Handcuffed and losing his mind, Sean Church bounced and swooned in the back of the Veterans Administration police car bounding over the streets of downtown Richmond. It was late Friday afternoon, Oct. 23, 1998, and the VA police were rushing to get him to the federal courts building on Main Street before the magistrate's office closed for the weekend.
They were going to shut him and his mouth up, at last and for good.
For years, they'd put up with the manic-depressive Navy veteran's endless and annoying complaints, telephone calls and general troublemaking at the McGuire VA Medical Center. But now, with Church stowed quietly in the back of the cruiser, the VA police were jubilant. They'd finally gotten him on something good. And they'd teach him a lesson he wouldn't forget.
They told him that, and laughed, while he bounced and swooned in the back.
Sean Church would spend the next 131 days in jail for having been the bane of their existence, and that of untold numbers of other VA staff, doctors and administrators, for much of the preceding decade. One-hundred and thirty-one days for his particularly irritating combination of manipulation, malicious glee and mental illness.
For being Sean Church. For being crazy.
He laughs, and looks at you from across the small table near a rain-gray window in a smoke-filled Fan coffee house. He looks crazy. He doesn't look crazy. Both. Neither. Yes. No.
The story has been entirely Sean Church's version, but it is missing one element. The VA has been out to get him, he says, since, he says, he exposed, he says, an overbilling scandal at McGuire about 10 years ago.
So he says. It got a prominent psychiatrist fired, he adds, and earned Church official troublemaker status at McGuire. Since then, it's led to a strange combination of mutual appeasement and antagonism that has earned him more money and benefits than most veterans can dream about, but which he is now putting at risk to fix the VA system for other vets.
So he says. He has filed his multimillion-dollar lawsuit against two VA police officers and the McGuire director for malicious prosecution and violating his rights. He smiles because he knows they won't talk with the litigation pending.
He smiles because by the eighth of May he will learn whether the same federal judge who chastised his prosecutors and set him free after his 131-day ordeal will allow Sean Church to put his tormentors, real or imagined, on the stand.
He smiles because he is being Sean Church. And being crazy has rarely failed him.Church, 37, sees himself
as the poster boy for his generation's misdiagnosed and mistreated dysfunctions. "I always seem to have been in that generation that keeps missing help," for ailments ranging from attention deficit, hyperactivity and learning disorders to manic-depression and substance abuse. He calls it "Generation Screwed."
Sean Michael Church was born Oct. 8, 1962, in Fairbanks, Alaska. An Air Force brat, he also lived in Texas and Japan before Virginia. Church says his now-deceased father abused him mentally, physically and sexually.
"My old man did some pretty sick sh," he says. "I had a horrible, horrible childhood." That and his mental illness led to his increasingly serious juvenile delinquency that culminated in an arrest for auto theft at 15.
"I've been institutionalized, I believe, since [then]." He was declared incorrigible, made a ward of the court and sent to a special school in Leesburg for three years, to finish out high school. Upon graduation, feeling unprepared for college or work, he joined the Navy.
In one sense, he thrived under the discipline. "The military knew" his background, he says, but his intensity and initiative landed him in an honor guard detachment, and his swimming ability got him noticed by special forces.
But he had a hard time dealing with the increased pressure and began to suffer memory problems, and between drinking to self-medicate his worsening manic-depression and dealing with a severe sinus condition, he would be passed over. "I wanted to be a SEAL," he says. "And I was told, 'No.' No. Simple."
He received an honorable medical discharge for his sinuses, but "my records would probably show I was going to get discharged [one way or another]. I just kept getting in trouble. Like in school, I was barely functioning." He was put on half-duty for the last two years of his three-year enlistment, and by the time he was discharged, he was designated as 10 percent service-connected disabled, which would provide him free health care at the VA, but no other benefits.
Out of the Navy at 21, he spent the next five years as a "party playboy," supporting his reckless lifestyle with stints as a bartender, restaurant manager and celebrity hanger-on in Richmond. "I was on a five-year high a manic high making big bucks and having a lot of fun."
His duties ran the gamut. "My job was to make sure everybody was happy." If that also meant obtaining sex and drugs for customers he drops a few big names here that's what it meant. Church says as a limo driver for a city hotel he also "helped businessmen get laid. ... That and drugs taught me that being the middle man can be very lucrative." He drank heavily himself and used cocaine. "It was the '80s."
It came to an abrupt end. In 1987 he got busted, "right in the middle of the worst manic attack I was having." What happened afterward, he says, is a blur of cops, holding cells and court hearings that landed him in detox and on probation.
"Completely delusional," he says. Church was found by the court to be mentally incompetent and put under the care of the Richmond VA hospital the Hunter Holmes McGuire Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, on Broad Rock Boulevard, in South Side.
Where his mother works.People who are credible,
know Church, and are willing to talk about him do so with guarded affection. Those who won't talk include his mother, Rachel Handy, who, Church says, has worked at the VA for more than 20 years. The three VA employees whom Church is suing also declined to comment, citing, through a spokesman, the litigation.
Jay Rupkey, a co-owner of the World Cup coffee house on Robinson Street in the Fan, where Church can be found daily, laughs when asked to describe him. Rupkey likes Church, but "sometimes he'll talk your ear off and find a nerve, and just pick on it and pick on it and pick on it."
"Some people get tired of that," Rupkey says. [image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Church outside the McGuire center, where he no longer gets mental health care from VA doctors.
"But he doesn't lie as far as I know." Rupkey lets Church run a weekly tab that's always paid on time. As for the lawsuit: "He's got a million ideas on how to make money. If this is one of his schemes, I don't know."
"He's got a big heart," says another friend, Mark Brown, operator of Mayo Island. "A lot of people really don't understand Sean. He's a very dedicated, loyal friend. He's just a little overbearing ... and he's a little too much for a lot of people."
Jack Richford, who runs Akido in the Fan, a martial arts center, calls Church "gregarious."
"He's got a lot of energy but he's focused," says Richford, who also was Church's middle school counselor and witnessed much of his troubled youth. From what Richford says, Church is in far better shape mentally these days. Richford says Church helps clean up at the martial arts center, called a dojo, and has brought in friends from World Cup to become students. "He's really kind of thrown himself into it," Richford says, adding Church is up for his first martial arts test this week.
Besides his friends, Church says there are two big reasons he's been able to turn things around. The first is getting off drugs and getting proper treatment for his manic-depression. The second is the cash.
Documents show that three years ago, after finally being declared completely disabled, he received a $60,000 lump-sum payment and with Social Security now gets monthly payments that amount to more than $30,000 tax-free annually, figures that stagger other vets and have them wondering, he says, why he keeps complaining about the VA.
The money has enabled him to spend his time doing what he wants. "This is the first time in my life that I've enjoyed being around me," Church says. Mostly he practices martial arts with Richford and hangs out at World Cup, where lately he's been reading "Bushido: The Warrior's Code," Plato's "Republic" and Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums."
Church, with his leather jacket, earrings and Zen tattoos, says he has reinvented himself and likes to cultivate among other World Cup patrons a certain "mystique. I kind of play that up a little bit. I've got the Harley."
"AQUEST" reads the tiny license plate on the 1997 Harley-Davidson Road King, the blue-and-white motorcycle Church has spent about $25,000 to purchase and get in its current condition. "It's the color of the Colorado sky," he says.
He should know. Since 1997, he's taken at least two trips a year on the bike; sometimes to Florida, mostly to Colorado and the mountains west. Last August, it was Wyoming. The monotony of miles, the vast, blank expanse of the land, the solitude help keep him together, he says. The finite and comprehensible workings of the machine and the magisterial indifference of the elements put things in perspective.
Last summer, as he was riding out alone in the middle of nowhere, it began to rain harder than he had ever felt. He was wet and cold; there was a moment of doubt, in himself and in his whole odyssey. "You can either sit there and start to cry," he says, "or you can ride." The trips provide physical catharsis and hard, clear choices that are therapeutic in their simplicity.
All perfectly wonderful, and quite a turnaround for someone who seemed destined for prison or a permanent place in a mental institution. But it's made possible by an arrangement that he agrees is special treatment.
He shows you his VA fee-basis card, which is basically his insurance card and has "unlimited" printed across the top the only one of its kind, he says. Church says he got his 100 percent service-connected disability status because he has been a "squeaky wheel," including reporting a doctor who was not working as many hours as he reported to the VA, and who, Church says, was let go for the offense.
The VA would not comment on Church or any of his claims, but he's also got a special arrangement, confirmed by documents from the Veterans Administration, that lets him get his mental health care outside of the VA, from private-sector therapists. "They're appeasing me," he says, "to keep me out of their hair."
Now he's risking it all, he says, to expose a dysfunctional system, right the wrongs of his arrest and subsequent treatment by the VA, and get other vets the treatment they deserve.
He won't get out of their hair.
Church has documents substantiating that in the past year he has contacted about half a dozen state and federal government entities (even conducting a lengthy correspondence with Sen. Chuck Robb's staff) about the treatment he's received from the VA before and since Oct. 23, 1998.
It all came to nothing. So in March he filed the first of what he says will be several multimillion-dollar lawsuits.Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2: