Before deputies shot him, Idahoan had 16-year mental health struggle

Matthew Conrad poses with his son, Elijah, now 5, during a July 2015 visit to Park City, Utah, where Conrad’s sister, Megan Thomas, resides.
Matthew Conrad poses with his son, Elijah, now 5, during a July 2015 visit to Park City, Utah, where Conrad’s sister, Megan Thomas, resides.

When Matthew D. Conrad stole a pickup truck and led Elmore County deputies on a chase on Aug. 2, it was just the latest confrontation between law enforcement officers and the troubled 34-year-old Hammett man.

During a series of incidents dating back to 2000 — car thefts, burglaries, batteries, resisting arrest — Conrad was multiple times handcuffed and taken to jail. During the most recent incident, which played out on the side of eastbound Interstate 84 west of Hammett, authorities say Conrad pointed a handgun at two deputies, who fired and fatally injured the man.

Family members recall Conrad as a loving father with a strong work ethic. They also are frank about his mental health challenges, and said that in the three months before his death, Conrad quit taking his medication and showed signs of slipping back into bad patterns.

An Idaho Statesman examination of hundreds of pages of court records in Ada and Elmore counties reveals a man with a quick temper, who thought little of the consequences of his actions and had trouble following rules meant to keep him out of prison. It also shows the man Conrad’s family says they knew — who at one point came back to successfully complete a mental health-focused court program.

Beatings, car thefts led to other crimes

It’s unclear when Conrad first got into trouble with the law. But the first case for which records are publicly available took place when Conrad, then 18, was a senior at Glenns Ferry High School. He pleaded guilty to battery and spent five days in jail for repeatedly pushing another student into a wall at the school in March 2000. He was also ordered to complete 24 hours of an anger management course.

June 22, 2004: Conrad is cited for drag racing on a residential street in Glenns Ferry

Other arrests followed. In early 2001, he was found with a pair of brass knuckles, drugs and drug paraphernalia. In 2003, Conrad pleaded guilty to battery after punching a 39-year-old man in the face and kicking him in the head at the B&R bar in Glenns Ferry, knocking the man unconscious. The next year, police say, he attacked another man at the Iron Mountain Inn in Fairfield, then got into his pickup and sped down the street, causing a woman walking on the sidewalk to scream at him to slow down. Conrad stopped and punched the woman in the face after she slapped him.

[Family of Emmett man who died in psychosis: “We couldn’t get any help”]

In 2004, Conrad stole a pickup and drove it for a month. When Elmore County deputies spotted him, he took off, rammed the pickup through a locked gate at the Glenns Ferry airport, destroyed a portion of fence at a nearby farm and damaged irrigation pipes at another.

During the offroad chase, a tool box belonging to Conrad flew out the back of the pickup. It was too heavy for him to lift back into the truck, so he hid it in a haystack, where deputies later found it. They took the box and placed it in a storage unit in Glenns Ferry. Three months later, Conrad broke into the unit and took the toolbox.

Authorities’ attempts at aid

It appears judges, prosecutors and social workers bent over backwards in trying to help Conrad. Numerous probation violations over the years were dismissed and judges routinely extended his probation rather than send him to prison.

Nov. 9, 2005: Conrad is arrested for illegal possession of a firearm and grand theft, for stealing an ATV

In all, he only spent six months in prison, sentenced to a prison-based education and treatment program for the 2004 grand theft and burglary case. Conrad completed the program and was placed on probation.

But two years later, Conrad’s probation officer became so frustrated with his lack of compliance, he recommended Conrad be sent to prison.

“The probationer has a history of violent crimes and he is now alleged to have committed another violent crime,” Casey Fatzinger wrote in a Dec. 29, 2006, letter. “His behavior poses a threat to the community.”

That new crime? Conrad allegedly choked a neighbor who had supposedly made a pass at Conrad’s girlfriend. While in jail awaiting trial for battery, he wrote a letter to 4th District Judge Mike Wetherell.

“I have really stopped and thought about the things I needed to succeed, not only on probation but life itself,” Conrad wrote in the letter dated March 10, 2007. “I’ve put those thoughts into action and have turned my life around 100 percent in only one year.” He cited his job with a Boise construction company, his sobriety and the fact that he attended weekly self-change classes.

At that point, Conrad had been in the Ada County Jail for 73 days. He remained in jail for three more months, until the charge was dropped after the victim could not be found.

In 2010, Conrad was arrested after ramming a police car while Boise police tried to arrest him for not checking in with his probation officer.

Wetherell was handling the Elmore County case and ordered Conrad to undergo a mental evaluation. He was found to be incompetent to assist in his own defense, a standard Idaho follows in lieu of allowing an insanity defense. Wetherell later recommended Conrad be considered for Ada County’s mental health court, where he was accepted.

High praise turns to tragedy

Under medical privacy laws, no diagnosis is found in Conrad’s public case records. But the mental health court only accepts felons who are classified as “severely and persistently mentally ill.” Its purpose is to help participants stabilize their mental illness and make better choices in life, and includes folks with diagnoses of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and severe, chronic depression.

Nine months after Conrad entered mental health court, social worker Karla Burleson gave him high marks. “Not only has Matt shown a commitment to his own well-being, he has also shown a willingness to help his peers when the opportunity presents itself,” she wrote in a letter to the court dated Dec. 12, 2012.

A year later, Conrad graduated from the four-phase program and continued on probation.

April 20, 2011: Conrad’s son Elijah is born

Sister Megan Thomas said earlier this year her brother loved the outdoors and enjoyed taking his son, Elijah, 5, fishing for crappie and perch. He also liked to go up into the hills to cut wood and to work on his home in Hammett.

“He was loving and loyal to a fault,” said Thomas, who lives in Park City, Utah.

In four short weeks this summer, however, Conrad was arrested three times in Elmore County. On June 27, he allegedly left the scene of an accident. The next day he was arrested for assault. And on July 23, he allegedly eluded a police officer and then resisted arrest.

All three of those cases were pending when he stole the pickup on Aug. 2 and was shot and killed by deputies.

Aug. 2, 2016: Conrad allegedly steals a pickup truck, crashes through a fence off Interstate 84, runs across the freeway and tries to carjack three vehicles at gunpoint west of Hammett. He is fatally wounded after pointing a gun at Elmore County sheriff’s deputies and they fire at him.

Because of the open investigation into Conrad’s death, Elmore County officials declined comment for this report, including about his family’s assertions they had sought help to institutionalize him earlier this year.

But Wetherell, now retired, said the case shows even with the best of intentions, it’s not always possible to keep people on the right path.

“This is one of the biggest problems that we have: You can put people through the programs, they can do excellently but you can’t be in charge of their life for life,” he said. “That only happens if someone has a life sentence.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell