Before their paths crossed on June 12, 2021, Paul Pfeifer struggled with mental illness for years.
So, too, did his neighbor, Christopher Rice.
But there was a key difference between the two men. Pfeifer was able to get the help and treatment he needed, while Rice did not.
That day, as Pfeifer walked down the street from his Brooklyn Park townhome to get his mail Rice was in an apparent psychotic state, sitting behind the wheel of a black SUV.
Paul’s husband, Joseph Pfeifer St. James, stood near the open screen door of his townhome when he heard the sounds that he now hears over and over, echoes that never quit: Screeching tires, the booms of someone being run down.
Fearing it was Paul, Pfeifer St. James ran out screaming his name at the top of his lungs, only to see him lying on the ground. Joseph called 911 and held his husband in his arms, telling Paul he loved him as he watched him die.
“I wanted his spirit to see me loving him,” Pfeifer St. James said.
As horrible as that sounds to someone reading this, “It was a thousand times that,” he said.
Despite that persistent pain, Joseph believes there are two victims from that day. Not only his husband - but also the man who killed him.
“He was not given proper care,” Pfeifer St. James said. “(Paul) deserved to have a long life and he didn’t because we don’t take care of our mentally ill.”
Joseph wants that to change.
Chapter 1: 'It's life and death'
Christopher Rice is what’s known in Minnesota as a gap case.
A year before running over Paul Pfeifer, Rice had a psychotic breakdown and was charged with assaulting and robbing one of his neighbors. Found too mentally ill to stand trial, he fell into a gap in Minnesota’s mental health and criminal justice systems - ultimately released into the community without appropriate supervision and treatment.
As KARE 11 has reported, these failures for defendants like Rice have been catastrophic in Minnesota, resulting in assaults, robberies, rapes and at least four deaths - including Paul Pfeifer’s.
KARE 11's reporting has prompted numerous reform proposals at the state legislature this session, including a bipartisan bill that would completely overhaul how the courts and counties handle mentally incompetent defendants.
That bill calls for the creation of a network of competency restoration programs across the state, as well as new positions called forensic navigators, to not only be an advocate to help mentally incompetent defendants get treatment but also ensure that they’re not endangering the public.
The bill's co-sponsor, DFL Rep. Heather Edelson, said she expects the House to debate the reforms on the floor next week. If passed, the legislation will go to the state senate, where Edelson acknowledged that the $20 million estimated price tag to fund the new programs and navigator positions each year will be a substantial hurdle.
Joseph says what happened to his husband shows reform is needed, regardless of cost.
“It’s life and death,” he said.
Chapter 2: Seeking help
Paul Pfeifer was an uncle, a banker, and a musician who loved to play piano at church.
“And he was easy to fall in love with,” Pfeifer St. James said. “He loved me unconditionally.”
Paul was also bipolar, “more on the depression side most of the time,” his husband said. Paul could be suicidal and his symptoms could be frightening, Joseph said.
But Paul was able to get treatment as his husband helped and supported him, sometimes by taking him to a hospital.
For years, Christopher Rice was also able to get the help he needed.
The struggles Rice had with mental illness began more than two decades ago when he was assaulted with a baseball bat and suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to court records.
His girlfriend of more than 20 years, Juanita Holcomb, said at a court hearing in March that Rice was able to manage his illness with medications for years and hadn’t had a history of violence.
“He is a gentle person,” she said.
But Holcomb said after his doctor tried to wean him off one of his medications, Rice experienced drastic mood swings.
In December 2019, Holcomb called Brooklyn Park police to their townhome, saying he was acting aggressive to the point that it was scaring her and her two young children, according to police records.
Police and paramedics took Rice to a hospital. About three weeks later, a judge committed him to the Department of Human Services for treatment, ruling that Rice posed a substantial likelihood of causing harm.
While hospitalized, Rice’s behavior turned violent. In January of 2020 he threatened to kill his doctor. The next day, he hit his doctor several times in the head and had to be subdued, according to court records.
Yet Rice was provisionally discharged from a hospital the next month. Still under civil commitment, his case manager lost contact with Rice due to the pandemic, records show.
Police were again called out to the Brooklyn Park townhome complex in June 2020.
According to police reports, Rice walked up to one of his neighbors and began punching him in the face. “As soon as I looked up, he slapped me in the side of the face and then he tried to punch me.” John Wubbels told KARE 11.
Rice then ran to another neighbor, 18-year-old Ariel Wright, who was standing by her car. He claimed he was being chased and asked for her keys.
Wright told KARE 11 in an interview that when she refused, Rice jumped into her car. As she reached into grab her phone, he threw the vehicle into reverse hitting Wright with the open door. Slammed to the ground, she was left bloody and bruised.
“I could have easily been run over by him,” Wright said.
Rice would go back and apologize to his neighbors following the incident, according to court records.
When police found him, they reported Rice was talking incoherently, saying he was purposefully assaulting white people so he could get arrested – even though his neighbors were both white and people of color.
He told the officer that he did what he did hoping “he would get the help that he needed.”
Rice was taken back to the hospital and admitted to the psychiatric unit “for stabilization.” Three weeks later, records show he was once again provisionally discharged into the community.
Although released from the hospital, Rice was still ordered to be under state mental health supervision for another year – until July 2021. The court order also authorized the administration of antipsychotic drugs even if Rice objected.
Chapter 3: Sent back home
For the first time in his life, Christopher Rice was also facing a criminal charge – first degree aggravated robbery for stealing Ariel Wright’s car. Rice posted bond and would go back home.
“There’s no way he should have been just out in the community, there’s no way,” said Wright.
But Rice’s criminal case would never be heard. In October he was found too mentally ill to stand trial in the aggravated robbery case.
In April 2021, records show Rice’s mental illness grew worse as his girlfriend struggled to get him help. She called police that month saying that Rice was having problems with his medications and not acting normally. Rice told officers he didn’t want to go to the hospital, according to the police report.
Even though she had initially called them for help, the report says officers left after Holcomb told them she didn’t think Rice was dangerous and saw no reason to force him to be hospitalized.
Chapter 4: Repeated calls to police
The next month, on May 21, Holcomb again called police saying Rice was having a mental health crisis, slamming doors and sounding like he was talking to himself, according to a Brooklyn Park police report of the incident.
This time Holcomb said she did want her boyfriend to go to the hospital. But Rice refused and didn’t want to talk to police, according to the department report. They told her about potential resources to contact, then left the residence.
Throughout this period, Rice was still supposed to be under court-ordered mental health supervision, but his girlfriend would later tell police she hit “roadblocks” when she tried to get social workers to help him.
Three weeks later, on June 11, police were called again. This time Kari Wubbels, the wife of the neighbor Rice had attacked a year earlier, reported she saw Rice walking around the neighborhood holding knives under a towel.
“It was terrifying for me when I saw the knives,” Wubbels said.
Police couldn’t find Rice but did speak with his girlfriend. According to their report, Holcomb told police that Rice needed to go to the hospital. She said he hadn’t been taking his medications because they made him agitated.
She told them she had done everything in her power to get her boyfriend help. “But the social workers and county do not seem to be doing much,” Holcomb said.
Police were able to speak with Rice over the phone. He didn’t say where he was but told them he didn’t want to harm himself or others. Given that statement, and that they couldn’t assess him in person, police didn’t take him into custody. However, a report shows a Brooklyn Park officer alerted lawyers handling Rice’s civil commitment case.
Later that day Rice’s social worker filed an intent to revoke the provisional discharge he had been granted the summer before, citing the knives report and the fact he was no longer taking his medications or engaging with providers.
The social worker wanted Rice taken back to a hospital due to concerns for his safety and “the safety of the community.”
It would be too late.
Chapter 5: Hearing voices
The next day, Paul Pfeifer parked his car in the garage and walked down to get the mail. Joseph believes Paul likely saw the black SUV speeding toward him, and that he tried to turn around and run.
“I don’t like to think about him being that scared,” Pfeifer St. James said.
According to the criminal complaint, police found the SUV – registered to Holcomb – just up the road from where Paul was hit. Holcomb went to officers and told them Rice was in their townhome.
There, police found a man who was mumbling and incoherent. After being arrested and taken to jail Rice told police that voices in his head told him the person by the mailbox had done something bad to his mother, and told him to hit him with his car.
Rice was charged with murder. In November, he was once again found incompetent to stand trial.
In March Rice was committed as mentally ill and dangerous, which will keep him indefinitely detained at the state security hospital in St. Peter. A man with not-so-much as a parking ticket on his record before June 2020 could now be locked up for the rest of his life.
Holcomb declined an interview request for this story.
Joseph Pfeifer St. James says he never slept another night in the Brooklyn Park townhome. As the year has passed, he gets angry with himself when life feels like it’s getting back to normal.
“Life can’t be normal,” he said.
Building a new normal includes speaking out, sharing details about his husband’s struggle with mental illness and demanding that legislators make sure that what happened to Paul happens to no one else.
“Paul Pfiefer’s life was worth something,” Pfeifer St. James said. “Please help us ensure that he doesn’t die in vain.”
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