There's a big empty space where Shawn Landa's house used to be.
Driving through Moon Township, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, middle-class homes come in a steady, orderly succession, like a tracking shot out of American Beauty. But then there's the gap between 1654 and 1658 Charlton Heights Road, where only a toolshed remains at the far back end of the property behind a large patch of grass. A sign from the realtor trying to sell the empty lot flaps in the wind.
About a year ago, Landa, a 47-year-old inconsistently employed construction worker fresh from a stint in rehab, went into the basement of the home he once shared with his now-estranged wife and children and uncapped a gas pipe. He flooded the house with gas and then took a nap, hoping that he would die before he woke. When Landa came to, he lit a cigarette, and his house promptly exploded.
Later, from his hospital bed, Landa would tell police he had been depressed over his lack of work, lack of a car, and lack of contact with his wife and kids. He had apparently cut his wrists a few weeks before the October 12 explosion. This latest, more spectacular suicide attempt was inspired by a movie about the Hindenburg, the hydrogen-powered German airship that burst over New Jersey in 1937. Last week, Landa was sentenced to ten years in prison on a host of charges including arson and reckless endangerment charges.
According to the police report, Robert and Jackie Kwolton were walking on Charlton Heights Road just before the explosion and smelled gas. The blast slammed Robert to the ground as Jackie took cover behind a car. Richard Ruffing, who lived two doors down from Landa, returned home from a wedding with his wife to see police and firefighters evacuating their street.
"There were wood and shingles hanging from all the trees," Ruffing told me. He also saw Landa's high school diploma, completely unharmed, in a nearby yard.
When they were finally allowed back home, the Ruffings discovered Landa's chimney had landed in their living room, creating an eight-foot-wide hole on its entrance. In total, nine homes around Landa's were damaged and one neighbor sent to the hospital with cuts and bruises, according to the police report.
The explosion also literally blew the cover of a marijuana grow house. As they evacuated the street, police apparently got a whiff of pot coming from the house of 61-year-old William Amend. He later attracted attention by sneaking back into his house and hauling out a large trash bag, police say. A few days later, the cops came back with a search warrant and allegedly found a whole operation: fertilizer, insecticides, grow lights, a filtration system, and seven recently harvested plants.
A few days after the incident, Ruffing went to the hospital to visit Alan Lisica, the neighbor injured in the blast, as well as Landa. Ruffing said that though he'd never been close to the Landas, he knew there had been tension in the house with the sudden disappearance of the wife and kids and a front window that had been broken and boarded up. (Ironically, Landa fixed the window shortly before blowing up his house, according to Ruffing.)
When Ruffing went to visit, Landa was still unconscious and covered in white bandages. "He looked like a polar bear sitting down," Ruffing said. "Tape and gauze were even over his eyelids."
Things got worse when he woke up. On October 24, Chief Deputy Fire Marshall Don Brucker and Allegheny County Police Detective Jason Costanzo visited Landa in the hospital. From Constanzo's affidavit:
"After CDFM Brucker explained the scene investigation, I explained to Landa what I had discovered while talking to his wife, employer, neighbors, injured victims and witnesses. I informed Landa that I knew that just before the explosion, he had spoken to his wife on the phone, was hung up on, and called back to leave a voice mail, expressing his love for her. As I was relaying this information to Landa, I noticed that he had dipped his head, appeared to tear up and began taking deeper breaths. In an attempt to understand what was upsetting Landa, I explained to him that he would feel much better once he got what was bothering him off his chest. Landa looked up and explained, 'I did it.'"
When the case went to court, Landa was up against 26 charges; the police and prosecutors multiplied the counts of arson and criminal mischief for every home in range of the blast.
But does it make sense to put Landa in the hellhole that is America's prison system for a decade? To be sure, his recreation of the Hindenburg in suburbia caused thousands of dollars in property damage and put nearly a dozen lives at risk. He should be punished for that. But this wasn't an act of vindictiveness or terrorism, but the desperation of an addled, suicidal mind.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and the author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It, told me that before the 1970s, someone like Landa would have likely been committed to a state mental hospital.
"Those all closed and people were discharged with the promise they would get the same level of care within the community," Kupers said. "That has been false." In fact, according to Kupers, funding for mental health services has been reduced across most states for the past few decades.
As the inmate population has ballooned in that time, the prison system has scooped up a large population of the mentally ill, Kupers added. Numbers vary from study to study, but in 2006, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 56 percent of federal inmates, 45 percent of state ones, and 64 of those in local jails had a psychiatric disorder of some kind.
Kupers doesn't expect that Landa will get much treatment inside. "People think prison is where the mentally ill finally get treatment. That is also false," he says. In most facilities, mental healthcare is limited to quick visits to a psychiatrist and daily meds, "which are mostly used to sedate," according to Kupers. The violent and aggressive take up most of the system's stretched resources. Depressives are mostly ignored.
Richard Ruffing, whose living room was impaled by Landa's chimney, has perhaps the most reason to be angry at him. If not for a last-minute change of plans, Ruffing's grandkids would have been at his house that day. Still, he was surprised to learn Landa is doing time.
"Huh," he said. "I would have assumed there would have been more of a hospitalization response for that."
Nick Keppler is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Nerve.com, Slate and Pittsburgh City Paper.