Defense presents shy, scared man transformed by 2006 events.
Alvaro Castillo, as family and teachers recalled him, was far removed from the man who killed his father and attempted to “sacrifice” students at Orange High School three years ago.
Through testimony from Castillo’s family, jurors in his murder trial learned of a student who excelled in school and was considered polite, if withdrawn, by his peers.
Through the testimony of a clinical psychologist hired by the defense after the shooting to study Castillo’s thoughts and environment, he was portrayed as a young man whose experience can be broken into two phases — before and after his failed suicide attempt.
Castillo faces first-degree murder charges in the shooting death of his father, Rafael Castillo, 65, on Aug. 30, 2006. He also faces several other charges related to a shooting at Orange the same day.
Last week, a clinical social worker testified about the link between Castillo’s background and pressures he faced prior to the shooting, while a clinical psychologist testified he showed obvious signs of two separate psychotic disorders in the months following his arrest.
Sometime after he attempted suicide on April 20, 2006, the defense’s experts contended, Castillo had a “psychotic break” and was found to exhibit signs of schizo-affective and schizotypal personality disorders after his arrest. The former disorder is characterized by delusions and mood changes and the latter by abnormal behaviors and beliefs and a lack of intimate relationships.
As of press time, the medical experts for the prosecution were on the stand. Closing argument s are expected this week.
While the prosecution earlier in the trial focused almost exclusively on 2006 — the period in which Castillo began keeping a journal and making videos up to the point of the shooting at Orange — the defense’s witnesses told of contributing factors dating to before Alvaro Castillo’s birth and as recently as within the last few weeks before his trial began.
After his attempted suicide, when he was committed to UNC Hospitals, psychologists and social workers who studied Castillo’s journals and videos last week described a sudden shift in Castillo’s mission, from ritualistic suicide to an ornately detailed attack on Orange, called “Operation Columbine.”
Jill Dunn, a clinical social worker at Caring Family Network (CFN) who initially received Castillo after his release from UNC Hospitals, described a “significant complexity” in Castillo’s mental state. He openly discussed what Dunn called delusions and his obsessions with school shootings, as well as his family’s history of abuse. Among Castillo’s delusions, she said, were the belief microphones were hidden in his house and pictures in the house were watching him.
“We believed he was in the first break of a psychotic disorder,” Dunn said of a meeting with other clinicians on Castillo’s diagnosis.
After being prescribed Celexa, an antidepressant, Castillo was referred to Oasis, a treatment center for teenagers exhibiting signs of mental illness, because of a backlog of new patients at CFN. Castillo received some treatment at both facilities over the next four months, but members at both facilities were debating where he could best be treated by the end of August 2006, she said. Oasis staff, she said, were not convinced Castillo was suffering from a psychotic disorder as of August.
“He appeared depressed, anxious,” Dunn said of Castillo during his diagnosis. “At the same time, the way he was expressing himself seemed someone constrained; there was an oddness about the way he was expressing himself.”
Kyle Johnson, a UNC Hospitals resident who assessed Castillo shortly after the shootings, said Castillo was very open with him about the events of the shooting but seemed detached from the conversation. Castillo spoke openly of hallucinations, Johnson said, and seemed convinced he was right in killing his father.
“He said sacrifice was an act of love, while murder is an act of hate,” Johnson said. “… He seemed to think that he was helping someone.”
The family’s role
Last week, Castillo’s sister Victoria and mother Vicki described him as shy and reluctant to become involved in the family’s struggle with the father’s abusive tendencies. His father, often referred to as “Lito” by members of the family, dictated a very strict way of life for his children once they were about 5 years old, Victoria Castillo said. They were told not to have friends and were made to read books she said were beyond their comprehension. He wanted the children to have a vegetarian diet and would blame them when they were injured, she said.
“It was like he feared we would fail,” she said.
If the children disobeyed, they would be lectured, Victoria Castillo said, and their mother would sometimes face physical abuse when Rafael Castillo became upset. The rest of the family, especially Alvaro, lived in fear of their father, she testified.
Over the years, Alvaro Castillo became submissive to his father and seemed afraid to confront him about the abuse, she said. Her brother at the same time had also become a deeply religious person.
A few years before the shooting, she said, Castillo began to develop compulsive behaviors and suffered from paranoia. He would try to discuss Columbine with his sister, and began spending more time isolated from the rest of the family.
“I felt [Columbine] was something that interested him very much, so he would get excited or animated when talking about it,” she said.
Both Victoria Castillo and her mother were largely unaware of the videos, the stockpiling of weapons or Castillo’s perceived mission of sacrifice in the months preceding the shooting, she said.
Deborah Grey, a clinical social worker for the defense, interviewed Castillo, his family and other related to the case and testified on her interpretations of the family dynamic last week.
In his late high school years, Castillo became obsessed with his diet and cleanliness, Grey said. He appeared kind and gentle, and his anger with his father was not expressed but was “walled away,” she said; he did not seem to express those feelings except in his writing. When confronted by his sister and mother about his father, he would not come to their aid, Grey said.
An apprehension about his death was apparent in Castillo’s journal in the first months of 2006, but after his suicide attempt he became much more focused on sacrificing his father and students.
“The side trying to talk himself out of it wasn’t there,” she said.
Stresses within his family life ultimately led to his psychotic break, Grey said.
“As his behavior became more bizarre, this is a family that seemed incapable of … reporting that,” she said. “There was no safety net, no reality check. He didn’t have the support he needed to get healthy.”
The question of right and wrong
Expert witnesses disagreed over whether Castillo’s supposed regrets over his actions constituted knowing the difference between right and wrong, the core issue surrounding the mental health defense.
James Hilkey, a psychologist who studied Castillo between his arrest and the trial, said he showed several signs of two mental disorders and was “fluidly psychotic” on the day of the shooting. Hilkey said he was certain Castillo’s delusions were real.
“Mr. Castillo was suffering from a very severe mental illness, and made his logic based on disorder; it emanated from God,” he said. “He knew it was against the law to kill, but because of his delusional belief, he was unable to distinguish between right and wrong.
“ … He understands his actions will cause harm and pain. That does not change what he thinks he must do.”
Medical experts for the prosecution disputed the assumption Castillo was not fully aware of his actions on the day of the shooting. Castillo suffered from anxiety and depressive disorders but was not psychotic, they contended.
Despite being on anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, which seemed to decrease many of his previously observed mental health issues, Castillo was intrigued by the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. He became so involved in the shootings staff at Central Prison took away his radio, his only source of reports about the incident.
Nicole Wolfe, a forensic psychiatrist, said Castillo’s obsession with the shootings was part of his personality because it remained after symptoms of his mental illness had been shown to subside.
“When you take away depression, this is still his interest,” she said.
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