Hospitalized veteran with PTSD tells of killing father at Fergus Falls home
ST. PETER, Minn. — Inside the fortified quarters of Minnesota's highest-security psychiatric hospital, Dustin Michael Defiel has spent the past year and a half of his life.
The former National Guard soldier and Iraq War veteran shot and killed his father, Rick Defiel, on June 1, 2016, in the family's home in Fergus Falls, Minn.
He was found not guilty due to mental deficiency and was committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital as mentally ill and dangerous.
Defiel, now 30, maintains he is neither of those and doesn't belong at the facility.
He wrote to The Forum newspaper of Fargo-Moorhead stating a desire to tell "my side of the story," one in which he claims he acted in self-defense against a father who used to abuse him, verbally and physically.
"He was a very intimidating guy, you know what I mean? And I was scared for my life," Defiel said during a recent interview about that fateful evening.
Some who were close to Defiel and his father dispute his claims.
Dustin's mother and Rick's widow, Tammy Defiel, said publishing her son's claims is wrong and unfair to Rick's memory.
She said Dustin had a psychotic break caused by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, and only God knows what's in his mind.
"This is his truth," Tammy Defiel said. "It's just not the truth."
Inside the hospital
The Security Hospital on St. Peter's south side is not open to the public.
Defiel is housed in the patient area known as Spruce Unit, accessible by a winding drive across campus.
Defiel and patients like him have a legal right to do a media interview. Hospital staff need only determine whether he was capable of consenting to one, which they said he was.
Visitors must go through a metal detector and clear a secure holding area separating the lobby from the housing unit.
Once inside, a commons area with a foosball table and other activities led to a conference room, where the shades were drawn and several security staff were staged.
Defiel was already seated, wearing pants, a white T-shirt and a dark blue stocking cap pulled over his shaved head.
Throughout the interview, he was consistent in characterizing his relationship with his father and the events leading up to when he shot him, glancing occasionally at handwritten notes.
He seemed unemotional, however, displaying flat facial expressions much of the time.
'High stress' in Iraq
Defiel graduated from high school in Fergus Falls in 2005 and joined the military not long after, following in the footsteps of his father and other family members.
"I always wanted to serve my country," he said.
He deployed to Camp Shelby, Miss., for training in December 2006, then to Kuwait for a month.
The unit's arrival in Iraq was a baptism by fire.
"The first day there, there were sirens going off because we were getting bombed and rocketed and mortared," Defiel said.
His job in Iraq was base defense. He was stationed in a tower for eight hours a day, making sure no one breached the gate below.
At one point, a rocket hit near him, he said, and he tripped and gashed his leg trying to escape.
The blast left him with ringing in the ears, but it later subsided.
"It was just high stress. I never even got a chance to take off my shoes while I was in Iraq because we were always getting bombed," he said.
Defiel described his late father as a controlling person who was quick to see his son's faults.
"He would yell at me constantly like in a demeaning, down-talking type tone of voice. He would do things purposely to tick me off," Defiel said.
He claims his father's jabs also turned physical, at times.
"If I wouldn't listen to him, he would punch me in the face or punch me in the stomach area, anywhere it wouldn't leave bruises because he didn't want me to be able to prove that he beat me," Defiel said.
Tammy Defiel said her husband could be verbally harsh, but no more than any other parent. She disputes any claim that he injured Dustin.
"I would have known," she said, about any physical abuse.
Dustin Defiel said family members might not have been aware because the abuse almost always happened in private.
Treatment doesn't stick
Upon returning from Iraq, Defiel sought help for PTSD in 2009 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minn., but said he "didn't get along" with the psychiatrists.
Those doctors committed him to the VA psych ward, he said, the first of several hospitalizations.
He was committed again to a facility in Fergus Falls, during which time, he claims, his dad gained access to his bank account and withdrew funds.
Not accurate, according to Tammy Defiel.
The government said Dustin couldn't manage his own money, so Tammy was his fiduciary.
Her husband had no access to that account, she said.
Defiel also claimed his dad broke into his West Fargo home while he was under psychiatric commitment, taking most of his belongings.
He tried to file a restraining order against his dad but was unsuccessful.
"The judge said, 'You can't prove your dad is a danger to you,'" Defiel said.
In between hospitalizations, Defiel held jobs at a group home and a gas station.
His last job was at Professional Transportation Inc. in Dilworth, a company that transports railroad crews around the region.
He worked there about a year, and Julie Moyer was his supervisor.
She describes him as a pleasant, polite employee who was always on time.
"Very quiet, very respectful. I never had any issues with him at all, and I certainly never felt threatened by him," she said.
Moyer said she was aware of Defiel's PTSD history, but it didn't seem to affect his work.
One day, he abruptly quit, saying he had "family issues," according to Moyer.
When she found out her former employee had shot and killed his father, she was shocked.
"I even had to pull up and look at the picture to make sure that it was the same person, because I just couldn't believe it. It did not sound like him at all," Moyer said.
The night he killed his father, Defiel showed up at the family home to do laundry.
Tammy said her husband was sleeping when she went to shower. Defiel maintains his dad was mad and started banging on the door of his son's former bedroom.
"He said, 'What the (expletive) are you doing here?' And then he goes, 'Come out here and I'm going to beat your ass,'" Defiel said.
Looking for protection, Defiel found a gun. He opened the door and saw his dad on the bed, yelling and swearing.
"I pointed the gun and shot. He started to get up, so I pointed the gun and shot again. I shot him twice," Defiel said, to keep his dad from coming after him.
Defiel said he went into "military mode," feeling his life was in danger.
His mother said had the two men been fighting, she would have heard it.
She thinks Dustin came across the gun — a camouflage rifle with a mounted scope — had a war flashback and a psychotic breakdown.
Psychiatrist Zelko Leon of the Fargo VA said a trigger for people with PTSD can put them right back in the trauma zone.
"You're into that fight-flight kind of body response that is very strong," Leon said.
Psychologist Angela Collins of the Fargo VA said psychotherapy for PTSD patients can be successful, but unpleasant.
"Because we encourage them to talk about and think about things that they've done a lot of work to try to avoid thinking and talking about," Collins said.
Defiel said he didn't realize his father was dead that night until he was in jail.
"I wish he wouldn't have died, I don't know. At the same time, he put me in a position where I was extremely scared," Defiel said.
Tammy Defiel can't help but wonder what might have been, had her son stayed in treatment.
"With proper care, this never would have happened," she said.