Army Pvt. Thomas Lavrey should be alive and getting ready to leave the service. Instead, the 21-year-old is back home in Machias, buried in the local cemetery.
Army Pvt. John-Brian Hughes is in Fort Leavenworth prison, charged with murdering Lavrey.
In the weeks before he was accused of plunging a knife into Lavrey's neck at Fort Riley, Kansas, the 25-year-old spoke of mysterious people following him and his phone being tapped, but the Army ignored his pleas for mental health assistance, a relative said. Now two families, one in Winchester, Va., and the other in Machias, are dealing with two faces of the tragedy and growing angrier by the day at the Army for failing to heed the warning signs of a soldier – with an affinity for knives – who was about to go off the deep end.
"I can't tell you how much I feel for the Lavrey family. It is breaking my heart that their son was lost. This should have never happened," said Brian Hughes, the father of the accused soldier. "We trusted our kids to the same government."
There is mutual sympathy from the Lavreys, who first learned of their son's slaying in May through an anonymous phone call apparently made by another soldier at Fort Riley, home to the Army's famed Big Red One – 1st Infantry Division.
"I am sure that Mr. Hughes did not raise his son to be a murderer. We buried our son, and he lost his son, too," Dale Lavrey said just moments before making the short drive earlier this week to visit his son's grave at Maplegrove Cemetery.
Lavrey says there is no question the Army did not take appropriate action that could have prevented the killing.
"I think this guy Hughes should have been on 24-hour surveillance. He had been seeking counseling since the beginning of April when the Army had taken his knife collection away from him," Lavrey said of information he received from Fort Riley's Criminal Investigation Division. "Somebody slipped."
Brian Hughes said his son sought help but was denied.
"… He had a psychological exam on April 19 and following the exam, the Army sent someone to his home off base and confiscated his knife collection. It kills me that they took it seriously enough to go and get his knife collection," Hughes said of his son who served in the Iraq War and in Kuwait. "The reason for the psychological exam was to begin the process of finding him an unfit soldier and forcing him out."
As his son's mental condition deteriorated in recent months, Hughes said his family called Fort Riley to try to convince base officials to help John-Brian.
"On May 5, my son told us his phone was being tapped," Hughes said. "Then he told his sister on May 7 that he was being followed for a couple of weeks. I was getting text messages from him on how he was collecting evidence to protect himself from them. He wouldn't tell me who ‘them' was.
"He was communicating in riddles. He said he'd explain things to me when he could, if he ever understood them himself. He was suffering from paranoid delusions," the 48-year-old father said. "My brother is a sergeant in the Army, and he called Fort Riley on May 12 to try and get help."
That was the day before Lavrey was stabbed to death.
"When my brother called, he was told there was nothing they could do, but if John-Brian wanted, he could check himself into a hospital. He was paranoid, and he wasn't going to have himself locked up," Hughes said of his son. "After they'd confiscated his knives in April, he had gone to psychiatric services on base and requested help and was told no. He was told he was just looking for attention." Major Joey Sullinger, public affairs officer for the 1st Infantry Division, said base investigators cannot comment on the homicide because the probe is ongoing. However, Sullinger did say that soldiers who request mental health services receive it. There are 13,500 soldiers at Fort Riley.
"Fort Riley has 214 behavioral health professionals available to soldiers and their families," Sullinger said. "Our behavioral health professionals are integrated down into the lowest level of Army structures to ensure all soldiers have access to help."
But with official details scant on the slaying, relatives of the two soldiers, who were assigned to the same base motor pool and were acquaintances, have struggled to put together a fragmented account of what happened from communicating with other soldiers.
On Saturday night, May 12, Lavrey and Hughes had been out shooting pool. The two spent the night at the off-base home of another soldier.
Then on Sunday morning, May 13, Mother's Day, Lavrey and Hughes went to Fort Riley to Lavrey's quarters and at approximately 10 a.m., Hughes allegedly stabbed Lavrey. He then showed up at the motor pool to work, according to Brian Hughes, who contacted his son's military friends on his Facebook page.
Hughes then stole a Humvee from the motor pool and headed toward a friend's residence off base.
The Humvee, Brian Hughes said, broke down and a noncommissioned officer who had apparently gone looking for Hughes located him walking along a road and drove him back to the base. Hughes then went into a base store and out the back door.
Military police were summoned, and he was located inside the store an hour later, the father said. A knapsack in his son's possession contained paperwork stolen from the desks of two motor pool supervisors.
But it wasn't until about 10 a.m. Monday, May 14, that Lavrey's body was discovered in his off-base housing, according to Dale Lavrey, who says he is outraged that word of his son's death first came to the family by way of an anonymous phone call from someone at the base.
"We knew something was wrong because Tom hadn't called his mom on Mother's Day, and he always does. I got an anonymous call from someone at 4 p.m. Monday telling me he regretted to say my son was deceased. He didn't know how, but he knew the Army hadn't contacted us.
"I started calling the base and was told nothing had happened. I finally said you have 30 minutes to find him and put him on the phone."
The desperate demand by the distraught father was never fulfilled.
"From the time they say they found Tom, almost 36 hours had passed before they actually pulled in our driveway to tell us at 9 p.m. Monday."
Brian Hughes says he received a text message from his son several hours after he allegedly killed Lavrey.
"The text came between noon and 1 p.m. Sunday, and he said the amount of disrespect everyone had for him in the unit was too much. He wanted to get out of the Army. He very well may have had a complete break with reality and not known he had done it, the killing hours earlier, and he still may not know he did it," the father said.
Since the killing, Brian Hughes said he has had one three-minute phone call with his son and a one-page letter from him.
"I really don't think he understands what is going on based on the phone call and letter. In the call, he said, ‘Hi, I'm breathing. So I'm alive. Everything is fine.' I told him to keep his head low," Brian Hughes said.
Army officials, according to Brian Hughes, refused to let his son, the second oldest of five children, attend his confinement hearing and a hearing on the charges of murder, resisting arrest and larceny.
"I've been told the military attorney assigned to his case won't be seeing him until the second week of July, if scheduling permits, and that is freaking me out. We've requested John-Brian receive mental health treatment, and he has also asked for it, but it has been denied. It's like being held in a Third World country. I'm unemployed because of a chronic back injury, so I can't afford to hire a private attorney, which I was told would cost $20,000," Brian Hughes said.
The only thing the father says he is certain of is that his son, until now, was not a violent individual.
"When he was 17, I saw him swing at a window when he got mad at me and that was the only time I ever saw him behave violently. There is mental illness in the family. His birth mother had bipolar tendencies, but he has only seen her three times since he was three years old," Brian Hughes said.
John-Brian Hughes, he said, was the complete opposite of violent or disturbed.
"I just learned that he was secretly married to a medic in his company who left the military, but had a child and needed health insurance. That's the kind of person John-Brian is. He married her so she would have health insurance for her kid."
Now, Brian Hughes says, he has no choice but to accuse the military of failing to take care of a soldier who had become mentally sick.
"I can't see any way not to blame the Army. I tried to work it out in my head. Everyone who knows John-Brian knows this isn't him. It's just not in his nature."
Dale Lavrey, 45, says that from the start the Army misled his son, the third oldest of four children, who had grown up in Holland and later moved to West Seneca and Machias before enlisting in 2010.
"He enlisted after obtaining his GED at 18 years old. He was in search of a career. He told me he couldn't wait to get out because all the Army ever did was lie to him. They promised him training and certification in heating and cooling and stuck him with base burial duty. He hated it.
"He did two years burial duty, and the whole time he was trying to get switched and finally in January he got switched to the motor pool. He actually liked that but wanted to get out. He planned to leave the Army in September."
And of the continuing military investigation, Dale Lavrey says he has no faith in it. "As far as I'm concerned, everything the Army told us so far with the investigation has been a lie."