Two bullets entered his left chest and exited through his left shoulder and arm. Death was due to a massive laceration of the heart, aorta and lungs and subsequent massive hemorrhaging. –Sioux City Journal
At 37, Leonard Franklin Uken was killed at the hands of an Iowa deputy sheriff who pumped a pair of bullets into my uncle’s 5-foot, 7-inch frame.
Details are sketchy as they seem to be with many police shootings. There were no video cameras or mobile phone cameras to serve witness to the incident. There was only a dead man, a deputy sheriff and a single eye witness.
Before outlining what reportedly happened that day, let me introduce you to the man I knew as a little girl and as a teenager. He was the youngest of 12 children. He looked like a Beach Boy with blond hair, blue eyes and a killer farm-boy tan. He enjoyed a good laugh and teasing his nieces and nephews.
He, along with my father, was my real-life super hero.
My sister and I were playing while our father and uncle were doing farm work. Apparently wanting attention, we called out for help and they came running. Oops. Just kidding, Dad. They were not amused. Some things you never forget.
They returned to work and we returned to our playtime.
Hoping to show my sister my new “escape artist magic trick,” I tied a rope around my neck and told her I could jump from one side of the hay loft to the other. I secured the rope, jumped and hung there motionless. My sister screamed for help but father and uncle were not falling for another prank while they were busy working. She screamed louder and longer finally convincing them that it was for real. But for their actions, I’d be dead.
That is the Uncle Leonard I knew – a helping hand to my father and my hero.
It is difficult, even impossible, to reconcile that uncle with the man who would later be described as a “wild Indian.”
It was spring of 1979.
Leonard was reportedly doing some carpentry work for a relative in the Sioux City, Iowa, area. One of his co-workers told the county coroner that my uncle was “acting strangely” that day, wandered off and later returned. When he left again, he ended up near the DeWayne Benson residence. He was running around the Benson house and later ran down the road to the Paul Golden farm, according to news accounts of the incident.
Benson told a reporter that my uncle was “acting like he was mentally off” so he called the sheriff’s department and then followed my uncle, who was on foot, in his truck. My uncle reportedly ran the mile to the Golden’s and disappeared into a shed on their property. During that run he tore off and discarded his hat, jacket and boots. When he emerged, Benson said, he came out “screaming like a wild man” and “swinging the ax.” By that time, the deputy had arrived and fired twice.
“He came out screaming like a wild Indian, swinging that ax. I just think he freaked out. The deputy barely had time to pull his gun on the guy,” Benson told the newspaper. “That guy came out of the shed meaning to kill.”
The deputy was struck twice with the ax. He was treated and released from a local hospital.
The images are haunting.
They don’t come close to describing the man I knew.
None of it made sense. Much of it still does not but I believe I am gaining some better insights.
My uncle was a drinker and was described as such in wake of his death. It is not for me to say whether he was an alcoholic. That’s not my place and I wasn’t around during those times. Another uncle of mine was also a drinker and most likely an alcoholic. He was a veteran. Family members as well as law enforcement were called several times to help get him under control during some of the most bizarre and frightening incidents imaginable. I witnessed one.
He would eventually spend time in a state-run hospital.
What I used to be deathly afraid of, I now try desperately to understand. The details are not pretty and some family members prefer I not air what they describe as “dirty laundry.” I love my family. I don’t see it as airing dirty laundry. It is our life and life can be messy.
In the aftermath of some high-profile shootings, family members will often say how they were good people and they did not see it coming. Believe them. We could not have predicted this.
Some say, ‘Oh, it was just the alcohol.” Alcoholism is a mental illness.
For the past seven years I have reported extensively on suicide, depression, anxiety and mental health issues. Let me be clear: I do not consider myself an expert on mental illness.
A relative recently reached out to me after seeing some of my work on mental illness via social media and asked if I thought manic-depression is real.
“Yes, absolutely,” I responded, without hesitation.
He simply wanted validation. According to the National Mental Health Institute, it is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
We began to talk about out extended families. It was gratifying to know that someone is willing to talk about the disease semi-openly.
Our family has had its fair share of illnesses, including lung cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, diabetes and more. Every single one of those was treated aggressively to give our loved one the best chance at a longer, robust quality of life.
But when it comes to an illness of the mind, some pretend it’s a myth. The familiar refrains are to “chin up” and “snap out of it.”
It’s tough. The public incidents that have transpired can be embarrassing. My uncle’s story was one of the Top 10 stories of the year so we had to relive it all over, again, that year. The incidents are also heartbreaking. I’m not ashamed of my uncle or other relatives. They needed help. The only crime here is that they did not get it. In hindsight, the signs were likely there.
For the past seven years, I have asked people to open up their hearts and home to me to bring mental illness into the open. I would be a fraud if I did not open up about the mental illness that has touched my own life.
Rosalynn Carter has spent much of her life fighting the stigma associated with mental illness. I want to follow in her footsteps.