Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez stood behind Avi Feldman and held a large Bowie knife near the back of his neck.
One of the dozens of teens and young adults attending a party in Ashland asked Sabalsa-Mendez what he was doing. He responded he was only joking.
The alcohol- and marijuana-fueled party continued on in a spacious house at the end of a long, curving road off Strawberry Lane.
It was only one example of the disturbing behavior Sabalsa-Mendez had been exhibiting for months as he sank deeper into schizophrenia, a chronic disease that causes hallucinations and delusions.
Before the night was over, Feldman, 20, would die in the driveway in a pool of blood and Sabalsa-Mendez, 22, would be arrested for stabbing Feldman to death while in the grip of delusions.
An investigation that followed revealed Sabalsa-Mendez believed he was working for the CIA and was on a mission to kill Feldman. He also believed Feldman was taking part in a plot to crucify his soul.
The murder that ended Feldman's life and changed many others might never have happened if Sabalsa-Mendez had been committed to a mental institution as his mother had wanted, according to those familiar with the case.
"It's Exhibit A for why we need to change our civil commitment standards," Josephine County Circuit Judge Pat Wolke says of the Nov. 6, 2016, murder.
Wolke is chairman of the state's Work Group to Decriminalize Mental Illness, which is examining how other states handle civil commitment and whether Oregon should make its process easier. Oregon has some of the most strict commitment criteria in the nation.
Only 7.9 percent of civil commitment investigations in the state resulted in commitment in 2016, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
A downward spiral
Sabalsa-Mendez moved to Medford from Weed, California, in 2003 and graduated from Phoenix High School. An avid break-dancer, he went to Rogue Community College for one term, but then dropped out, his mother, Maria Mendez, told investigators after the murder.
She declined to be interviewed by the Mail Tribune.
In March 2016, Sabalsa-Mendez began exhibiting signs of mental illness. He would go into a room with the lights off, talk to himself and click his fingers, or stand in a corner and repeat the same behavior, Mendez told investigators.
"She said he would carry on conversations like someone was talking to him and he was talking back to them," Medford police wrote in one of many Medford Police Department, Ashland Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff's Office reports generated during the murder investigation and obtained by the Mail Tribune.
Mendez said her son was seen in the emergency department at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, had follow-up appointments with a doctor and was also hospitalized for three days, according to police reports.
The Medford hospital is home to an 18-bed behavioral health unit that provides short-term care for people with severe psychiatric problems.
Sabalsa-Mendez was placed on medications, but stopped taking them after about one week, police reports show.
In August 2016, he began burning sage in the house and outside beneath the moon because he wanted to get rid of evil spirits, according to police reports.
In September 2016, Sabalsa-Mendez was standing in his mother's bathroom muttering, "Do I need to kill him? Yes, I need to kill him," police reports show.
It's not clear whether he was talking about killing himself or another person, says Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Cromwell, the prosecutor on Sabalsa-Mendez's case.
Sabalsa-Mendez also was making threats against his mother's wife, who he believed wanted to harm him, Cromwell says.
Sabalsa-Mendez's mother called Medford police, who tracked him down after he left her home. They eventually found him sitting in his parked car, Cromwell says.
"He was very cordial with the police," she says. "He can hold it together for a short period of time. If you talk to him for 10 minutes, he can come across as OK."
Cromwell says police noticed oddities about his behavior, including that he had smashed his cellphone. They took him to RRMC's Behavioral Health Unit.
Sabalsa-Mendez's mother consulted with Jackson County Mental Health about having her son committed to a mental institution, according to Cromwell.
The process starts with a petition for commitment by two people, followed by a civil commitment investigation by Mental Health. If the investigator believes the person is legally a candidate for commitment, the person has a hearing with a Jackson County Circuit Court judge, who decides the person's fate.
Sabalsa-Mendez never went before a judge, Cromwell says.
Most commitment cases in Oregon end before a judge is involved.
Of 7,799 civil commitment investigations in the state in 2016, only 749 cases — less than 10 percent — resulted in a hearing before a judge, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
A committed person can be sent to Oregon State Hospital facilities in Salem or Junction City for treatment.
Cromwell says Mental Health officials sometimes consult with her about whether a person meets Oregon's high legal standards, but did not do so in Sabalsa-Mendez's case. Even if they had, she would have advised his threatening statements were not enough for commitment.
"The information they had was not sufficient based on case law," says Cromwell, who is an advocate of lowering Oregon's civil commitment standards.
Mentally ill people must be a danger to themselves or others; threats are not enough to get someone committed. Instead, they must have committed a violent act or taken concrete actions that could lead to violence, such as buying a gun.
Alternately, they must be so incapable of caring for themselves they are likely to die very soon.
Sabalsa-Mendez was released from RRMC.
A week before the murder, his mother kicked him out of her house because he refused to take his medications, Cromwell says.
He began living in his car near Lithia Park in Ashland, she says.
Michael Feldman, Avi Feldman's father, says the system should listen to parents like Mendez who fear their child is dangerous.
"From what I've learned, his mother tried numerous times to get him committed, to get him help through Jackson County Mental Health. As we all know, you can't get committed on a mere threat," he says.
Trying to help
Michael Feldman says his son was vibrant, fun, happy-go-lucky and always reaching out to help others. Their Ashland house was often a hub of activity and a hangout spot for Avi and his friends.
At the time of the murder, Avi was still trying to find his way in life. His efforts were complicated by the fact he had a rare sleep disorder called Kleine-Levin syndrome, his father says.
People with KLS — sometimes called Sleeping Beauty syndrome — have periods of excessive sleep that can last for months, altered behavior and a reduced understanding of the world, according to the KLS Foundation.
Both Avi and Sabalsa-Mendez enjoyed break dancing and knew each other through that activity, although Michael says he never met Sabalsa-Mendez.
On Nov. 5, 2016, the morning before the start of the Strawberry Lane party, Ashland police responded to a request for a check on the welfare of Sabalsa-Mendez, who was sitting in his car and staring toward Lithia Park, according to a police report.
Sabalsa-Mendez, who had cuts on his cheeks, said he was OK. Police saw him several times later that day walking downtown and panhandling in front of Ashland City Hall. He greeted the police or waved at them each time, the police report says.
Avi encountered Sabalsa-Mendez and invited him to the house party on Strawberry Lane so that Sabalsa-Mendez — who was essentially homeless — could get something to eat. The parents were away and their daughter was holding the party, according to police reports.
"Avi brought him to the party because the kid was hungry," Michael says.
Almost immediately, Sabalsa-Mendez began thinking paranoid thoughts about Avi and imagined that he was scrutinizing him, Cromwell says.
"Pedro starts thinking this is one of the guys who is after him," she says.
At the party
The two arrived at the party by taxi and others there began noticing something was wrong with Sabalsa-Mendez, Cromwell says.
He told several people he had cut his cheeks and chest because he was possessed and wanted to be rid of demons or spirits. Some said Sabalsa-Mendez was giving people weird looks, staring awkwardly at people from across the room and making odd gestures, according to police reports.
Cromwell says Sabalsa-Mendez believed he was trying to get permission from the partygoers to carry out his CIA mission to kill Avi.
"He thinks he's telepathically communicating with kids at the party, 'Should I kill him?' He thinks the kids are nodding, 'Yes,'" Cromwell says.
He spent much of his time alone, staring for a long period of time at a table and doing yoga poses, people at the party told investigators.
Once during the night, Sabalsa-Mendez took his Bowie knife out and had it sitting on a table in front of him on the back porch of the house. A teen boy held the knife briefly, and said several other kids picked up the knife as well, according to police reports.
Sabalsa-Mendez also held the knife up behind Avi's neck, although those at the party said they didn't think Avi was aware of what Sabalsa-Mendez was doing behind his back, according to police reports.
As the time neared 2 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016, a teen girl said she wanted to retrieve tea and a pouch of tobacco from her vehicle, but was afraid to go outside alone in the dark.
Avi volunteered to go with her.
"He was a gentleman. He was definitely a gentleman," says Michael, noting his son had good manners and a strong sense of right and wrong. Avi would help people carry their groceries or walk women to their cars.
As Avi and the teen girl began walking down some stairs toward her vehicle, Sabalsa-Mendez smashed something over Avi's head, probably the butt of the large knife. He began stabbing Avi in the face, then pulled Avi's jacket over his head and began stabbing him in the back, the teen girl told investigators.
"Pedro yells, 'CIA!' for the CIA to come out of the forest and help him," Cromwell says. "When he saw the CIA was not coming, he panics, then yells, 'Suicide!' He's coming up with a different excuse."
The teen girl ran back to the stairs screaming for help, but when nobody came quickly she ran back and punched and kicked Sabalsa-Mendez as he crouched over Avi. Sabalsa-Mendez stood up and started walking toward her. More kids were coming outside and she ran back into the house and locked herself in a bathroom, according to police reports.
A witness told investigators Sabalsa-Mendez was leaning over Avi and circling the knife over Avi's head.
At about 1:55 a.m., dispatchers began receiving 911 calls about a stabbing at a high school party on Strawberry Lane, police reports show.
Ashland police Sgt. Mike Vanderlip arrived in about three minutes. Almost immediately, he spotted Sabalsa-Mendez — who matched the suspect's description — along the driveway. Vanderlip pointed his Taser at him and ordered him to raise his hands and turn around. Sabalsa-Mendez complied, according to police reports.
Vanderlip handcuffed him and walked him back to the patrol car. People in the driveway told Vanderlip that Avi had been stabbed and needed help. Vanderlip told them help was on the way. He asked Sabalsa-Mendez for his name, told him he was being video- and audio-recorded and advised him of his Miranda rights, police reports say.
More people came down the driveway saying Avi needed help. Vanderlip used his radio to ask paramedics to expedite their response. Vanderlip found the knife in Sabalsa-Mendez's pocket and placed him in the back of his patrol car, according to police reports.
Vanderlip gave a flashlight to a male at the party and told him to go down the long road to Strawberry Lane and show other first responders how to get to the scene. He moved his car to make room for an ambulance to get through, although paramedics hadn't yet arrived. APD Officer Scott Wenzel arrived and Vanderlip told him to go help Avi, police reports say.
"Feldman was lying in the driveway on his back and was surrounded by several people who were trying to help him," Wenzel wrote in his police report. "The driveway was sloped and it was raining. I could see a large amount of blood on the asphalt being washed away down the driveway from where Feldman was lying."
Wenzel began checking for wounds while Vanderlip, who also had arrived by Avi's side, checked his breathing, which was labored. Honing in on the area with the largest quantity of blood, Wenzel found a deep laceration on the underside of Avi's arm near his armpit. However, there was little to no blood coming from the wound, according to police reports.
Wenzel knew the spot on the arm was the location for a large artery that, if cut, causes massive blood loss. He applied pressure to the spot with his thumbs against the arm bone to try and pinch off the artery, according to police reports.
"As I held the pressure point, Feldman's breathing became more sporadic and labored," Wenzel wrote in his police report. "Sergeant Vanderlip said he could still feel a pulse. Because Feldman's condition was worsening I released the pressure point and began to apply a combat tourniquet which I had on me to his arm. As I did I continued to put pressure on his arm when Feldman stopped breathing."
Ashland Fire & Rescue paramedics arrived about 15 minutes after the first 911 calls and began resuscitation attempts. Feldman was pronounced dead minutes later, according to police reports.
Angered that Vanderlip focused first on securing Sabalsa-Mendez and the knife rather than helping Avi, some people from the party responded by screaming obscenities at the police and calling them pigs, Cromwell says.
But during a situation such as an active shooter, police are trained to go after the assailant first in order to stop additional casualties, she says.
It's not clear that anyone could have saved Avi, Cromwell says.
The major brachial artery in the upper arm is under tension. Once it's severed, it retracts up toward the shoulder, making it difficult to reach, she says.
An autopsy at the Oregon State Police Forensics Laboratory in Central Point revealed Avi had been stabbed in the head, chest, back and arm. The cause of death was the severing of the main artery in his arm.
Michael says he wishes police had helped his son sooner, but he is also aware the brachial artery retracts when it is cut, making life-saving efforts difficult.
A young man at the party told investigators he believed Sabalsa-Mendez "was 'messed up in the head' and was planning on doing something the whole night with the knife," according to a police report.
Michael says he wishes someone at the party had taken Sabalsa-Mendez's disturbing behavior more seriously.
"I wish someone would have said, 'Get out of here. You can't be here. You're disruptive. We don't want you here,'" Michael says.
At the same time, he says his kindhearted son would never have been the one to kick Sabalsa-Mendez out of the party.
Sabalsa-Mendez appeared to be suffering from twin delusions that he worked for the CIA and that Avi was part of a scheme to crucify his soul.
When police arrived on the scene, Sabalsa-Mendez may have been compliant because he believed he had successfully carried out his CIA mission to assassinate Avi, Cromwell says.
"When the police arrive, he thinks the police are there to help him," she says.
Video shows Sabalsa-Mendez seated in the patrol car, rocking back and forth, talking about the CIA and saying, "You forced me to do this," Cromwell says.
Sabalsa-Mendez was taken to APD to be interviewed, but told investigators he did not want to speak to them because they could not communicate telepathically. He also said Avi had bad intentions to crucify his soul.
“Those are the possession thoughts I get. They’re more like telepathic communication voices that I hear and I try to follow the guidance,” Sabalsa-Mendez told investigators, according to a police report.
Medford police went to talk to Mendez and tell her that her son had stabbed Avi to death. She began crying and showed them where her son had slashed his mattress. Sabalsa-Mendez's brother brought out an empty box for the Bowie knife.
Cromwell says police and Mental Health workers did not know before the murder that Sabalsa-Mendez possessed a knife and had slashed his mattress. Cromwell believes his mother didn't report the knife incident because she didn't think it would do any good.
"She had tried very hard to get help for her son and it just didn't work," Cromwell says.
But if Mendez had reported those facts, Sabalsa-Mendez legally would have been a candidate for commitment, Cromwell says.
"That would have been enough," Cromwell says.
Meanwhile, Michael was sleeping on the night of the murder and heard his cellphone ring in the middle of the night. He initially ignored it, but then says he felt compelled to check it at about 4:30 a.m. He had missed a call from his son's best friend. When he called the friend back, he learned his son had died.
A police officer arrived at Michael's house. Michael then had to notify his ex-wife and Avi's grandmother that Avi was dead.
A year after his son's murder, Michael says he still has flashbacks about the events. At least for now, he has put away photos of his son.
"I have a hard time looking at pictures at this time," Michael says.
The murder was so traumatic, Avi's 17-year-old sister is attending a therapeutic boarding school, Michael says.
Michael says he misses everything about his son, from his hugs to his dancing. His dance videos are still up on YouTube.
"It hits me like a wall a lot," Michael says.
As for Sabalsa-Mendez, he was judged guilty of murder except for insanity in August and placed under the custody of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board. He could be in custody for life, or conditionally released to a lower level of care if he is no longer dangerous.
Although he was never civilly committed, Sabalsa-Mendez has ended up at the Oregon State Hospital anyway — but as a murderer.
"It's a case that should be paid attention to for its ramifications," Cromwell says. "What can we do differently?"
Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.