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Before the Break: The Highs and Hopes of Daniel Dewitt's Life

Friends of the Dewitt family recall Daniel as being a "shy" but "sweet" boy before schizophrenia took hold of his life. Five years after diagnosis in his late teens, the 23-year-old is charged with the murder of a Berkeley Hills man.

Daniel Dewitt was in high school when he started becoming reclusive and depressed. His mother Candy became concerned that something wasn't right, recalled Janice Wilkes, a friend of the Dewitt family. 

He had his first "break" and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 18. Since, Dewitt has been in and out of mental health facilities at least nine times and charged with harassment and battery. On Feb. 18, while searching for his imaginary girlfriend.

But before his first schizophrenic episode and subsequent deterioration into an almost perpetual state of delusion, Daniel Dewitt was a regular kid, according to friends and acquaintances. Those who spoke to Patch said they were shocked at the news of Dewitt's alleged involvement in the death of 67-year-old Peter Cukor, and that he had never been a violent person.

Jose Diaz has known Dewitt since second grade, attending the same schools and remaining close friends after high school. According to Diaz, Dewitt was an apt sportsman, but his real passion lay in digital music production.

"He especially liked making music," said Diaz, speaking of a hobby that centered around Dewitt's home studio set-up on his computer. According to family friends, Dewitt aspired to be a music producer and took classes to learn the skills and trade.

Even after Dewitt's delusional behavior began, Diaz was able to maintain a relationship with his friend and still do things like go out to eat and socialize, he says. "He'd be a cool person to hang out with," said Diaz. When Dewitt started talking about his imaginary girlfriend Zoey, Diaz would "go along with it."

"As a friend, the only thing I can do is hear him out," said Diaz. "I can't judge him or get mad at him."

In recent years, however, Dewitt's "ideas started changing," recalls Diaz. As a young adult, Dewitt wanted to spend more time alone, and lost interest in his former hobbies.

"He wasn't the same person any more," said Diaz. "He didn't have the same enthusiasm. He just started changing little by little."

But despite the more reclusive, distanced behavior, Diaz says Dewitt never seemed a threat. "Daniel was never like that — he was never violent," said Diaz. "He was a real caring guy. He was shy at times, so it was hard for him to show it."

Alice Lewis, whose daughter was in the same class as Daniel at St. Joseph's Elementary School in Alameda, remembers Dewitt as "sweet and cooperative" child. She says:

I was shocked when I read about the assault in the Chronicle, and heartbroken for both his parents and the family of the victim. It's so easy to think of "bad guys" are one dimensional. Most of the time, fortunately, we have no connection to either the victim or the criminal. It's much, much harder when you read a story like this, see a grainy photo of an alleged assailant on the news or in the paper, and all you can think of is a little boy in a Catholic school uniform working on an art project or eating a cupcake.

Janice Wilkes has been a friend of the Dewitt family since before they had children. She says of Daniel:

He was shy, sweet, always played well with others and had no problems. He was just the nicest kid. He was one of the shy ones, but he always participated and followed all the rules. Easy to care for. Loved sports and music.

Anna Carlson went to Alameda Hgh School with Dewitt:

I remember him as a nice, shy guy. I never knew he suffered from mental illness. I am surprised and saddened to hear of what has happened and at Daniel's involvement.

If you know Daniel DeWitt or his family, feel free to share your memories in the comments below.

Paul D February 29, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Ms Henry, did I miss your write-up on the victim, his loving supportive family, his many good friends, his significant achievements in life, his expectations of the future?
Diana Rossi March 01, 2012 at 07:13 AM
Ms. Henry, I am grateful for this article. Thank you for making me think about mental illness and the tragedy of it all. For me, these thoughts in no way detract from the tragedy of the victim's death, or the victim's achievements, etc. My condolences to all involved. Diana Rossi
LS Lys March 01, 2012 at 03:39 PM
According to the website http://www.schizophrenia.com/szfacts.htm, which provides statistics and data on schizophrenia, "People with schizophrenia are far more likely to harm themselves than be violent toward the public. Violence is not a symptom of schizophrenia." I don't think it's fair to equate schizophrenia, or mental illness in general, with violent acts. Generally violent acts indicate something more wrong with the person. I also think it's harmful to perpetuate stigmas surrounding people who already suffer the effects of mental illness.
Tanya Jo Miller March 01, 2012 at 04:44 PM
@Paul D...thanks for writing, and your point is well taken. Your sentiments were something we had considered folks might feel. However one of our editors assigned the article because, well, it's an story that people have a continued interest in. But he also wanted an obituary on Peter Cukor. So far the family hasn't spoken to the press that I'm aware of. I made the call that it was best, so soon after the murder, to respect the family's privacy. We certainly want to check in with them when things aren't so raw and write the kind of article you're suggesting.
Tanya Jo Miller March 01, 2012 at 04:54 PM
@LS Lys...Thanks for the interesting study. I think the point Emily was making was more along the lines of...Daniel Dewitt was having a break with reality. Presumably he was trying to get into the home, not to steal or harm the family, but to find his imaginary girlfriend. According to the Bay City News, when the police arrived he hiding in the bushes and seemed confused. http://patch.com/A-rb44 That said, maybe you're right...it could be that he had a propensity toward violence that had nothing to do with his schizophrenia.
Emily Henry (Editor) March 01, 2012 at 06:23 PM
According to friends of the family, Daniel Dewitt was not a violent person. However, he was due to appear in court on a battery charge for allegedly punching and "stomping" on a male nurse at the John George Psychiatric Pavilion where he was staying at the time. I think it's important to note that the topic of violence and mental illness, and the stigma caused by incidents such as these, is something that we are intending to address with comments from Berkeley Daily Planet columnist Jack Bragen. Bragen, who writes about mental illness and is himself schizophrenic, says that when people with mental health issues commit crime, it is an anomaly. He says: "When someone with mental illness is presumed guilty of a crime, it's all over the news, and this promotes the misconception that mentally ill people are automatically criminals and that criminals are automatically mentally ill. Persons with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators of them."
LS Lys March 01, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Thank you for adding this - much appreciated.

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