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Finding words at last for an unspeakable loss

Parents of two dead children seek to prevent repeat of tragedy

Ken and Danielle Lambert of Brentwood, N.H., grieve for their children. Ken and Danielle Lambert of Brentwood, N.H., grieve for their children. (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / December 7, 2008
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BRENTWOOD, N.H. - The refrigerator is still covered with red, yellow, and blue magnetic letters and numbers. A Play-Doh set rests atop a wooden kitchen cabinet, as if tiny fingers will play with it soon. Living room shelves are stacked neatly with Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Barbie dolls, and toy cars.

Eleven months have passed since Danielle and Ken Lambert's 5-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son were carried to their deaths into oncoming traffic on Interstate 495 in Lowell by Danielle's identical twin in a nearly unfathomable tragedy. Yet their belongings still fill their house in this rural town in southeastern New Hampshire.

"I just don't feel like I want to move it," said Danielle Lambert, in a recent interview. "I kind of like keeping things as they were. It sort of gives us a feeling of their presence." Lambert lost not only her only children, but her sister, Marcelle Thibault, on Jan. 11.

The Lamberts's anguish remains raw from that chilly Friday night when Thibault picked up their children to drive to a sleepover with cousins at her house in Bellingham. Along the way, Thibault crossed the median of I-495, stopped her car in the wrong direction, undressed herself and the two children, and then ran them to their deaths. According to one eyewitness, she was screaming about religion before she was hit.

But in the Lamberts's grief, they are searching for whatever clarity they can find and trying to use the information they have begun gathering to prevent the unthinkable from happening to someone else.

The State Police, the Lamberts have discovered, came heartbreakingly close to detaining Thibault for a psychiatric evaluation when they found her behaving erratically hours earlier that night on the median strip of the very same highway. But the three troopers decided against it, and Thibault continued on her way to New Hampshire to pick up her niece and nephew.

The Lamberts said they had no reason to worry when Thibault arrived to pick up Kaleigh and Shane for the sleepover. Thibault, who was 39, had been treated at McLean Hospital four months earlier and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the couple said. But she seemed nearly fully recovered and was behaving normally when she collected the pajama-clad children, along with their favorite pillows and sleeping bags.

"She was acting like the normal Marci I knew all my life," Danielle Lambert, a 40-year-old pediatric nurse practitioner, said.

Now, the State Police are one of two entities that the Lamberts said share blame for their children's deaths, the other being the renowned McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility in Belmont. The family believes that the hospital released Thibault far too early, and without any warnings about the risk she might pose to herself or others.

State Police said they acted appropriately in the case, and McLean officials, citing privacy concerns, declined to address the particulars of Thibault's treatment.

"If she got the help she needed, this wouldn't have happened," Danielle Lambert said. "My sister was a good person. She was my best friend. I know she wouldn't have done that intentionally."

Lambert, though, might have barely recognized the woman who police came across on the median strip of I-495 in Andover when Thibault was en route to New Hampshire to pick up the children.

Thibault was punching another motorist - a good Samaritan who stopped to assist her - when State Police arrived around 7 p.m. After that, as troopers questioned Thibault, she splashed her feet in the swampy grass and told a trooper she was having a "debate between good and evil," according to State Police documents that were obtained by the Lambert family and shared with the Globe.

One trooper, according to the records, suggested to his colleagues that she be "pink slipped," or taken for a psychiatric evaluation, according to the reports. Thibault told the officers she was driving to her sister's house and had dozed off. The troopers decided they lacked enough evidence to detain her and issued a ticket for failing to stay in marked lanes.

Two hours later, Thibault carried her niece and nephew into traffic, and those same three troopers raced to the scene. They quickly realized she was the woman they had questioned, according to the reports. Her traffic ticket was still in her car, and the radio was blaring at top volume.

Sitting at her dining room table, her husband holding her hand, a tearful Danielle Lambert said the couple would never have let their children go with Thibault if they had known about her actions earlier in the night.

David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said recruits undergo training at the police academy for dealing with mentally ill people and continue online training after being sworn in.

The troopers who responded earlier on I-495 behaved properly, Procopio said. They decided not to take Thibault in for an evaluation because she had calmed down after flailing at the motorist who had stopped his car after seeing her drive onto the median at highway speed. (The unidentified motorist called Thibault "crazy," according to police reports, but did not want to press charges). Procopio said Thibault was unimpaired by alcohol or drugs, and that the troopers did not have enough evidence to seek a psychiatric evaluation.

"Like so many parts of a police officer's job, the decision to commit a person who is potentially emotionally disturbed is a judgment call that has to be made after a relatively brief observation period," Procopio said. "They did everything correctly in terms of questioning her and doing their best to obtain information from her."

The Lamberts have hired noted Boston lawyer Andrew C. Meyer Jr., but have not filed a lawsuit. If they do, the likely target won't be the State Police, but McLean Hospital, Meyer said. Massachusetts law makes it extraordinarily hard for plaintiffs to prove liability against police officers in wrongful death claims.

The Lamberts, in the interview, said McLean doctors should not have discharged Thibault after six days; Thibault, they said, was still delusional and believed God had sent her to the hospital to help other patients. Danielle Lambert and another sister, Stacey Coady, also said McLean staff never told the family at a meeting before Thibault's discharge that she was at risk to kill herself or someone else.

The Lamberts have started a nonprofit group, Keep Sound Minds - www.keepsoundminds.org - and want to change how police officers respond to individuals exhibiting serious mental illness. The organization, which is holding a fund-raiser March 28 at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, also wants to change how psychiatric hospitals discharge patients, including requirements to discuss risks of suicide and homicide with family members and to make sure patients get outpatient treatment.

McLean issued a statement that did not address Thibault directly, but said that its clinicians work with patients and their families to educate them about mental illness and devise a treatment plan "to which the patient agrees to adhere as they prepare to return home." The statement said the hospital welcomes suggestions for possible improvements in its procedures.

Dr. Alberto M. Goldwaser, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at New York University's medical school, said it is understandable that the Lamberts are second-guessing the State Police and McLean. But he said the couple's criticisms are probably unrealistic.

"Right now, we know the police should have taken her to a hospital, and then this tragic event wouldn't have happened. But that's in hindsight," said Goldwaser, who is not involved in the case. "So, yeah, [Thibault] was peculiar. We're talking about taking her liberties, taking her freedom."

If anyone was in a position to gauge whether Thibault appeared to be a danger, he added, it was Danielle and Ken Lambert, and they detected nothing amiss when Thibault arrived. "She shouldn't blame anybody, not even herself," he said of Danielle Lambert. "This kind of horrible event doesn't happen very often."

Thibault's husband, Michael, an EMC Corp. employee who met his wife at Bellingham High School, said it might be a good idea for police to have access to a database of individuals who had been committed to psychiatric hospitals, despite the inherent privacy concerns. He said the State Police "had Marci in their hands on the way up" to New Hampshire.

But Dr. Mark Goldblatt, a Cambridge psychiatrist and president of the New England chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said Americans are ambivalent about how to respond to people with mental illness.

"Society wants it both ways," he said. "We want to have complete freedom and liberty and not be restrained by government, not have people's names in databases. And at the same time, we want to control people who live a certain way with mental illness. It's hard to have both."

Marcelle Thibault and Danielle Lambert were two of eight children, all girls, who grew up in Bellingham. Marcelle graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence. She and Danielle were the maids of honor in each other's weddings. In recent years, Thibault worked part-time jobs while raising her two children with her husband.

Since the tragedy, Danielle Lambert and Stacey Coady have learned about a history of mental illness spanning several generations in their family. Although Thibault was sometimes anxious, her twin said, she never displayed any serious mental disorder until September 2007, when she was fired from a custodial job she had held for a few weeks at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. "That's what triggered everything," Lambert said. "She was embarrassed, demoralized, and it consumed her."

Thibault would talk to her sister on the phone and rant that she was "good, righteous, and kind" and her former employer was "evil and cold." In one call, she yelled so loudly and rapidly that an alarmed Lambert pulled the phone from her ear, and her co-workers overheard it.

Thibault also began telling people that she had received angel's wings and had been anointed by God to make the world better, Lambert said.

In response to such behavior, Coady and Thibault's husband Michael took her to Massachusetts General Hospital in September 2007 and, from there, she was admitted to McLean. Doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and discharged her six days later after prescribing psychotropic drugs and recommending outpatient therapy, Danielle Lambert said.

Danielle Lambert told doctors before the discharge that she was concerned Marcelle Thibault still seemed to have delusions. But the physicians told her the thoughts were not dangerous and that Thibault could resume her activities, Lambert said.

She did for several months, Danielle Lambert said. She volunteered at a church and behind the concession stand at Bellingham High School football games. She hosted her annual Christmas party. By late last year, Lambert said, Thibault was "95 percent back to her old self." Nonetheless, Thibault's sisters were worried that she had stopped taking medication, declined to go to therapy, and seemed to embrace religion with an unfamiliar fervor.

On Jan. 11, Thibault showed up at the Lamberts's house at 8 p.m., about 90 minutes later than scheduled, to pick up Kaleigh and Shane. Danielle Lambert said she would have driven her children to Bellingham, but was participating the next day in a bone marrow donor drive for a New Hampshire girl with leukemia.

Thibault never mentioned her run-in with the troopers and seemed normal, the Lamberts said. She sipped a cup of tea and watched the end of "Hannah Montana" with the children before loading them into the car and heading to Bellingham, Lambert said.

"Be good for Auntie Marci and Uncle Mike," Ken Lambert recalled telling his children.

Around 10:30 p.m., the phone rang at the Lamberts's house. Danielle Lambert said she had a feeling it was bad news even before a 16-year-old niece told them about the accident.

Since the tragedy, the Lamberts have undergone therapy and met repeatedly with a priest who has comforted them. They discussed the deaths in Washington with congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, an advocate for improved mental health care who has bipolar disorder and a history of substance abuse. They said they want to educate people about how deadly untreated mental illness can be.

"I have a lot of questions, of course," Danielle Lambert said, with a catch in her voice, as she showed a visitor Kaleigh and Shane's toys and books. "Why did God let this happen?"

She paused. "I just hope that we will see them again in heaven."

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

Danielle Lambert told doctors before the discharge that Marcelle Thibault (left) still seemed to have delusions.

looking back

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