Mental illness claims Maine tennis pro’s life

Posted May 04, 2012, at 5:43 p.m.
Carl Christopher Angell, 39, was the top-ranked tennis player in Maine. Angell suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and took his own life last week.
Courtesy of the Angell family
Carl Christopher Angell, 39, was the top-ranked tennis player in Maine. Angell suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and took his own life last week.
Carl Christopher Angell, 39, was the top-ranked tennis player in Maine. Angell suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and took his own life last week.
Courtesy of the Angell family
Carl Christopher Angell, 39, was the top-ranked tennis player in Maine. Angell suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and took his own life last week.

BROOKLIN, Maine — Chip Angell says he fought for his son and tried to get him the help he needed before he died.

One morning last week, outside a local inn, Carl Christopher Angell, 39, connected a hose from the exhaust pipe of a car to the interior compartment and sat inside as he started the engine. He was seriously burned when the car overheated and caught fire after he lost consciousness from the fumes.

Emergency personnel pulled his body from the burning vehicle and then took him by LifeFlight helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to Chip Angell, his troubled son never regained consciousness after passing out from the exhaust fumes. Chris Angell, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was the top-ranked men’s tennis player in Maine, took his own life.

During phone interviews this week, Chip Angell alternately expressed frustration and gratitude with the people in Maine who had interacted with his son over the past six years. Chris Angell moved to Maine in 2006 from New Jersey, where he had grown up, to help his family run the Brooklin Inn.

Like others afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, Angell experienced highs and lows as he tried to cope with the disease, his father said. His son had been administered various kinds of medication lately in an attempt to manage his moods.

“It’s the first time he’s ever been depressed,” Chip Angell said of his son’s demeanor over the past several months. “We didn’t know how to handle it.”

In spite of his mental illness, Chris Angell was ranked the top tennis player in the state by the Maine Tennis Association for two years running, in 2010 and 2011.

Brian Mavor, president of the association, said Thursday that he played against Angell a handful of times over the years, including one “epic” 5½-hour match in 2009. He said Angell had been the top player at Clemson University in South Carolina, which has one of the best tennis programs in the country. Years out of college, Angell still played competitively with methodical determination, he said.

“You had to be mentally tough to compete against Chris,” Mavor said. “If Chris was involved, it brought another level of excitement to the tournament. That’s where he shined all of his life.”

Angell, whom his father described as a “racehorse type of athlete,” first developed symptoms of schizophrenia while a student at Indiana University. But after transferring to Clemson for his senior year, he graduated in 1997 with a degree in history.

After college, he competed briefly as a professional on the satellite tournament circuit and not long after started teaching tennis. Angell was a tennis pro at Ellsworth Tennis Center at the time of his death.

Despite his accomplishments on the tennis court, Chris Angell also made repeat appearances in the criminal court system in Ellsworth.

Chip Angell said his son had to take medication for his illness and frequently drank as a form of self-medication. One drinking episode led to Chris being charged with disorderly conduct, which led to bail conditions, which in turn led to frequent violations of those conditions because of Chris’ ongoing consumption of alcohol, the father said.

In 2009, Angell was convicted of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants and as a result was fined $500 and had his license suspended for 90 days, according to court records. In recent years, he also was convicted of other misdemeanor crimes such as operating a motor vehicle without a license, theft of services and sale and use of drug paraphernalia, court records indicate.

Chip Angell said he and his family had hoped that the court system could make his son get the help he needed by ordering ongoing treatment, but that they could not get such an order. He said he felt frustrated that the court did not do more to help Chris.

“He was in and out of jail,” Angell said. “The court system doesn’t have a way to deal with someone who is sick.”

Carletta “Dee” Bassano, district attorney for Hancock County, said Thursday that the criminal court system is not designed to require long-term mental health treatment for someone who commits low-level crimes and who does not want to be committed.

Bassano said she was familiar with Angell’s court history and, when he did receive court-ordered evaluations, he responded positively to treatment and stabilized quickly. Because he expressed no interest in a voluntary commitment, she said, and because the crimes he was charged with did not pose significant threats of bodily harm to anyone, he was allowed to return home after each relatively brief time he spent in jail.

Bassano added that she can understand Chip Angell’s frustration and the anguish he feels over his son’s death.

“It isn’t a mental health system,” Bassano said of the state’s criminal courts. “To the extent that people with mental health issues intersect with it, our options are limited. The less serious the crime is, the less likely a [commitment order] is going to happen.”

According to Assistant Hancock County District Attorney William Entwisle, Angell was facing bail violations and charges of violating a protection order and terrorizing this past winter and was evaluated to determine if he was competent. After serving time in jail and at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, Entwisle said Friday, those charges were resolved. Angell was not facing any charges at the time of his death, he said.

Chip Angell said he is unhappy with the limited care his son received at Riverview this past winter. He said Riverview staff made no effort to contact him or Chris’ other family members while he was being kept there.

“They medicated him [for court purposes] but they didn’t treat him as a patient,” Chip Angell said. Developing a long-term treatment plan for Chris, he added, should have been “a simple thing.”

According to Chris’ mother, Gail Angell, her son received powerful medication at Riverview that helped him and made him realize how sick he was. But officials there stopped administering the medications before they released Chris in March, she said, which took a psychological toll on him.

A registered nurse, Gail Angell said Friday that she was in New Jersey in the weeks after her son was released from Riverview. She said he called her on the phone and told her he had suicidal thoughts.

“Now he’s gone. He’s gone forever,” she said.

Chip Angell said he and his family did not try to have Chris committed to a psychiatric institution against his will. Doing so would have been “cruel and almost impossible,” he said.

“Life doesn’t work like that,” he said.

Angell said the family tried to get Chris admitted to Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, but to no avail. He said he filed a grievance complaint with Riverview officials before Chris killed himself over his son’s treatment there and that he plans to pursue it.

“He needed a place to go,” Chip Angell said.

Mary Louise McEwen, superintendent of Riverview, said Friday that she could not comment directly on Angell’s situation or on the grievance because of patient confidentiality concerns.

She did say that when someone is evaluated while facing criminal charges, it is up to the State Forensic Service and the courts to decide how long that person is held and treated. If a person is found not competent, they usually are held and treated until they are competent, she said, at which point they are transferred back to the court system, either to be held in jail or released.

Chip Angell said that as his son tried to cope with his mental and legal problems, he worked hard to keep up his tennis skills. People who work at Ellsworth Tennis Center knew of Chris’ problems but still supported him, he said.

“They did everything they could for him,” he said, his voice catching with emotion. “They were wonderful.”

Chris found time to drive to Portland and Boston for tournaments, according to his father. Chris didn’t have a lot of money but would scrape cash together and hop in the family’s used Volvo and drive off to matches, hoping he would have enough dollars to get back home.

“It was a huge effort on his part to do this,” Chip Angell said.

Devi Maganti, tennis director and manager at the Racket and Fitness Center in Portland, said Thursday that she organized many of the U.S. Tennis Association tournaments that Angell played in and sometimes let him stay at her house.

Maganti said she knew Angell had mental problems, which once or twice manifested during tournament matches, but that she knew tennis was important to him. He had to miss some tournaments a few years ago, she said, but resumed competing and did well.

“As soon as I saw him play, I knew he was very talented,” Maganti said. “I always tried to help as much as I could.”

Some people were less accepting of Angell’s quirks, she said, but she found him sociable and gracious. He had told her he wanted to be the top-ranked player in Maine, she said, but he did not let that ambition affect his attitude off the court, even when he lost matches.

“He never, ever made excuses for his game,” Maganti said. “He always gave credit to his opponent for how well they played.”

She said she and others in the state’s tennis community will miss Chris Angell.

“He definitely made an impression on me, that’s for sure,” she said.

A memorial service for Angell is planned from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at the Brooklin Inn, located on Route 175 in Brooklin village.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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