The war next door: Can a vet with PTSD come home?
The man in the grainy surveillance footage strides through the sleepy cul-de-sac with purpose, like someone in command of his own destiny.
Freeze the frame, zoom in close. His eyes tell a different story: wide, unblinking, confused.
He has lost all control.
The disabled veteran had been coming unhinged for months. Security cameras installed by his neighbors captured him that night as he hit bottom.
It was about 1 a.m., a few days after Thanksgiving last year.
He had come to spray paint their houses. Earlier in the week, he had shattered their car windows. Later, he was prepared to take more drastic measures – whatever it took to send a message.
He was convinced that the residents of Loveland Lane were working for terrorists, and he wanted to punish them.
It pained him to go this route.
This same street is where the former Navy Seabee discovered his passion for cycling after being medically discharged from the military. It’s where he battled post-traumatic stress disorder, kicked his addiction to pain meds and overcame depression. It’s where he met his best friends and fell in love.
Ted Olsen had planned to spend the rest of his life in this neighborhood.
Now the voices were telling him to burn it to the ground.
From the curb, Loveland Lane is a typical suburban street: modest homes built on one-fifth-acre lots. Small front yards. Two cars in each driveway. Garbage cans left out after trash day.
Knock on a few doors, though – ask about what happened here a year ago – and it becomes clear that there’s something different about this place. Residents learned the hard way that no privacy fence could fully isolate them from one another.
Here, families wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.
What do you do when your neighbor loses his mind?
Does a community’s desire for peace and security trump a collective responsibility to those who’ve been damaged defending those rights?
Can a broken man be restored and come home again?
Even Ted isn’t sure he knows the answer to that last one anymore.
Location is what drew him here 15 years ago. Loveland Lane is just minutes from the Navy’s Dam Neck Annex, home to the stealthy special warfare command where he served most of a decade.
His mother, a real estate agent, helped him find the three-bedroom home. It’s where he rested when he wasn’t on secret training missions or deployed as a small-boat operator and mechanic supporting Naval Special Warfare Development Group – a unit his family knew as SEAL Team 6.
The house became his refuge after combat deployments. It’s where he recovered after a massive garage door jumped track on base and crashed down on his head, knocking him unconscious. He retreated here after countless surgeries to correct chronic problems in his legs and back from countless hours speeding through choppy waters at the helm of a rigid-hull inflatable boat.
After the injuries forced him to leave the Navy in 2006, he used his new abundance of free time to make the house his own. He painted walls, installed a hot tub, remodeled the kitchen, decorated a bedroom with a relaxing beach theme.
Soon, though, he was drawing the blinds and refusing to go outside. He was in his mid-30s, medically retired and relying on a cocktail of painkillers and anti-depressants.
Some days were better than others. The one when he forced himself outside for fresh air and ended up meeting A.J. Sanders and his wife, Genie, stood out.
Ted had often noticed the retired Navy vet riding a bicycle through the cul-de-sac on his way to the cycling shop where he worked. A.J. invited Ted down to the shop and helped him pick out a road bike. The neighbors became riding buddies, then friends.
They threw joint birthday parties, adopted similar dachshund puppies and exchanged spare house keys. When Genie went into labor, Ted rushed to the hospital to bring them the camera they had forgotten at home. Later, they asked him to baby-sit.
Cycling became Ted’s emotional and physical release. A few months after picking up the sport, he decided to flush his stash of VA-prescribed opiates, relying instead on exercise and endorphins to beat the pain.
In early 2012, Ted and his girlfriend were focused on starting a nonprofit with the goal of organizing triathlons for wounded veterans like him. Even after the couple broke up, getting “United We Tri” off the ground was Ted’s obsession.
And then, it wasn’t.
The change was subtle at first. He backed off his daily training regimen. He seemed distracted during conversations with friends. He often spaced out and stared into the distance. When he did speak, he didn’t always make sense.
He became convinced that a terrorist group had hacked the nonprofit’s website. He shared the theory with skeptical friends and family before reporting his suspicion to the FBI.
Later, he removed the GPS from his car, fearing someone was tracking his movements.
He dismantled the fan above his stove, searching for hidden recording devices.
That June, Ted’s mother, Mary, called A.J. at the bike shop and asked him go to check on her son.
“It’s Teddy,” she said, sounding frantic. “Somebody’s tampered with his air conditioner. He says he’s been poisoned.”
A.J. found his friend in tears on his front stoop. He was unshaven and drenched in sweat.
“They’ve been in my house,” Ted said as A.J. approached. “It’s not safe to talk.”
Someone had released poison gas through his air conditioning system. He felt nauseated and lightheaded. His dog, Daisy, had been having seizures.
The dog appeared fine to A.J., but he agreed to call a friend who owns a heating and cooling repair business. “I know this sounds crazy, but could you come check this out?”
Soon Ted’s mother and his stepfather, Ward Phelps, arrived from Newport News. They convinced Ted it was safe to go back inside.
A large painting had been removed from a wall in the living room and was lying on the floor next to a pile of batteries, stripped from every device in the house. Light bulbs had been pulled from their sockets and tossed into a trash bag. Papers were strewn about.
Ted’s friends and parents persuaded him to go to a hospital. They told him he should have his blood tested in case he had been poisoned.
When Ted realized they had taken him to the psychiatric ward of Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, he panicked.
“I’m not staying here,” he said, raising his voice.
He was clearly not well, but his family didn’t believe they could prove that he was a threat to himself or others – the state’s requirement for having someone involuntarily committed.
They left the hospital around 4 a.m. and dropped Ted off at his house.
The voices were waiting.
The whispers would begin the moment he opened his eyes each morning.
“Why are you still alive?”
“Why don’t you kill yourself, you loser?”
It started as a single voice that summer, and then there were three, and then dozens. The deafening chorus filled his head, obscuring the line between imagination and reality.
“They’re watching you, Ted.”
“They’ve got cameras in the light bulbs.”
“They’re coming for you.”
They were the voices of sailors from his old command, friends from years back, and strangers.
“Why don’t you just die already?”
“They’re all in on it.”
“You can’t trust anybody.”
Ted had begun to believe them.
The grass grew long outside Ted’s house that summer. He rarely left the home, and when he did, his behavior was alarming.
He came to A.J. in tears one August afternoon, claiming someone had broken in and trashed his house.
“They were looking for this,” Ted said, holding up a padlocked backpack and refusing to say what was inside. “They came looking for it, but they didn’t get it.”
Days later, when Ted told him he feared the culprits might be coming back, A.J. let him borrow a shotgun overnight – a questionable decision, he realized in hindsight.
The bizarre moments were punctuated by flashes of clarity, making it difficult for A.J. and others to know what was real and what wasn’t.
In September, Ted returned from a trip to visit his brother in Maryland with somber news. His mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A.J. embraced him.
Two days later, Ted was threatening to kick down his door.
The pounding startled the baby awake. Genie shrieked. A.J. rubbed his eyes and checked the time on his phone: 7 a.m.
Ted was out front, shouting.
“Get down here!”
A.J. stepped outside and sat down on the steps, hoping his posture would calm the situation.
Ted jumped back.
“What did you do? I’ll give you one chance to admit what you did!”
Ted’s eyes had the distant, confused look that A.J. had grown accustomed to. He suggested Ted get some sleep.
Ted lowered his voice: “How did you do it? Now my mom doesn’t have cancer.”
A.J. stood up. “What are you talking about?”
Ted charged at him with clenched fists. Watching from inside, Genie grabbed a phone and prepared to dial 911.
“Just go home, Ted,” A.J. said, resolving that he wouldn’t be the first to throw a punch.
“As long as you live in this cul-de-sac,” he said, backing into the street, “I’m going to make your life a living hell.”
The neighbors haven’t spoken to each other since.
A.J. was pulling out of the driveway the Saturday before Thanksgiving last year when he noticed his car’s rear window had been shattered. Someone had thrown a ratchet through the glass.
A.J.’s first thought: Ted. But he wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
That night, just before midnight, Ted came pounding again.
“A.J., get out here! I’m going to kick your ass!”
A.J. glanced at the gun he keeps by his bed, and then at his cellphone. He picked up the phone and called the police. The next day, he filed a disturbing-the-peace complaint and secured a temporary restraining order.
It didn’t keep Ted away.
Five days later, A.J. and his neighbors awoke to find their houses and cars marked with white spray paint. No words, just random, incoherent markings on vinyl siding, windshields and fenders.
The residents believed they knew who was responsible, but they needed proof. That afternoon, a few of them installed home security cameras, hiding them behind Christmas decorations.
Genie sat awake for hours that night watching the live surveillance feed on her laptop. Just after 1 a.m., a man appeared in the frame, marching toward her house carrying something in his right hand.
Was it a gun? No, it was spray paint – black this time. She watched Ted cover his beloved cul-de-sac in dark swirls.
The next day, after police arrested him at home, they searched for evidence linking him to the earlier vandalism.
Investigators found a note scribbled on a piece of paper hanging on the refrigerator.
It was a list of names, and next to them, sinister plans. Among those named were neighbors, an ex-girlfriend and an eye doctor. Ted, it seemed, had been planning to vandalize their houses nightly. Beside some of the names, he had noted his intention to burn cars and homes.
The harshest threat, though, was reserved for the person he loved the most.
Next to Mom, he had scribbled, “Death.”
Ted appeared dejected as a bailiff led him into a Virginia Beach courtroom in April, some five months after his arrest. He wore an orange jumpsuit and shackles around his ankles and wrists.
As he entered, a class of high school students filed into the gallery to get a look at their justice system in action. A.J. walked in behind them and sat near the back.
Ted’s lawyer, Arthur Ermlich, rose and told the judge that his client had suffered a psychotic break the previous fall and was not in control of his actions.
“When I met Mr. Olsen at the jail, I knew something very serious was going on inside his head.”
Ted had spent the first three months after his arrest confined to a section of the jail reserved for inmates suffering from mental illnesses. There, his condition went untreated.
In other parts of the country, Ted might have been brought before a veterans court, a program designed to steer troubled vets toward treatment before proceeding with prosecution – an acknowledgement that their military service may have cost them their sanity.
But there are no veterans courts in Virginia, home to one of the nation’s largest military populations.
In jail, the voices that had driven Ted to lash out at his neighbors had grown louder and meaner. They told him to kill himself. He wanted to.
Finally, a bed opened at a state psychiatric hospital in Williamsburg. Doctors there confirmed that Ted had suffered a mental break stemming from PTSD and depression. Weeks of therapy and medication helped clear the noise in his head and set him on a path toward recovery.
They referred him to Poplar Springs Hospital, a private facility in Petersburg with specialized treatments for service members with mental disorders. Ted was three weeks into the hospital’s monthlong program when he was notified that Tricare had pulled financial support for the treatment.
He paid several thousand dollars out of pocket to continue the program a few more days before Virginia Beach deputies arrived with handcuffs and returned him to jail.
That day in court, Ted looked to see whether his mother was seated among the high school students, but he knew she wouldn’t be there. By then, the cancer had spread, and she was too weak to leave the house.
The judge spent a few minutes reading the state’s mental evaluation before accepting Ted’s plea – not guilty by reason of insanity.
His lawyer explained that he would need to return to a state hospital for another round of evaluations and likely would be released soon thereafter.
Two weeks later, with Ted still in jail awaiting transfer, his lawyer came for an unexpected weekend visit.
He told his client he had some bad news.
It was about his mother.
Days later, friends, neighbors and family members from out of state filled the pews of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Yorktown.
Their voices echoed through the sanctuary as they sang.
“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
Before preaching a homily about spiritual restoration, the priest called out the names of Mary Olsen’s dearest family members, gathered in the front row. Then he named one who wasn’t there.
A judge had denied a request for temporary release; the sheriff had refused to provide an escort.
Ted lay in his cell that day with tears in his eyes, staring at white cinder block walls, wishing he could fall asleep.
He didn’t get many visitors in jail, but when he did, Ted liked to talk about his house and plans for when he returned. When this was all over, he’d say, he was going to have a cookout and invite everyone – A.J. and all the other neighbors.
Things would go back to the way they were before he snapped. They’d all be relaxing in his hot tub, drinks in hand, looking back on everything and laughing.
The daydream helped distract him from reality.
It helped him cope in the wake of his mother’s death, and again when he learned that his lawyer had been forced to drop the case because he’d had his law license suspended for misleading another client.
Ted clung to the fantasy for weeks, even as he remained locked up some three months after being found not guilty.
In July, he was back in court with a new lawyer. The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services had endorsed a conditional release plan that required him to live with his stepfather, Ward, in Newport News and receive daily psychiatric treatment at the Hampton VA Medical Center.
For the time being, he would be allowed to visit his home on Loveland Lane only if Ward accompanied him.
On his first night out – more than nine months after his arrest – Ted sat awake at Ward’s house, down the hall from the room where his mother had died. He wished he was at his own place instead.
Across the street from Ted’s house in Virginia Beach, Genie Sanders sat up in bed. Something was beeping downstairs.
She knew Ted had been released that day. Had he come for them? Did he blame them for missing his mother’s funeral?
She shook her husband out of bed. A.J. grabbed a flashlight and headed downstairs.
It was the smoke alarm, chirping because it needed new batteries.
A week later, while Ward sat inside reading magazines, Ted pushed a mower across his lawn for the first time in a year. This felt like freedom to him.
Next-door neighbor Cita Belasco waved and invited Ted to come inside.
“Get in here, jailbird,” she teased.
Ted had spray painted her car the previous November. After his arrest, he told investigators that she was an undercover Pakistani terrorist. Cita, who is Mexican, laughed when a prosecutor called to share that detail.
“Then you know he’s sick,” she had said. “Get him some help.”
Ted sat down beside his neighbor on her couch and apologized for the trouble he caused her.
“I was never mad at you, Ted,” Cita said. “Not for one minute of this whole thing. You weren’t well.”
Ted wishes others on Loveland Lane shared her perspective.
He wasn’t there when some of them discussed selling their houses and moving after the nice guy from across the street started throwing tools through car windows.
He doesn’t realize that when he finally petitions the court for permission to return home for good sometime next year, some of his neighbors plan to argue that he should never be allowed back.
He doesn’t know that Genie no longer feels safe when she’s home alone, or that she sometimes reaches for a handgun when she hears a strange sound.
A.J. thinks his wife might be overreacting, but he doesn’t blame her. If it were just him, he says, he’d give Ted another shot, maybe even bury the hatchet over a beer. But he has a wife and a child to consider.
“My responsibility is to them. If they can’t live in peace with Ted across the street, then neither can I.”
After Ted finished trimming the grass, he stored the mower in the garage, locked the front door and drove away with Ward following behind.
Across the street, one of his neighbors unlocked her door and breathed a sigh of relief.
This became routine.
Neighbors would watch through cracked blinds each time Ted returned with Ward, usually for a few hours at a time.
Then, one weekend in September, Ted came alone.
His truck was back in its old space. It was there again the next day, and the day after. Daisy, his dog, ran free, playing again in her old yard. Ted even posted a message online suggesting he might throw a party on the back patio.
It was almost like in the fantasy.
But this wasn’t the same place he had grown to love a decade ago – the one he thought about all those months in jail.
A police officer came on the third day. He knocked and waited. Ted didn’t answer.
Minutes after the officer left, the home security cameras on Loveland Lane captured Ted once again, this time fleeing his home.
He hadn’t bothered anyone, he thought later, after driving away. He would apologize for everything that happened last year if they would just give him the chance.
What kind of a person would treat a neighbor like this? He suspects one of them poured sugar into his truck’s gas tank while he was locked up. It’s as if they have it in for him.
Thinking about it makes him angry.
Why can’t they understand?
They’ve got nothing to fear.
He’s better now.
Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, email@example.com
About the reporting
The writer was present for several of the scenes described in this story. Other scenes were reconstructed based on home security footage, court records and a series of interviews with Ted Olsen, residents of Loveland Lane, Ward Phelps, former service members and lawyers.
©2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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