Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

In 1994, Thweatt's wife divorced him, and the rest of his family eventually gave up on him. The hasp on the front screen door bears witness to the times he has turned violent, forcing his parents to get restraining orders. He broke all the windows in the house. He tossed a soda bottle through a closed window, injuring his mother. He kicked down the front door. An array of psychotropic drugs helped a little, his father says, but not much. His parents finally admitted they'd never be able to help their son after a 1995 evaluation by an Army doctor. "The patient is clearly incapable of any social adjustment at this time," the doctor wrote. "The patient is unable to settle down in a safe living situation and is living in his car."

"That just really clinched it," says his father, who twice assumed the role of legal guardian and had control of Thweatt's disability checks. "He's just too big and mean. I couldn't manage him." The stress has prompted Ethel Thweatt to seek psychiatric help. But his parents don't hesitate when asked whether they still love their son. "Oh, yes," answers Norman Thweatt, who keeps in his wallet a photograph of Donald taken before the accident. "It's like the whole family has a head trauma. Sometimes it's hard to function. He's got a bad mouth. He plays tricks on people. He manipulates them. We're in our 60s. I'm retired. It's too traumatizing to us. We've more or less turned our back on him. But we keep in touch to find out what's going on with his life, wherever he is."

Thweatt hasn't handled the rejection very well. He calls his parents criminals. "We just got an application for a life-insurance policy that we didn't order," Norman Thweatt says. "It came to my address. The name on it is 'Mr. Norm A. Criminl.' On the back, it says 'Mrs. Ethel S. Criminl.' Because we won't take his phone calls anymore, he's getting a message to us the way he can."

Norman and Ethel Thweatt say they love their son but that the past decade has been a nightmare. "It's like the whole family has a head trauma," says Norman Thweatt.
Jennifer Silverberg
Norman and Ethel Thweatt say they love their son but that the past decade has been a nightmare. "It's like the whole family has a head trauma," says Norman Thweatt.
Thweatt says guards broke his front teeth during a jailhouse altercation that led to criminal charges against him.
Jennifer Silverberg
Thweatt says guards broke his front teeth during a jailhouse altercation that led to criminal charges against him.

Is he dangerous? Norman Thweatt says he isn't qualified to answer that question. "Not intentionally," he offers. "But he does get out of control. It's because of behavior problems since the injury and his sheer size."


For the past decade, Thweatt has bounced among relatives, hospitals, residential care centers, apartments and the streets. Medical records show he's been admitted to various psychiatric facilities 35 times since 1991. He's also been arrested a dozen times for such offenses as assault, peace disturbance, and careless and imprudent driving. He has pleaded guilty to assaulting his parents and a police officer, according to medical records, which also show he has violated protection orders obtained by his ex-wife at least eight times. At one point, his father says, his son drove to Florida after being released from jail on bond, violating his bail conditions. He was picked up by police there and returned to St. Louis, but not before he bought a motorless boat for $200 and made plans to sail to Australia.

Thweatt isn't stupid. In 1994, he scored 86 of a possible 100 on an entrance examination for the Missouri Technical School, where he hoped to study computers. A more recent intelligence test, administered by a psychologist, placed him in the 93rd percentile, his attorney says. "Sometimes I think maybe we ought to just put him in an apartment and see what happens to him," says St. Louis public administrator Gerard A. Nester, who is Thweatt's legal guardian. "But I get real concerned about that, because the last time we did that, he attempted suicide." Left to his own devices, Thweatt can also be a pest. One stint in an apartment didn't last long. "He blew the trial period," Nester says. "He started knocking on all of his neighbor's doors, asking for rides to doctor appointments and rides to there and here. The other tenants said, 'We can't take this guy as a tenant.'"

Thweatt's path to jail started at a meeting at the Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital to decide his fate after he left the hospital. Thweatt, who cries as easily as he angers, became upset during the July 14, 1998, meeting, which was held when he was deemed ready for discharge. Thweatt says he left the room because he didn't want others to see him sob. According to a St. Louis County Police report, he was ordered to leave because he started yelling obscenities after being told he wouldn't be able to attend school when he left the hospital.

Whatever his reasons for leaving the meeting, Thweatt soon wanted to go back. A nurse told police that Thweatt opened the door, shouted obscenities, then rushed toward him and started swinging. The two sides agree there was a brief conversation at the doorway between Thweatt and the nurse, who stood in his way. "I started to go in," Thweatt recalls. "He said, 'You left the meeting. You're not going back in.' I said, 'Wait a minute: That's my meeting.'" Thweatt says he had started to walk past the nurse when he was tackled. Nurses threw him to the floor immediately, thanks in part to limited mobility on his left side, a byproduct of his head injury. "I was unable to support my weight," he says. A nurse sustained a broken leg during the scuffle. Thweatt says the injury occurred when she twisted her leg while trying to stop short of the melee. His attorney says Thweatt fell on the nurse's leg as he was taken down. "It was an accident," Harris says. "And if it wasn't an accident, it was other people who caused it."

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