When Charles Feezel lay down on a busy Berkeley street in June with the intent of ending his life, it wasn’t the first time he tried to die.
Feezel, who was known to friends and family as “Chuck,” had struggled since childhood with a constellation of physical and mental challenges that repeatedly required serious psychiatric treatment. He once doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze, sustaining second- and third-degree burns over 65% of his body. The injuries nearly killed him and put him in the Saint Francis burn unit for six months.
He would regularly cut himself or intentionally overdose on the medications that were supposed to help him. He was prone to verbal and physical outbursts that saw him kicked out of a series of group homes, and was well known to Oakland police and emergency medical workers because of his frequent contacts with them.
But Feezel was more than his mental illness, his brother and sister-in-law told Berkeleyside in the days after police announced the 50-year-old Oakland native’s death following the June 14 hit-and-run collision that sent him to Highland Hospital. Feezel loved fishing and telling dirty jokes. Throughout his life, he wrote poetry about his feelings as a way of expressing himself. He loved to play bingo. He was a notorious flirt.
“When he was on his best, he was extremely charismatic, kind of in a childlike way,” his older brother David Feezel said. “When he was on his best, he could kind of light up the place. It was just — his demons. He could never beat them.”
“He was misunderstood”
Chuck Feezel’s physical and emotional challenges manifested from a young age. David, older by two years, recalls his brother going to therapy even in elementary school. There was speech therapy and physical therapy, and there was also family counseling.
Chuck was born with a genetic condition called Klinefelter syndrome and was also diagnosed with hyperactivity. He later developed schizophrenia, and would hear voices, and was diagnosed with manic depression.
Throughout his years in Oakland public schools, Chuck was always in special education classes, David said. Other kids were cruel to him, calling him “retarded” and a freak.
“He was misunderstood by a lot of people. He didn’t deserve the treatment that he got,” David said. “I just felt, unfortunately, a lot of times they gave up on him.”
Once Chuck got to junior high, his behavioral issues got worse. His tantrums ostracized him from most of his peers. He bounced around from one campus to another.
“They weren’t equipped to handle his needs,” David said. “He had outbursts. And they couldn’t handle that.”
It was a theme that would persist throughout Chuck’s life.
To try to fit in, he would go along with kids intent on breaking windows or vandalizing cars. They wanted Chuck to join them, not so much as one of the guys, but so he would ultimately take the fall, David recalled. Chuck was eventually sent to juvenile hall and placed in a group home.
“We’d drive out to Pinole every weekend to visit him,” David said. “That went on for a number of years.”
“The support he should have gotten didn’t happen”
The Feezel boys grew up in Oakland. Their father, who died of cancer in 2003, worked for Bay Alarm for 38 years. Their mother stayed home to take care of the family. Road trips and camping were their main entertainments.
Their parents would often load the boys into the car to spend the day at Armstrong Redwoods or Samuel P. Taylor State Park. They would picnic and hang out. When it got dark, they would light a fire and roast marshmallows.
“My parents and brother, especially, they loved when the animals came out after everyone else left,” David recalled.
There was a lot of fishing in Lake Temescal, especially for trout and catfish, before the lake was drained to fight the 1991 Oakland firestorm and filled with sediment runoff. There was fishing in Castro Valley’s Cull Canyon and, later, at the Lafayette Reservoir.
Even when he couldn’t get out himself, because he was in the hospital or held in John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro, Chuck loved to read Fish Sniffer, “the magazine for West Coast sportsman,” scouring the fishing reports and seeing what other people were using for bait.
“Bringing him something like that was like a little kid on Christmas morning,” said Rachel, David’s wife.
Fishing calmed Chuck down. He would pay close attention, watching for the bite.
“He could sit there for hours,” David said. “He would check his bait more than you should, but he still caught plenty of fish. A day fishing was almost like going to heaven to him.”
In addition to fishing, Chuck also liked going to church. But then he’d have a bad day where he would do or say something that would cross the line, Rachel said, “and then he wasn’t allowed to go to church anymore.”
Chuck also loved his niece, David’s daughter, although they sometimes butted heads, Rachel said, and he absolutely loved pets. When David and Rachel got a Miniature Pinscher named Woodson, Chuck wanted to know all about him.
“He would always ask, ‘How’s the puppy?'” Rachel said. “‘What’s the puppy doing? Is he getting big now?'”
“He had his moments where he could be a sweetheart. But it’s just the mental illness, and the support he should have gotten didn’t happen,” Rachel continued. “Unfortunately, the level of care that he needed, we could not give him.”
A failed mental health system
Until 2008, Chuck had lived with his mother in the house, right by Highland Hospital, where he had grown up. But then she died following heart surgery, and the county became responsible for his living arrangements.
At the time of his death, Chuck was part of a program called STRIDES of Alameda County, which describes itself on its website as “an intensive community support service for individuals with severe mental illness.” The program is designed for people “who are considered to be at great risk for psychiatric hospitalization. All services are person-centered with the goal of enhancing an individual’s safety, health and quality of life.”
Those lofty goals weren’t how David experienced Chuck’s program. David repeatedly pleaded with STRIDES staff to alert him if Chuck went to the hospital, or if his status changed in any way, so he could track what his brother was going through. It rarely happened.
When Chuck was critically injured in the Berkeley collision, no one from STRIDES called to say he was in the hospital, David said. When Chuck died, there was no call either.
David contacted STRIDES himself to alert them to Chuck’s passing and also to try to get back any effects Chuck might have left with them. After several attempts, he managed to get the director on the phone, David said, but a promised follow-up call never came and there are still unanswered questions.
“I honestly think their license should be revoked and given to someone else,” David said.
Over the years, Chuck lived in one group home after another, getting kicked out and shuttled around for various behavioral issues. After running through the good places, his options became increasingly limited to places David described as flophouses. After Chuck died, David learned that his brother had been about to be ejected from STRIDES altogether because it was unable to handle his needs.
David said he had considered having Chuck transferred from Alameda County down to Santa Clara County — where David and Rachel live and work as transit drivers — but he could not risk a gap in Chuck’s medical coverage and also did not want to take his brother away from his remaining friends and the familiar community he’d grown up in.
Even from San Jose, however, David and Rachel have been a consistent presence in Chuck’s life, pleading for years with case managers and doctors to get him into a more structured environment with 24/7 support.
Despite the countless incidents of self-harm, Chuck would often “present” as stable enough to health workers that they would ultimately discharge him. Unfortunately, Chuck’s apparent stability would never last.
“He was still in crisis even when he was being let out,” David said. “They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just Chuck being Chuck, get him out of here, we need the resources for someone that needs it.’ That’s not fair to any person, I don’t care who you are.”
David said his brother always did better in structured programs, when he had someone with him constantly, activities that he was required to do and rules that he had to follow.
In Alameda County, those programs are in short supply — despite exceedingly high demand. An Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services analysis in 2019 found that Alameda County had the highest per capita involuntary psychiatric hold rate in California, with more than 20,000 each year.
More recently, in April, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that Alameda County had relied too heavily on John George, the psychiatric hospital, and failed to provide adequate mental health care services in the community itself.
“A strong crisis system, along with other comprehensive community-based services, can ensure that the majority of adults with mental health disabilities in Alameda County avoid psychiatric institutionalization,” the analysis found. “Alameda County fails to make these needed community-based services available in adequate capacity or intensity. Alameda County also fails to ensure that people who are in institutions receive professionally-adequate discharge planning and a connection upon discharge to needed services. Without connection to adequate community-based services, people return to John George in crisis again and again.”
Investigators made numerous recommendations and said, at the very least, among a raft of other measures, Alameda County should create a comprehensive crisis response system; provide “sufficiently intensive” community services to those who need them; add more “scattered-site, permanent supported housing slots” for people with mental health disabilities; and develop an array of services to help with employment, peer support and co-occurring diagnoses such as substance use and chronic illness.
“A frequent flier”
Chuck did not have access to that kind of support. As a result, he sought help and attention in the ways he could. His family said he would go to the emergency room several times a week, and be held at John George once or twice a month. Sometimes he would stay at John George for as long as six months, while other times they would release him the same day.
As soon as he got out, he would roam around again until he ended up in another hospital telling them about his latest ailment or that he had taken something he shouldn’t have.
It got to the point where David said he stopped answering phone calls with the 510 area code “because I didn’t want to get that phone call that something happened to him directly,” he said. “If something happened, I would get the message, and then I’ll call in. So at least I’m prepared for it.”
In February, as just one example of the revolving door that was Chuck’s life, Chuck spent about a week at Eden Medical Center at Castro Valley, after another overdose, to start the month. On Feb. 8, he was sent to John George, which released him the next day to his board-and-care program in Oakland. On Feb. 12, he was back at John George, but they released him the same day. From Feb. 14-19, he was back at Eden.
During that period, David got a call from a staffer at Eden who recognized Chuck from his multiple visits. She gave David a long list of agencies to call for more support.
“After speaking to every single one of them, none of them could help,” David said. “You run into blocks nonstop.”
“Chuck was what they called a frequent flier,” Rachel said. “The emergency departments knew him. The majority of Oakland PD knew him. We would say that was his saving grace.”
The officers in Oakland knew how to handle Chuck because he was familiar to them, Rachel said, and knew he was not a serious threat. That was fortunate — because his outbursts sometimes involved throwing things or spitting or calling people names.
“He would often say he wanted to do ‘suicide by cop,'” Rachel said.
After Chuck’s time in the burn unit at Saint Francis, seven years ago, a doctor did recommend for him to be placed in a locked facility. But then he was moved into another program, which ultimately discharged him back into the community.
“The frustration and the anger I feel right now is unbearable,” David said on Saturday. His brother needed 24-hour care, but there was nowhere for him to get it.
“He’s hurt himself multiple times, tried to commit suicide, burned himself, and they never considered him to be at the level to be conserved,” Rachel said. “We told them numerous times: He’s going to either hurt himself or hurt somebody. Unfortunately, that’s what happened.”
Carole Marasovic, a longtime Berkeley advocate for expanded mental health needs, brought up the collision involving Chuck to local officials at a council meeting in the days after the crash. Marasovic urged council members to put more resources in place for people in crisis on Berkeley streets.
On Saturday, Marasovic — who has lived in Berkeley for nearly two decades and has tracked these issues closely — told Berkeleyside that the difficulty Chuck and his family faced accessing focused, intensive treatment from a comprehensive team is all too common.
“There should have been a better way than the emergency department. That’s the only place he knew to get help, and that shouldn’t have been the case,” she said. “You have to have a 24/7 crisis system in place.”
Nowhere to turn for help
For years, David and Rachel looked into the possibility of conservatorship, so that they could make decisions on Chuck’s behalf, but were repeatedly advised it would take an “act of God” to accomplish it. As a result, all they could do was watch Chuck’s medical file get thicker and wait for the next phone call from the hospital as the inevitable outcome bore down on them.
David and Rachel said it was hard to see Chuck in the hospital so much but that, at least when he was there or in a locked facility, they knew he was safe, unlike when he was on the streets of Oakland with no structure to his days.
When Chuck called, Rachel said, “Seventy percent of the time, it would be, ‘I’m in the ER’ or ‘I got in trouble.’ And then COVID hit and nobody could visit, nobody could do anything.”
Still, they never stopped trying. In mid-November 2020, for Chuck’s birthday, David took the day off from work. He drove up from San Jose and wanted to bring pizzas to his brother and the other residents at the locked facility in East Oakland where Chuck was staying so he wouldn’t have to celebrate his birthday alone.
Chuck had a big heart and always wanted to share with those around him. When David visited, Chuck would often ask his brother to bring along items for his friends.
David knew he would not be allowed to join the birthday meal himself, because of COVID-19 restrictions, but he hoped he might at least be able to hand his brother pizzas over the counter so they could greet face to face. He also wanted to bring Chuck a small birthday cake.
But the facility said none of that was possible: Because of COVID-19 rules, no visitors were allowed and any food David dropped off had to be eaten in a single sitting. So David brought Chuck a bean-and-cheese burrito from Taqueria Sinaloa, their favorite Oakland taco truck.
David also brought his brother a new outfit. He often had to replace Chuck’s clothes, he said, because Chuck — always trying to make friends — would give them away to people in his group homes or sometimes trade them for cigarettes.
The Berkeley hit-and-run
The last time David had actually seen his brother was in February 2020, before the pandemic began.
“I know that made it harder on him. Obviously, it made it harder on me as well,” David said. “He would call all the time. He was always telling you what he ate. I feel bad now, for telling him, ‘I really don’t care what you ate, I’d rather talk to you.'”
Later in the year, Chuck was sent to John George again but, when the facility had an outbreak, staff moved Chuck to a motel room where he was isolated from everyone, with only a TV for company.
When Chuck had access to a phone, he would call David and Rachel incessantly, sometimes dozens of times a day, to tell them what he was eating, what he was doing, what he was watching on television.
“He was going to blow your phone up,” David said.
The week before the Berkeley hit-and-run, Chuck called David to tell him he was in the hospital again but was getting released. The numbers from his latest test results were really bad, Chuck said. He promised to call David when he got home, but that call didn’t come. Later in the week, Chuck left David a message saying he’d gotten bad news about his health.
Several days later it was Rachel who got the phone call that Chuck had been hit by a car and was in the ICU at Highland. He had broken bones, but he was conscious and talking.
“Nothing sticks to him,” David thought. It was just “Chuck being Chuck.”
Initially, the hospital would not even confirm to David and Rachel that Chuck was there. They had to provide a special password to get through to him. But, once they got past that hurdle, a day or two after the crash, Rachel spoke to her brother-in-law. It would be the last time they talked.
He sounded tired, but it might have been the medication, Rachel said. Chuck had multiple fractures in his hand, broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. He said he had been hit by a car that hadn’t stopped, and that he had wanted to commit suicide.
“I wanted to be with mom and dad,” he told her. It was something he had said many times before.
Rachel told him to rest and asked to speak with the nurse, who wasn’t able to provide much detail. Highland was going to run some tests.
“At that point, I didn’t know how bad he was,” she said. She told David what had happened and they planned to visit the next morning.
But, the next day, Chuck’s condition worsened. David and Rachel went to the hospital, but Chuck wasn’t conscious. His kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis. In the days the followed, his blood pressure dropped and doctors couldn’t keep it up.
In the end, 12 days after the Berkeley hit-and-run, David had to make the difficult decision to take his brother off of life support.
It was a particularly tough decision for David, Rachel said, because he didn’t want to be just one more person who gave up on his brother.
“I wanted to give him a chance,” he told her.
“His body is tired,” she told him. “You are giving him the ultimate gift: He is going to be free from his demons. He’s going to be free.”
“He wanted to be with my parents, that’s all he cared about,” David told Berkeleyside on Saturday. “And I know he’s there. That’s the only thing that makes it easier.”
The family is now planning a private service for Chuck. David also got a new tattoo — a green mental health awareness ribbon and a fishing rod — in memory of his brother. When people ask him about it, it’s an opening to talk about the rampant problems with the mental health system and what people might do to fix it.
David and Rachel said they are still hoping that the driver who hit Chuck will come forward.
Police ask anyone with information about this incident to call BPD’s Homicide Unit at 510-981-5741
“We don’t blame the person who hit him,” Rachel said. “We forgive them for something that they had no control over. But the part about stopping, they had control over that.”
David said he too sees the collision as an accident on the driver’s part. But he’s still struggling over what came next.
“How do you leave someone behind like they’re a piece of garbage? How do you just leave?” he said. “I don’t even care if they are prosecuted at this point. Just come forward and apologize for leaving him.”