The day before Eddie Ray Routh killed Chris Kyle, the most prolific sniper in American military history, he awoke in his childhood home and tried to get ready for work. Several months earlier the 25-year-old former Marine had moved back in with his parents in Lancaster, Texas, a small, middle-class suburb just south of Dallas. He had been struggling for years with what doctors had diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though his symptoms suggested he was suffering from a more serious mental illness. He would later tell a forensic psychologist that he believed his coworkers at a cabinet shop were cannibals who planned to eat him.
Routh was plagued with such severe anxiety, he was unable to drive himself to work. His mother, Jodi, would drop him off in the morning on her way to her job at an elementary school, and the shop’s owner would return him home. That meant for a few hours each afternoon, Routh was left alone. “When I’d start back to the house,” Jodi recalls, “I’d be like, ‘Please don’t let me find him dead.’ I was so afraid he was going to kill himself. Because that’s what he wanted.” At night, he would often climb into bed with her. “This was a 6’2 Marine,” she says. “A tough man calling for his mama.”
Routh had lately become concerned about the state of his soul, and when he and his mother arrived at the cabinet shop on the morning of February 1, 2013, he asked if they could pray together. In the parking lot, Jodi held her son’s hand. Wiry since boyhood, he had a narrow face and a beak nose, with nervous eyes and an unkempt beard. Before he exited the car and slunked off into the shop, he asked the Lord to watch over his mom and dad.
Jodi was headed out of town that afternoon to spend the weekend with her husband, Raymond, who was building feedlot equipment a few hours away in Hereford. She took comfort in knowing that her son’s girlfriend would be staying at the house with him, and that his uncle would check in on him. But Routh had plans that his mother did not know about. The following day, Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, were taking him to a shooting range.
Kyle’s death generated an outpouring of grief in Texas, where he was celebrated as a hero in a memorial service at Texas Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. It also resonated with gun enthusiasts across the country, who embraced Kyle as a celebrity at major events like Las Vegas’s SHOT show, the annual firearms industry convention.
Kyle’s legend as a kind of modern Wyatt Earp was enhanced by his books. In his bestseller American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, he writes, “One of my proudest possessions is a replica Peacemaker — the famous Colt revolver that defined the Wild West.” He was especially recognized for his 2012 autobiography, American Sniper, which chronicled his exploits as a Navy Seal in Iraq, where he served four tours and logged 160 kills, a U.S. military record.
In his videotaped confession with a Texas Ranger, Routh said, in reference to Kyle, “I knew if I did not take his soul, he was going to take mine.”
The film adaptation of his story, starring Bradley Cooper, was already in theaters in Stephenville when Routh’s murder trial began there on February 11, 2014. Outside the courthouse, local vendors sold Chris Kyle baseball caps. A week earlier, Governor Greg Abbott had declared February 2, the anniversary of the murders, Chris Kyle Day.
Routh’s lawyers argued that he was insane at the time of the killings. Their medical expert, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Routh for six hours, disagreed with the PTSD diagnosis he had been given years earlier by doctors at the Dallas Veterans Affairs hospital. The expert believed Routh was schizophrenic, and suggested he suffered from paranoid delusions. In his videotaped confession with a Texas Ranger, Routh said, in reference to Kyle, “I knew if I did not take his soul, he was going to take mine.”
The prosecution, however, argued that Routh was a psychopath, and that his odd statements had been calculated to keep him out of jail. After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury agreed, and Routh was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Following the verdict, the general consensus was that Kyle, the apotheosis of a good guy with a gun, had been killed by a very bad guy with a gun. Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy Seal whose autobiography was the basis for the popular film Lone Survivor, tweeted, “Justice served for Chris and the Littlefield family. To Eddie Ray Routh, you thought you had PTSD before .?? Wait till the boys in [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] Find out you killed a TX hero.”
There’s an obvious appeal to such black and white, good vs. evil narratives. But the truth about the man who killed the celebrated “American Sniper” is not that simple. Recently, Jodi and Raymond Routh shared with The Trace hundreds of pages of confidential medical records containing information never brought to light during the trial. The documents appear to corroborate the testimony of the defense’s medical expert: Routh suffered a series of psychotic breaks and exhibited signs of schizophrenia in the two years leading up to Kyle’s murder, raising questions about how Routh’s illness was treated at the Dallas VA.
“[The VA] should have been more careful … when he was presenting with much clearer psychotic symptoms,” says Dr. Amam Saleh, a forensic psychiatrist who reviewed Routh’s medical records for The Trace. “Something was missed.”
In September 2007, Routh was deployed to a forward operating base about 60 miles north of Baghdad, where he repaired weapons and worked as prison guard for six months. That was his only war-related experience, though in January 2010 he was sent to Haiti on a humanitarian mission, after an earthquake there devastated the country. He told his parents he was responsible for clearing the land of corpses, among them dead babies. There is no documented evidence to confirm Routh’s account, but when he returned from Haiti, Jodi recalls, “he was just so messed up.”
In late July 2011, a little more than a year after he was honorably discharged from the Marines, Routh appeared at the Dallas VA, complaining that a tapeworm — which doctors found did not exist — was eating away at his insides. This is when the VA first diagnosed him as having PTSD, according to the medical records, and doctors prescribed him Risperidone, an anti-psychotic, as well as other medications to treat depression.
Several days later, Routh threatened to kill himself with the .357 Magnum his father kept in his car. Again, he was taken to the Dallas VA, where he remained for nearly two weeks. The clinical notes from August 3 say that Routh was “psychotic.” At one point he told the staff, “You are all in this game, I can see the smoke in the mirror, we are all actors.”
Over the next year, through 2012, Routh’s symptoms grew worse. He was convinced the government was spying on him. He reported having auditory hallucinations, like hearing music that seemed like it was “picked up [from] a radio station.” He got into another fight with his father and again threatened to kill himself, which prompted his parents to remove all of their guns from the house. Routh blamed the incident on alcohol. Records from around this time note that the VA offered him inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse, which the clinicians seemed to think was the trigger for his psychotic episodes. Routh declined. He also stopped taking his medication, saying that the drugs made him feel like a “fucking zombie.”
In early January, 2013, Jodi met Chris Kyle, then 38 years old. He’d been a civilian since 2009, and took a keen interest in working with veterans suffering from PTSD. He had experienced his own difficulties with the aftershocks of war and, like many former soldiers, saw therapeutic value in physical exercise and going to the range.
Brandishing a knife, Routh barricaded the front door of his girlfriend’s apartment and held her and her roommate hostage. He believed he was protecting them from the “evils of the world.”
Kyle’s children attended the school where Jodi worked as a teacher’s aide. She had heard about Kyle’s work with veterans, and one day she approached him in the parking lot and asked if he might be able to help her son. Kyle was sympathetic. He took Eddie’s phone number and promised to call him. Less than two weeks later, Jodi bumped into Kyle again. He said he was planning to take Routh shooting soon.
“At that moment, I thought it was fine,” Jodi says.
It’s possible to imagine how she reached this conclusion. Each time the VA had released Routh from inpatient treatment, doctors had determined he didn’t pose a threat to himself or others. He was, according to them, well enough to be free and out in the world.
What happened over the next few weeks would seem to call into question their judgment. On January 19, shortly after Jodi saw Kyle, Routh suffered his most severe psychotic break yet. When it happened, he was at the apartment of his new girlfriend, Jennifer Weed, whom he had met on the Internet. Brandishing a knife, he barricaded the front door of her apartment and held Weed and her roommate hostage. As the medical records explain, Routh believed he was protecting them from the “evils of the world.” The roommate called the police, and he was taken to Green Oaks Hospital in Dallas.
The clinicians there believed Routh was both suicidal and homicidal. He cried intermittently, and made a series of strange statements. “I’ve been losing my fucking mind,” he said. “Your mind is the only one you’ve got, you know?” At one point he asked a doctor, “You got any idea how long they been recording this? You know — this Mickey Mouse bullshit going on all across America?”
A doctor noted that, in addition to suffering from PTSD, Routh appeared to be in the throes of “first-break schizophrenia.” He said Routh was “paranoid and impulsively violent”— he had cornered a female technician — and that he needed to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for five to 10 days. He was given several medications, including Haldol, Paxil, and Seroquel. On January 21, he was transferred back into the care of the Dallas VA.
Just three days after he arrived at the hospital, the VA prepared to discharge Routh. Jodi believed he was not ready — he still had crying spells and seemed generally unstable. She requested her son be kept at the hospital until he could be admitted to a residential treatment program for PTSD in Waco. Her request is documented in the medical records, part of an exchange with a social worker, who explained that Routh would have to go through the application process like everyone else. Jodi begged the social worker to “cut the red tape” and get her son admitted as soon as possible. But the social worker’s hands were tied. The notes continue, “I advised her that [Eddie] will be discharged tomorrow as his paranoia symptoms are no longer present, he is not S/I and not H/I,” which means suicidal or homicidal.
Unlike Green Oaks, the VA never considered that Routh might have schizophrenia, an illness that generally surfaces in early adulthood. The disorder is marked by the sorts of delusions and paranoia Routh had experienced, and, left untreated, it can lead to violent behavior. Dr. Amam Saleh, the forensic psychiatrist, told me that large facilities like VA centers often treat patients based on doctors’ previous conclusions, rather than starting each new admission with a clean slate, which can blind clinicians to other possible diagnoses.
The VA evaluated Routh to see if he qualified for more intensive treatment. Despite his history of homicidal and suicidal thoughts, he was not considered a high enough risk.
Green Oaks had the benefit of examining Routh with a fresh set of eyes. The VA did not, which is evident in its analysis of Routh’s knife episode. A spokesman for the hospital told me the incident was triggered by a “recent binge on alcohol and marijuana and being off his psychiatric medications” — issues the VA had previously blamed for Routh’s psychotic behavior. Green Oaks’ records, however, state that he was not intoxicated when he arrived at the facility. A psychotic break that is induced by substance abuse could necessitate a different treatment plan than one that occurs naturally. The latter, according to Dr. Saleh, would require a more aggressive medication regimen and prolonged hospitalization.
The VA records note that during a follow-up visit five days after his discharge, Routh exhibited no signs of hallucinations or delusions. It was an encouraging snapshot, but it only captured Routh’s state of mind on that particular day. The hospital evaluated Routh to see if he qualified for Mental Health Intensive Case Management, which would have provided him with a host of resources, including regular at-home visits from a caseworker. But the hospital concluded he did not meet the criteria for the service. Despite the knife incident and his history of homicidal and suicidal thoughts, he was not considered a high enough risk.
The doctor did increase the dosages of Routh’s medications, but the new prescriptions, the records state, weren’t sent out until “on or about Feb 2, 2013,” the day Routh went to the shooting range with Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield.
That morning, according to news reports, Routh and Jennifer Weed got into a fight. She left the house around 10 o’clock, certainly expecting to see him again — Routh had proposed the previous evening, without a ring. At some point, Jodi’s brother, James Watson, paid Routh a visit. He and his nephew smoked marijuana, and Routh drank whiskey.
Kyle, driving his black Ford F-350, arrived at the house with Littlefield that afternoon. Routh hadn’t told anyone they were coming to get him, and he got into the truck without saying goodbye to his uncle. Jodi, meanwhile, was away visiting her husband. “If Chris had called me that day, and told me what they were doing,” she says, “I would have said no, it’s a bad idea.”
As Kyle steered them onto the highway, he could tell there was something off about Routh, who was seated in the back of the truck’s cab. He texted Littlefield, who was riding in the passenger seat.
“This dude is straight-up nuts,” Kyle wrote.
Littlefield replied, “He’s right behind me, watch my six.”
Around three o’clock the group pulled up at Rough Creek Lodge, a luxury resort 90 miles southwest of Lancaster. The property is 11,000 acres, with large tracts of land set aside for hunting and golf. The range, which Kyle helped design, is down a dirt road that extends for several miles. Before the three men mounted an elevated deck and began to shoot, they raised a red Bravo flag, signaling others to stay away.
Two hours later, an employee drove onto the range and discovered two bodies. Kyle was lying facedown in front of the deck. He had been shot six times with a .45-caliber pistol, one of the bullets piercing his aorta. Littlefield had been shot seven times with a 9mm Sig Sauer handgun. It was engraved with the familiar Navy anchor insignia. Routh had used Kyle’s weapons to kill them.
[Photo illustration: Joel Arbaje. Featured photos courtesy of Jodi Routh and AP]