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FRONTLINE
A CASE OF INSANITY

 a son and a brother
Ralph's Tortortici's father and younger brother talk about what Ralph was like before the onset of schizophrenia and about the pain of witnessing the trajectory of his mental illness. What started out as seemingly normal adolescent rebellion and aggression progressed into something much worse: truly paranoid and deeply troubled behavior that culminated in the hostage-taking attempt. Both Robert, Ralph's father, and Matthew, his brother, believe that Ralph was a sick person who deserved psychiatric treatment, not a prison sentence. The Tortoricis were interviewed in September 2001.


I. Ralph as a son and brother

II. Ralph's illness

III. Losing Ralph



I. ON RALPH AS A SON AND A BROTHER

ROBERT TORTORICI

Give me a sense of who Ralph was as a boy, his early years?

Very vibrant, intelligent young boy. Lively would not really describe him. He was super lively. Not hyperactive, but [he] had a lot of energy and he was always involved in something, either physically or competitively as a young boy.

Lady Justice is not only blind. She has an agenda. - Robert Tortorici

He used to play chess. He intensely liked chess. With athletics and whatever was interested in, which was a multitude of things, both on an intellectual level or on a physical level, ... he was most intense.

Was he a good athlete?

Absolutely, he was good at everything. ... Seventh grade, he went out for wrestling. ... Immediately the coach put him on the varsity team ... and they put him on varsity and he was just in 7th grade. ... He's a star wrestler. He won all kinds of awards. ...

Was he smart? Was he bright?

Very intelligent, yes.

So he's a good student; he's a good athlete. Is he popular with other kids?

Yes. ... Ralph was the kingpin of the school. We had kids from all over coming and playing in our yard to be with Ralph. ... Everybody loved him. ... I can probably say without exception he was the most popular kid in school. ...

MATTHEW TORTORICI

Can you describe to me [your] early life [with your] brother?

First, I'll say that that's the person that I remember. When I dream about my brother, when I think about him and stuff, it's that person: super brave, super intelligent, super enthusiastic. Just an all-around picture of a future success. Just everything he did, he excelled at -- baseball all stars, Golden Gloves knowledge champ, boxing. Everything he ever did, ... [he] did it well and wouldn't rest; it was never good enough. ...

Were you close as young kids? How much older was he?

He was like four years older, and we were close. He made it a point I'd say to make himself my mentor. ...

He's not the SUNY-Albany gunman. He's the terrified man reaching out to try to just get his life back.

Ralph always had to live up to a high standard. He felt like if he was not [in] the mentor position, then he was less. ... His position in life was to be the leader. This was before [the] ... mental illness. ... That's just how he was. He wasn't a bad guy. He wanted to help everybody. But he was the leader; he was the man. ...


II. AS RALPH'S ILLNESS INTENSIFIES

ROBERT TORTORICI

When does he first start to have a problem?

When he was about 16; when he got his first car. He had been involved with marijuana and I knew it and we would have some pretty intense moments over him smoking marijuana. ... He became very antagonistic to me, very belligerent. And just normal types of things -- do's and don'ts in the household -- he resisted. ...

Was he being a normal adolescent? ...

It went even beyond normal, because he was confrontational to the point where he would be so aggressive that [there] was just a thread between coming to blows with him. ... In his mind, now nobody can tell him what to do; he's master of his own universe. ...

As you look back at it now, was [his mental illness] actually starting then but masking itself as adolescent behavior? ...

I just thought it was just rebelliousness. That's how I identified it. It wasn't 'til in his early 20s when I started thinking something's wrong with his thinking. ... Even at that point, I just thought his thinking was weird. He'd be thinking that the police were out to get him and people were just trying to give him a hard time. ... I just thought that he was what I would call today paranoid. ...

He thought that they [the police] were going to his employer, whoever they were at the time. He had many different jobs. He had no trouble getting a job, [but] ... he didn't last on jobs too long. And one of the things he would say would be that the police got to his bosses and they started giving him a hard time and then he quit. ...

Then I would say, "I don't see what you're seeing. Nobody's interested in spending time just trying to get you, especially the police. They have better things to do." He would think that the police were following him around. Things like that. ...

MATTHEW TORTORICI

What is he doing that you know problems are starting?

I think it was mostly manifested in paranoia. ... He thought he was being followed. His first way of explaining it to me, [which] changed throughout time, was [that] he was a study of the Schenectady police department to see how the criminal mind worked. That was his rationalization: He was a police department study. ...

At first, he would outright tell you that you knew he was being followed. ... He thought my aunt ... was in on this scheme against him. Every place he tried to get a job, he would end up quitting the job because there was people there watching him or trying to screw him up. ... The house, all the rooms, [there were] bugs in the lamps. ...

At one point I remember being down in the basement lifting weights with him and he was suspecting that my parents and I were also in on this conspiracy against him. He didn't really view it as a conspiracy at that time; he viewed it as we were looking out for his best interests. And he asked me if I was in on it and all. At this point we had already established a relationship where he thought I believed that he was being followed in this experiment. He was so down about it, I didn't want to confront that. So I just kind of went along with it, knowing fully that this isn't happening. ...

There are so many people ... that [he thought] were in on it. ... I'm sure at some point he had a list. And I've seen the list; all kinds of things on that list. But one of the things on that list was people ... he suspected ... and [the degree of] their involvement. ... He would remember everything. ... His brain could just hold on to so much information. ...

Then he started going to college and he started learning about world religions and government and psychology. All these things. And the more knowledge he acquired, the more ammunition he had to develop this humongous picture [of a conspiracy] that involved the Bible and just everything. ...

Did he confide in you about his paranoia more than others?

Yes, because to him I believed it. ... He definitely told me more than he told my parents. ... If he came out with something that was kind of crazy or off the wall, [my father would] keep telling him, "Ralph, ... you're nuts." ...

As a younger brother, what are you thinking? Are you worried for him or scared of him?

Definitely scared and intimidated, worried about him, not knowing what to do for him. ...

ROBERT TORTORICI

Did he ever tell you about a microchip in his head?

Oh, yes. Well, at first it was in his penis. Yes, we had numerous discussions about that and again this is prior to this hostage-taking. He believed he had a microchip in his penis and this is how the cops were following him around. And, of course, I said, "I don't believe that's the case, Ralph. And I'd be glad to take you to a doctor and we'll have an X-ray. We'll find out."

What does he look like when he was [telling you] these things?

He's calm, talking matter-of-factly. ... [He'd say], "Dad, they planted a chip in me." [I'd ask], "Well, when did they do it?" "During one of my operations."

There [were] three operations on his penis. He was born deformed. And [he would say that] the doctors implanted a chip in his penis during one of those operations. ...

[Ralph went to the health center at SUNY and asked to be X-rayed.] Is that typical of Ralph or would it have been a sign of something pretty desperate?

Ralph asking for help would be pretty desperate because Ralph didn't need anybody. He was strong and it would be tantamount to admitting a weakness. OK? And that would be very unlike Ralph. It would be more [an act of] desperation ... on one hand.

On the other hand, contradictory as it is to Ralph's basic nature, he might have been trying to say, "See, Dad? ... I told you so. There is a chip." It could be him going to those extents to prove that he was right. Complicated young man. ...

[The operations he talked about. He has a deformed urethra that required three surgeries, correct?]

The urethra ... only came to the absolute base of his penis. So [during] the first operation, the doctor brought it up part of the way, in anticipation of further operations. ... And then when he hit his teen years, [he had another operation] ... but the doctor didn't do a very good job. He ended up urinating out of three different holes. ... It was a mess.

The third operation we took him to Norfolk, Va., [to] a doctor there who was the renowned expert in this particular procedure. [He] performed the operation and it was successful and Ralph ended up with a penis that pretty much looked normal.

What role did the surgery play or add to his psychological change?


... Naturally, with the operations [when] he was a teenager, he had great hope because it was just a tremendous embarrassment to him. He'd shower alone. ... With all the sports that he participated in, he wouldn't shower with anybody else. It was quite a source of embarrassment to him. ...

MATTHEW TORTORICI

[Talk about the botched surgery on Ralph's penis.]

... [That's] what really screwed him up because it was a surgery that made his deformity three times as bad.

And you saw a change in his behavior after that?

I don't think that was the cause of it but definitely probably the stress factor.

What was the change you saw? ...

From a happy, successful kid, a light heart, to a kid who [was] ... just miserable and fearful and anxious and tormented. ... Extremely tormented about everything and everyone. ...

ROBERT TORTORICI

You had to ask him to leave your house at one point? ...

Yes. Well, it was about his getting very aggressive. He knew I wanted him to stay, but [I told him], "If you're going to stay here, it's your choice. You're going to have to behave yourself. ... You just can't be a wild man here. I love you and I want you to stay, but if you're such a man that you don't have to listen to anybody, ... maybe you're man enough to have your own place."

Did you lose touch then for a while and not see him as much?

Yes. ... That's when he was in his late teenage years. ... He would be out with his friends for a month or so, but he'd come back home. ...

He goes off to the National Guard? ...

It was after his last operation. He was feeling pretty good about himself and he ... decided to go in the service. ... I don't think it was to get an education. I just thought [he] thought it was a challenging experience and something neat to do. ...

Shortly after, [Ralph's] commanding officer recommended him for Officer Candidate School and he was in that for about a year. During that time, Ralph and I were very close. He was calling me, talking to me for hours at a time every week, not about anything in particular. It was almost like he was homesick. ...

I let him know how proud I was of him and he was very proud of himself. Gradually, though, he started complaining about the razzing he was getting from his senior officers, officers above him. ... Somehow they found out about his operations from the medical records and they would tease him about his penis. And then he would just go on in general terms, telling me how he doesn't know if he's going to stick it out. ... And eventually he just asked to be excused from it and they let him out. ... He was discharged, honorably discharged.

Does he come back home?

Yes. ...

Has he changed when he comes home? What's he like?

My recollection is that he was very glad to be home. ... I was having a lot of difficulty with my spouse at the time. And the only thing that stands out in my mind is that he would get a job here and get a job there and he would never last too long at it because [he thought] the government was getting to his bosses. ... My thought was that Ralph was just not a person that did well with authoritative figures. ...

How was he able to function in the world at the same time this is happening?

I don't think he was functioning very well during the later years leading up to '94. ... That summer he spent a couple weeks with me. ... While he was staying with me, ... I found out that he was using crack. And I would tell him, "You can't do that here. I love you and I want you here, but you really got to get off of this stuff. I'll take you to counseling."

I bought him down to a friend of mine that worked ... with addicts. [It was] a facility, a rehab of sorts, for addicts. He talked with Ralph at length. But then Ralph refused to go in. Now, I was trying to guide Ralph. I wasn't giving Ralph ultimatums. ... Well, he decided to move in with [his] mom instead. ... [It] was a little bit of a shock to me because we were going to try to work together and work out his problems whatever they are.

Why do you think he left and went there?

I just think that he was not ready to give up to crack. ... He thought he would have less supervision with his mom; he could handle her. ...

How does [cocaine] affect his behavior generally? Do you think his paranoia is part of the cocaine now?

I don't think so. I think the cocaine just made him feel good. I don't think it added or subtracted from his paranoia. If anything, I think [when] he took the cocaine, he escaped his paranoia. [It] made him feel good.

You know, with his paranoia there was an extreme depression, plus that fearfulness and anxiety. And I think he escaped. He used the drug to escape all the ramifications of the paranoia, that's my opinion. ...

MATTHEW TORTORICI

He had a long period of his life without drugs?

Yes. He didn't do drugs for a long time, but I think that when he started doing the drugs again, it intensified it [his mental illness].

So the cocaine obviously didn't cause [his delusions] but definitely made them more dramatic?

... My belief is definitely [that] cocaine intensified his mental illness. Didn't cause it; intensified it -- pushed it way far ahead to the point where he was seeing things on the TV, hearing things in the razor.

You know, he would sit and watch TV. ... He'd say, "You don't see that on the TV? Look at the TV. You don't see that?" And then [I'd say], "No, Ralph. I don't see a thing," trying at this point in time to convince him that he's crazy. ...

Your mom and sister get scared at one point because he's locking himself in his room and he's having a bad time. When was that?

That would be '94. ... Ralph was in the bathroom. He started doing drugs again at that point and he locked himself in the bathroom and was smoking crack. And they were trying to get him to come out of the bathroom.

This was one of probably a few instances of this type of thing [where he] locked himself in the bathroom, smoking crack. ... Eventually [he] comes out and it's just crazy. Crazy. ... At one point, [he] goes to me, "Look at my eyes. Have I ... ever been able to look at you in the eyes like this with such confidence?" And Ralph was always confident, at least that's the way it seemed. [He asks], "Have I ever been able to just look in your eyes? I can never look at people in the eyes. Have I been able to look at you in the eyes like this? This is what crack does for me. This is what it can do to people."

Bull crap. He's delusional, you know. I think I said to him something along the lines of, "Yeah, Ralph. You've always been able to look at me in the eyes." So at that point in time, he must have definitely been more in touch with his insecurities than his strength. ...

So he can't be around people? He's withdrawn?

Definitely, definitely withdraws himself. ... Nobody could get too close because if they got too close, he either assumed they were in on it [the conspiracy] or he would let them know what was going on and scare them off. ...

As far as I know, the biggest [the conspiracy] became was the government wanted him to be the Anti-Christ and to rule the world. ... And he didn't want that and he was rejecting that. So they caused him ... excruciating headaches. They made noises in his head and ringing bells that caused the headaches. Just tortured him. ...

And that was pretty much in his head when he goes to SUNY?

... His whole reason for taking hostages at SUNY was to speak to the president. Nothing more. He wanted to get some attention. He wanted this government experimentation or whatever it was to stop and he merely thought that this was going to get him the attention that he needed. ... He tried contacting the governor. ... I don't know who he contacted but he contacted everybody, [including] the state police, ... the authorities at the college. ... You know, he tried everybody. ...

He told me ... he was instructed to do that, [that] this was what he had to do. I remember him saying that this is what he had to do. ... I don't see where it all correlates but I remember him saying also we're going to get millions. They're going to give us millions for all the pain and the suffering they caused him and the family. ... A lot of the stuff he was doing, he was being told to do by the government. ...

So he was on a much higher mission?

Right. ...

III. ON LOSING RALPH

ROBERT TORTORICI

When and how did you hear about Ralph's suicide attempt?

I was called, I believe, fairly early in the morning by the pastor or the reverend, ... [who was] telling me Ralph had committed suicide and he believed he was dead. Well, it turned out that a [corrections officer] there shoved a tube down his throat and got him breathing again. ...

[How did he attempt to commit suicide?]

... Ralph didn't remember it. ... I never did ask him how he did it. I just never went into that. ... I can recall him saying to me during one of our conversations [that] he couldn't take it any more. ... I think it was something in the newspaper [or] maybe somebody else told me that he had tied a sheet around a shelf ... in his own cell at Sullivan Correctional Facility.

MATTHEW TORTORICI

[What happens after you find out that Ralph attempted to commit suicide?]

... At some point we find out they're flying him up to Albany Medical Center. ... We were all there, the whole family. ... He's unconscious and we're standing around. They don't know if he's going to wake up retarded with brain damage or what.

And I remember ... we're all standing around him and I just pray for him. I put my hands right on him to pray for him. And I distinctly remember -- and I don't know what this means, but, you know, whatever -- I remember a tear coming out of his eye. I'll never forget it. That's the only reason I'm saying it. A tear comes out of his eye but he's still unconscious. And I'm not sure if his eyes are watering or whatever, but a tear came out of his eye. I'll just never forget it. ...

ROBERT TORTORICI

So for the next few years Ralph is basically going back and forth between [Sullivan Correction Facility] and [Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy]?

Yes. It seems like about every six, seven months or eight months, they seemed to be shifting him back and forth. ... I would get letters telling me of the shift and [that] for his mental well-being, deterioration of his mental health, they were sending him to Central New York Psychiatric Center. ...

He spends almost a year at Marcy. He seems to be doing OK. ... Did you go see him?

Yes, about every two weeks I went there to see him, give or take. ...

How were things going?

Most of the time very well. There were a few times when he was so medicated that ... I only can describe him as if [he was] a zombie, somebody who is just there but not there. Not able to speak. Staring off. And his movements, when he would get up, you think that he was drunk or stoned or whatever. And he did complain to me that the medication, he thought it was killing him. He thought he was going to die from it and so at one point he just refused to take it at which [point] the authorities took him to court and mandated that he take it. ...

Was there ever a suicide attempt at Marcy?

No, there was never a suicide attempt at Marcy. He seemed to be fairly content there. They had a visiting area where I could bring in food. We'd sit and watch TV, play cards. There were other inmates there. He told me that of course he wanted to get out of there. And I was hoping that [his case would be] presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. It's going to overturn the verdict and he was looking forward to getting out of there. ...

Probably the mid-point of the stay [or] towards the end, there was no more delusions and no more speaking to people that weren't there. The visits were really upbeat and talking about positive things. ... He seemed to be as normal as I've ever seen him in years.

And then he goes where?

And then they sent him back to the Sullivan Correctional Facility. He's there about a day or two ... and I get a call from a doctor ... who is a psychiatrist there, an unsolicited call just to inform me that Ralph was doing great there and he's taking his medication and he's really doing well. ...

Around 14, 15, 16 days later, Ralph was dead. He committed suicide. I, of course, found it totally unbelievable. It was shocking because his mental state was so good prior to going back to Sullivan, coupled with the fact the doctor had called me on his own to tell me how great Ralph was doing. And that weekend I was going to go down to see him.

To have him commit suicide during that period of time seemed to be totally incongruent with what was going on prior.

Did he do it in a different place in a different way this time?

As far as I know he did exactly the same thing. That's the information I had. Tied his sheet to a shelf. ...

MATTHEW TORTORICI

Three weeks after [Ralph returns to Sullivan] your family gets another call.

... I answered that call. ... The call [came] from, I think, one of the administrators at Sullivan County, [who] asked to speak to either my mother or my father. I said ... [that] they weren't there to answer the phone. ... The first question I asked him was, "Is Ralph dead?" And he says, "I can't divulge that information. Is your mother or your father available?" And I think I might have repeated myself: "Is he dead?" ... I knew right then and there. ...

Were you surprised this time? ...

No, I wasn't surprised. ... I was always waiting for the tragedy, you know. I prepared for it. And I knew. I hadn't seen him in probably, I think, three weeks or maybe more than that, maybe even a month or two months. There was a period of time where we were trying to see him every other week but it's a long drive. And I knew in my heart that that was putting him at greater risk by not seeing him. So I wasn't that surprised; upset, but not surprised. ...

What do you think people most misunderstand about Ralph?

They don't get him; they don't know who he really was. I mean, Ralph was great. If there was a person that I was going to say was going to be successful in the future, it was him. ... He's not the SUNY-Albany gunman. He's the terrified man reaching out to try to just get his life back. ...

See, I remember Ralph how I remember him. I don't look at those years. And it's not by choice [that] I don't look at those years. I just don't see those years . ... When I think of my brother, I see this cheerful [person] -- he's happy, he wants to hang out. He's still strong. Just he's an exemplary person. Everybody looked up to him. [There were] many things about him that were just were awesome.

Do you feel guilt, regrets? Do you blame yourself?

I don't blame myself but I definitely say that I could have done more. If I chose to, I could have done more to try to prevent this. Could I have been able to prevent it? Not solely. ... Let me put it this way. If Ralph was going to hang himself on Thursday and I was there on Wednesday, I think he would have held off hanging himself on Thursday because he's got to hold together for this person. This person that he means something to, he's got to hold together for. This is how I think he would think.

But if someone doesn't come for three weeks, four weeks, a month, two months, he's not holding together for nobody but himself. And he don't want to hold together for himself no more. So I think it would have been a reminder if I was there, if we made it a point to go.

Would he have killed himself three years later? Maybe. ... I definitely could have helped, but I don't go to bed at night feeling like I killed my brother. He was sick. It's a tragedy, and I almost did the best I could. ...

ROBERT TORTORICI

Basically you lost your son twice -- first, the mental illness and then the suicide. ...

To have lost a child is a tremendous tragedy, OK? No matter how you lose them. I lost Ralph under what I deemed to be suspicious circumstances. I don't feel that he belonged in the facility they had him, under the conditions that they had him. I believe he was a mentally ill person that needed to be taken out of society, that needed to be treated, that his crime had to be put in perspective of somebody that was ill.

I think our judicial system, our corrections system, took someone who victimized others and had to be taken out of society and they actually went too far and they made him a victim of their own system. Justice was not served in this case. ... There is something wrong with our system that victimizes people who are mentally ill. ...

Do you think there are other inmates such as Ralph? ...

Hundreds. Hundreds of inmates that are Ralph with another name; that are being incarcerated who ... are guilty of what they've done but don't belong in jail. Maybe they belong in a secure facility but they don't belong in jail. ...

Did both systems -- criminal justice and corrections -- work as they should have?

... I don't think our judicial system seeks justice. The individuals that are in it do not seek justice. ... My own experience was that the prosecution did not seek justice. They sought a conviction. Why? That conviction somehow, ... in their mind, play[ed] a role in advancing the career. It was not about justice. And I was disheartened with what I've seen. Lady Justice is not only blind. She has an agenda. ...

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