Oh, I just can't get that sound out of my head. It just won't go away.' He'd grab his head and he'd say, 'Oh, my gosh, Bunny, that was a really bad crash, wasn't it?'
"From that point on, everything went downhill pretty fast," Cindy Lannon said. "Counselors I've talked to say that makes sense because all of the calls that Jerry had been on had not been personal, and then, suddenly, this was personal."
THE START OF A ROMANCE
Cindy Funk and Jerry Lannon were introduced in early 2000 by a mutual friend, Deputy Mark Caroon, who worked as the DARE officer at Hugo Elementary School. Cindy, who was divorced and had three young daughters, worked in the school office.
"One day he came in, threw Jerry's card on my desk and said, 'We have this new guy in our department, and I think you should meet him,' " she said.
After trading emails for a few weeks, Cindy gave him her phone number. He called that night, and they talked for four hours.
"I didn't know what he looked like -- there weren't cellphones back then," she said. "I told Mark, 'Oh, Mark, he seems so nice, but if he looks like Barney Fife, I'm going to kill you.' "
Early on the morning of Mother's Day 2000, Jerry Lannon called to tell her he was thinking of her.
"He said, 'I know you work really, really hard at being a mom, and you deserve to be recognized for that,' " she said. "I thought, 'Hmmm. That's pretty good for a guy who doesn't have any kids.' "
The two met for the first time in the parking lot of the Freedom gas station in Mahtomedi; Jerry Lannon was working the night shift. Their first date was that weekend: dinner at the Leeann Chin restaurant at Union Depot in downtown St. Paul.
"He was just so kind," she said. "There was nothing flashy about him. There was nothing arrogant about him."
They married on Jan. 7, 2002, in Hawaii.
"My girls were his girls, and my girls loved him like crazy," she said. "He loved them like crazy and treated them no different than any father would. He was just great with them. He had a really good heart."
Eldest daughter Maggie Clark now lives in White Bear Lake with her husband, D.J., and two young daughters, Josie and Elsa; middle daughter Ali Reinhardt lives in Marine on St. Croix with her husband, Zachary; and youngest daughter Monica Ariens lives in Green Bay, Wis., with her husband, Stephen.
The Lannons lived in Afton and in Grant before moving to their house in May Township 3 1/2 years ago.
CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE WAS HIS LOVE
Although Jerry Lannon had worked as a sergeant in Iowa, he didn't feel the need to work his way up the ranks in Washington County, Cindy Lannon said.
"He never wanted to sit behind a desk and push a pencil. That just would not be him at all," she said. "He'd say, 'If I were a sergeant, I'd have to start working crappy hours again, different shifts.' He loved being a deputy."
Jerry Lannon especially loved interacting with the public.
"His policing was not about how many tickets he could go out and write that day," she said. "It was, 'Who am I going to be able to connect with today?' He was a talker. He just loved to know people's stories."
But her husband's propensity for small talk could sometimes drive her crazy, she said.
"He approached the unsuspecting stranger every chance he got," she told mourners at Lannon's funeral service on Nov. 30 at Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake. "He and I have walked into countless mom-and-pop shops together over the years, and each time ... Jerry's greeting to the shop owner was the same: 'How ya doing today? How long have you owned this shop? What's the history of this building?'
"While most men wait on their wives to complete their shopping, I'd be the one waiting on Jerry to finish his history lesson," she said. "Every now and again, I'd warn him, 'Now don't even say hello to the clerk. We're in a hurry.' But chitchat -- and getting to learn something about someone -- filled his tank."
THE LAST FEW MONTHS
Jerry Lannon never went back to work after the car accident. Cindy Lannon said he had accrued enough sick time to be off until mid-March, his planned retirement date, but Lannon worried about how that would look to his fellow officers.
"He would say, 'I wanted to go out on top. This isn't how I wanted to go out. How can I face anybody? I'm so embarrassed,' " she said. "I talked to him until I was blue in the face. 'Jerry, you've had a terrific career. You've never had a blemish ... in 30 years. You are going out on top. It's OK. My gosh, all those guys would love to have all this sick time.'
"There was just no rationalizing with him," she said. "It just became worse and worse and worse. It was the perfect awful storm."
Concerned about his mental health, Cindy Lannon removed three handguns and four hunting rifles from the house.
Things came to a head on Nov. 15. Jerry Lannon was scheduled to attend a PTSD support group for law-enforcement officers that afternoon in Maple Grove. A few hours before the meeting was supposed to start, he announced he wasn't going. He later said he would go, but would wait to leave until after Cindy left to run an errand.
Then she found him looking in the trunk in the master bedroom where he had stored two handguns. She said: "Jerry, I know what you're doing. I know you're looking for a gun because you want to kill yourself.' I just knew I had to hit it head-on."
Sgt. Cory Reedy, Lannon's supervisor, was called. He took Lannon to St. John's Hospital in Maplewood for evaluation, and Lannon was taken by ambulance to the inpatient mental-health unit at St. Joseph's Hospital in downtown St. Paul.
"He went very willingly. He didn't argue at all. He knew he needed help," Cindy Lannon said. "But it just killed me to go see him there every day. I don't even like thinking of him being there. Every time we would go to see him, he would be sitting on a chair right inside the door waiting for us. It was like he was this little 10-year-old boy waiting for his friend."
Lannon remained hospitalized for a week; he was released the day before Thanksgiving.
They spent the holiday at her cousin's house in Mahtomedi.
"It was hard," she said. "He tried really hard to socialize and be there, but he wasn't there. He just couldn't make it work."
Cindy Lannon, a real-estate agent, searched for inpatient treatment programs for people with PTSD, but couldn't find a suitable one. Most are geared toward people who also have substance-abuse issues, she said.
"He'd say, 'How did I get to this place? I don't get it. I've got everything. I've got Jesus. I've got you. I've got the girls. Why is this happening to me?' "
On Nov. 25, a Sunday, Jerry Lannon cleaned out the gutters, put Christmas lights on the pine tree in the back yard and ate his favorite meal -- meatloaf -- for dinner.
"He was very, very quiet," she said. "He was trying to be busy."
On the morning of Nov. 26, Jerry Lannon elected to stay in bed and listen to a Christian podcast instead of going with Cindy to the chiropractor. "He said he needed some alone time with God," she said.
Cindy Lannon isn't sure where Jerry Lannon got the gun he used to kill himself. She thinks he likely kept a few in the garage that she didn't know about.
She wants people to know that Jerry Lannon was a good man who had a good life.
"I felt that the day Jerry died, some of his integrity was tarnished," she said. "All those cops standing over him, looking at him, taking pictures of him -- that's not what he would have wanted. He didn't want his life to end that way."
But she said she understands why Jerry did what he did.
"He was being tormented more and more every day," she said. "He was not getting the help he needed."
She worked with the Ramsey County medical examiner's office to have her husband's death certificate include depression and PTSD as underlying causes of his death.
She wants to write a book about her husband's life -- and death. "I'm going to call it 'The Thin Blue Line,' and then cross out 'Thin' and write 'Broken,' " she said.
She keeps busy during the day, but the nights are hard.
"I used to always like being home alone and putzing, but I always knew Jerry was coming home," she said. "When you know nobody is coming back through that door, it's a whole different quiet."
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