Thursday, October 8, 2009
Mental illness blamed for family’s tragedy
By ALYSSA SCHNUGG
When Bilethon Autry shot and killed his brother, Charlie Ray Hodges, on Friday afternoon, Sept. 25, some could say their father, Billy Ray Autry, lost two sons that day.
But through tears, Billy Ray told The Oxford Eagle how he really lost Bilethon a long time ago.
“Bilethon was already locked up,” Autry said Tuesday while sitting in a newly rented apartment at the Links. “He’s been gone. He’s just been locked up on the inside.”
At about 1 p.m. that Friday, in his opulent Grand Oaks home, Autry was hiding — curled up in the back of a closet behind his wife’s clothes — when he heard the shots that took his oldest son’s life. He heard the footsteps as his youngest son searched the home looking for him — most likely his next victim.
“If he would have found me, I wouldn’t be here,” Autry said. “I’d be like Charlie Ray.”
He heard the police call out to Bilethon, telling him to give up and put the gun down. Eventually, he heard a police officer call his name, telling him it was safe to come out of hiding.
Autry moved his wife and daughter into the Links apartment on Monday, Sept. 28.
“I can’t go back there (Grand Oaks) just now,” he said quietly.
Billy Ray Autry grew up in Pontotoc. He began working at a young age, mowing lawns and earning as little as 25 cents an hour picking cotton and delivering milk for Avent’s Dairy at 5 a.m. before going to school. He graduated from high school in 1960. While a teen still in school, he fathered his son, Charlie Ray.
He attended Auburn University and the University of Mississippi where he became a teacher and was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. He worked for the Marshall County School District for 13 years and claims to have been the first teacher in Marshall County to receive the “Triple A” degree.
He soon started to fulfill his lifelong dream of being an entrepreneur. He has since owned several businesses, most in Holly Springs. His businesses include Courtesy Service Plaza, The Octagon Club and Skating Rink, Holly Springs Raceway, WKRA radio station, Dreamland Shopping Center, Serenity Limousine Service, The United Center and Serenity Funeral Homes in Holly Springs, New Albany and Oxford.
He eventually married Katie Hicks and is the father of six children.
Bilethon, 24, was the first son in Autry’s marriage to Katie.
“I spent more time with Bilethon than any other of my children,” Autry said, pausing often to fight the tears. “He played golf with me and he worked in many of my businesses.”
Bilethon started working as a chauffeur for his father’s limousine service a couple years ago.
“He was one of my best drivers,” Autry said. “People would call up and ask for him. He had a good attitude with the customers.”
About three years ago, Bilethon started attending Northwest Mississippi Community College to become a funeral director.
Shortly after, Autry started to see changes in his son.
“He came to me one day and said, ‘Daddy, I hear voices. Seems like someone is following me,’” Autry said. “I told him I didn’t believe it and that it was just in his head.”
It wasn’t long after that Bilethon stated to act angry toward his father.
“One night at about midnight we get a call from the Louisville (Miss.) police,” Autry said. “They had Bilethon. He had stolen a car. He had the Cadillac I had given him that cost about $15,000 and parked it at a convenience store. He stole a $500 to $600 car.”
When Autry bailed Bilethon out of jail that night, he said, his son was very angry with him.
“I still don’t know why he was so angry with me,” he said.
A few days later, the Autrys took Bilethon to a doctor. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication.
“He took his medication pretty good and things started to improve,” Autry said.
Later, Bilethon admitted to his father he had smoked marijuana the night he stole the car and believed it might have had something else in it.
“The police said it was very potent,” Autry said.
As one of Autry’s drivers, Bilethon was drug tested along with the other drivers. He started failing the tests.
“I told him he couldn’t drive anymore,” Autry said. “He couldn’t endanger people’s lives.”
Bilethon was put to work washing and gassing up the limos. He made promises to quit using drugs so he could start driving again.
But soon after, Bilethon’s conditioned worsened. He appeared to be in a daze and the once-friendly young man soon became quiet and withdrawn.
“He was real distant,” Autry said of his son. “Our relationship was getting bad. I was trying to get him to stop using drugs and he wouldn’t stop.”
Sometime in August, Bilethon and his girlfriend were at Autry’s house and spent the day there. When Autry went upstairs to watch a football game, Bilethon left for an hour. At about midnight, Bilethon walked into his father’s room.
“Bilethon asked me, ‘Daddy, remember when you told me nothing was going on in my head?’” Autry said. “I told him I did. Then he asked me if I remembered the time he was 11 or 12 years old and I punished him for laughing and not paying attention while I was trying to help him with an equation. Then he said, ‘How would you like to be punished?’”
Bilethon told his father to come to the other side of the bed, but after his mother, Katie, begged him to stop, he settled down and left the room.
Autry was forced to kick his son out of the home out of fear for his safety. He took all Bilethon’s clothes and put them in the garage. Later that night when Bilethon came home and found his belongings in the garage, he challenged his father.
“Daddy, you puttin’ me out of the house,” Bilethon demanded to know.
“I told him I was and that he was now 24 years old and it was time he took care of himself,” Autry said.
Bilethon then attacked his father, kicking him and beating him with a golf club that was nearby. Oxford police officers arrived and eventually settled Bilethon down long enough to get him to walk to the patrol car. He was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi for a psychological evaluation. He was let out that night.
OPD Capt. Libby Lytle arrived on the scene shortly after the attack.
“His father was upset he (Bilethon) wasn’t arrested,” Lytle said. “Jail is no place for someone with a mental problem. He needed help. I never thought Bilethon would have gotten out of the hospital that quickly. I told the father I was afraid for his safety.”
Lytle said when officers arrive on a scene and someone is obviously mentally ill, standard protocol is to have the person taken to the hospital for evaluation. If Autry wanted his son arrested, Lytle said, he would have had to press charges against his son after he was released from the hospital.
The next morning, on Aug. 31, Bilethon showed up at the funeral home. After another argument with his father, Bilethon again attacked Autry. The police were called. This time the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office responded.
“If he had a gun then he would have killed me,” Autry said. “He tried to choke me.”
The responding deputies took Bilethon into custody and told Autry he had to go to the Lafayette County Chancery Building to file for a writ of lunacy to have his son committed.
Several days prior, Bilethon had been arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana. At the Chancery Building, Autry was told those charges would have to be settled before they could process the commitment papers.
Chancery Clerk Sherry Wall said state law says a person cannot have any pending charges when a writ for lunacy is filed.
“When commitment papers are filed, we have to call local police agencies to make sure there are no outstanding charges,” Wall said. “If there are, we contact the agency and ask if they will set aside those charges until the person can get some help. I don’t recall any law enforcement agency here ever not doing that.”
The charges were set aside by Sheriff Buddy East, and Bilethon was taken to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo where he spent about three weeks.
While in the psychiatric ward, Bilethon attacked another patient and tried to strangle him, and he would use the phone when he wasn’t suppose to, according to Autry. He wasn’t doing what he was told to do and was being uncooperative. Yet on Sept. 23, he was released. He stayed with his girlfriend.
“He wasn’t ready to get out,” Autry said. “I’m not a doctor, but it was easy to see he wasn’t ready.”
Bilethon was put on four kinds of medication that cost $960.
On the day of his release, his brother Charlie Ray went with Bilethon’s girlfriend to pick him up. Charlie Ray, who lived in Beloit, Wis., was in Tupelo visiting his mother. He told Autry he wanted to talk to his brother.
“There was no friction between the two of them,” Autry said. “They communicated often. Charlie Ray had been on some of the same medication that Bilethon had taken and also had a drug problem in the past. He thought he could help Bilethon.”
On the way home from the hospital, Charlie Ray said Bilethon drove. He later told his father that Bilethon was driving 100 mph and doing donuts in the road. They were pulled over by a highway patrol trooper. Bilethon was able to convince the trooper to let him go after explaining he had just gotten out of a mental hospital.
Charlie Ray told his father that night that “God was good” because the trooper let them go.
Not trusting Bilethon to take his medication as prescribed and fearful he would try to sell the pills for money, Bilethon was told to come to his father’s house Friday morning to take his medication.
Bilethon took his medication and left the house. He returned about noon and sat with Charlie Ray and the family’s housekeeper, Betty. Autry was watching television upstairs. He came down to eat some of his wife’s left-over fish. Katie had left earlier that morning to go to a wedding outside of Nashville, Tenn.
Bilethon walked outside. Charlie Ray asked if he was going out for a smoke. Bilethon nodded. Moments later, Charlie Ray explained that Bilethon was outside holding a gun. Autry locked all the doors, but eventually, Bilethon threw a chair through a glass door.
“I had just said if Bilethon came in through the back door we should just run outside the front door,” Autry said. “But when the glass broke, we all ran upstairs.”
Charlie Ray and Betty ran into Autry’s daughter’s bedroom. Autry ran into his bedroom closet that had a door leading to the attic. Inside, his wife had put up a wire to hang clothing that didn’t fit in her closet. He went behind the clothing and laid down.
Bilethon came in and, without a word, shot and killed his brother. He turned to Betty and asked, “Where’s Daddy?” She told him downstairs. Betty was able to escape the home after Bilethon started searching for his father.
Autry called 911 and then took the batteries out of his cell phone.
“I didn’t want it to ring and alert Bilethon where I was,” he said.
Bilethon fired shots at the police officer outside of the home but missed.
Three hours later, the ordeal ended. Officers eventually got into the house where they found Bilethon laying face-down on a couch, the gun underneath him. He was taken to the Lafayette County Detention Center where he was charged with capital murder and is being held with no bond.
Change is needed
Lytle was out of town when she heard about the standoff with Bilethon.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Lytle said. “My worst nightmare for that family came true. I just can’t believe it happened so soon. I can’t believe he didn’t get the help he obviously needed to prevent something like this.”
Lytle said the way mental disorders are handled in Mississippi leaves much to be desired.
“It’s not a crime to be crazy,” she said. “But it is a crime that people can’t get the help they need. How many people have to die before something changes?”
Lytle remembered another event where someone with obvious mental problems was let out too early from a mental hospital and then killed a family member.
In 2005, Joe Willingham beat his mother, Evelyn Willingham, to death. He had been admitted to a mental hospital two weeks prior.
Autry agrees and hopes his story helps change things so others won’t have to go through what his family has endured.
“I know there’s no easy answer. I understand these places don’t have a lot of room and they have to move people out so others can come.
Autry said he will miss his son Charlie Ray, a friendly and outgoing man. The father of two children and several grandchildren, Charlie Ray also operated a limo service in Beloit.
“I’ve lost two sons,” Autry said. “I regret that my son is dead. I regret that my other son is in jail. But I feel better because I know now my son will get some help.”
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