Woman killed by police in Modesto schoolyard had life shaded by illness

Family of Elizabeth Catherine Kropp recalls 25 years of pain, worry

December 16, 2009 

Elizabeth Catherine Kropp suffered from mental illness for more than 20 years and endured a painful adult life until it ended suddenly Tuesday afternoon when she walked onto a Modesto elementary school campus carrying a meat cleaver and was shot by police.

Despite numerous mental breakdowns, her parents said they kept hoping their daughter's condition would improve with treatment and medication.

They said they didn't think her life would end in such a shocking manner that would frighten children and risk the lives of school officials and police officers.

"We just feel so sad about the whole thing," said Judy Kropp as she and her husband spoke about their daughter's tragic life Wednesday in the living room of their Oakdale home.

Kropp, 43, of Modesto, was found on the school campus cutting her head and upper body with the large knife in front of children and school officials.

Two police officers arrived at the scene. Kropp charged at the officers and they were forced to shoot her, police said. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

The Kropps said their daughter was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was hospitalized about 70 times for her mental illness.

Before her struggle with mental illness began, Kropp was a humorous and bright young woman. She lived a fairly normal life with her family in Oakdale.

At age 18, she was attending college at San Francisco State University and wanted to become a writer. Her plans were derailed when she suffered a long depression and showed the first signs of mental illness.

She suffered her first psychotic episode in 1989 shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco. Her father, Don Kropp, said his daughter thought her roommate's boyfriend was going to harm them.

"She couldn't recognize reality," Kropp's father said.

Changing diagnosis

Medical officials initially thought Kropp was manic depressive, and her mental breakdowns were triggered by stress or volatile situations, the Kropps said. They didn't know her illness would only worsen.

She was on a trip to Europe when she suffered another severe psychotic episode. Her father said she tried to commit suicide by jumping into a river in Switzerland.

"She thought if she didn't kill herself children would die," Don Kropp said. "She was a good swimmer, so she was able to swim out on her own."

Her parents admitted her to a mental health facility, but her psychotic episodes continued.

"She was still delusional," her father said. "She thought the staff was feeding the patients to alligators."

Kropp heard voices in her head that called her horrible names. Her Modesto neighbors said they sometimes saw her walking down the street talking to herself loudly. That was a sign her illness was worsening, her parents said.

"She could not stop hearing the voices," Don Kropp said. "She would sing out loud to try to drown out the voices."

Judy Kropp said her daughter tried about 15 medications to help her cope with the mental illness, but her condition fluctuated. They said their daughter's life was like "a roller coaster ride" filled with hospital stays and psychotic episodes.

"It was like dreaming when she was awake," she said about her daughter's psychotic episodes. "She didn't know what was real."

Elizabeth Kropp attempted several times to commit suicide, and she was involved in verbal confrontations with police in Oakdale and Turlock. Kropp, however, didn't become violent toward others.

Her mother said she cut herself on her arms and her legs. "It's a way for them to try take the pain away," she said. At one point, her father had to hide his rifle because Kropp wanted to shoot herself.

It never got easier for the family, and Kropp's parents realized they no longer could take care of her. The Kropps had their daughter conserved, which meant Stanislaus County was now responsible for their daughter's well-being.

It also meant that the county could hospitalize Kropp involuntarily when she showed signs of bizarre behavior. Sometimes Kropp complied with her treatment, but sometimes she refused to take medication.

It wasn't the ideal form of treatment, but there was nothing else they could do, her parents said. Kropp broke off communication with her family six years ago, and her parents communicated with her through letters given to their daughter's counselor.

Signs of progress?

Relatives had seen Kropp in recent weeks. She had converted to the Mormon faith, and it appeared she was improving.

They were wrong.

Kropp was renting a room from a family at a house on Joni Avenue, a few blocks east of Catherine Everett Elementary School. Her parents said she was living off disability checks.

Shortly after 2 p.m., a woman went into the campus main office and told school officials she saw Kropp carrying a knife and bleeding from wounds on her head, said Everett Principal Michael Brady.

He said Kropp entered through the open front gate and was in the playground's asphalt area behind the main classroom building. Only one gate is open while school is in session. Side gates are opened when students arrive and leave, he said.

Trent Greer, a teacher aide at the preschool, was in the office and ran to the playground.

"He was on her immediately, trailing her, trying to talk to her and distract her," Brady said.

An office staff member dialed 911 and called for Brady. A sixth-grade class was playing kickball on the grass field south of the asphalt area.

Greer yelled at the students to get inside. Brady said the students ran along the eastern edge of the campus to get to their classroom at the front of school.

Greer followed Kropp, staying about 10 to 12 steps away. When Kropp saw the students hurrying to their classroom, she followed them, but she did not run after them.

Kropp trailed the students to a walkway between the two main classroom buildings and then went back to the playground's asphalt area. Brady said he and Greer followed her and asked her how they could help, but she continued to hit her head with the knife.

Kropp didn't make eye contact with Brady or Greer or speak to them.

Less than three minutes later, police arrived at the school. Greer went to direct police to the playground. Brady was alone with her for a short time.

"It was probably two minutes, but it seemed like forever," Brady said. "My first thought was how can we keep the kids safe. I knew the (classroom) doors were locked. I was not sure what I would have had to do, but I would have done it."

When the first two officers arrived, Brady said, Kropp ran toward the officers and they fired shots at her.

The officers remain on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated, which is standard procedure in officer-involved shootings. Police did not release the officers' names.

Family understands

The Kropps said the officers acted in self-defense, and they were just saddened their daughter's life had to end this way.

"(The officers) were in a no-win situation," Don Kropp said. "We don't want officers hurt, we don't want children hurt and we didn't want our daughter hurt."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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