I-Team Special Report: 'Imminent Harm'

MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - Very few of us would want to expose our darkest family secrets, but a Mississippi County family is willing to do just that, all in an effort to protect the public and save their son.

Despite his reputation and countless arrests, Brenda Pendergrass wants people to know her son has a mental illness and needs help, not jail.

"He's my son and I love him," Brenda Pendergrass said of her 42-year-old son, Jeff. "I'm not trying to hide anything."

Pendergrass doesn't mince words when it comes to her son.

"Yes, he has terrorized the town. He intimidates people," she said of Jeff's time in the small town of Bertrand.

It's not an easy admission for this family to make. Husband Roger leaves the table where we all sat down to talk when emotions get the best of him.

Years of mug shots seem a world away from Jeff's senior pictures.

Popular and athletic, Brenda recalled her son being the captain of his high school football team, but that is where the happy story ends; and Brenda is left sharing a much different tale.

"I didn't want to do this because you want your child to have a successful story. You want to tell, oh, what my child has done, how successful. But, people need to know," she said.

Brenda said Jeff's been diagnosed both as a bipolar schizophrenic and as having a personality disorder. She said he does well in treatment and on medication, but that never lasts for very long.

"When he gets out he won't stay on the medication and then he starts these episodes again," she said.

In February 2014, the Pendergrasses say their son was staying in a rundown trailer down the road from them with no heat or electricity. A state investigator came out to see if he was doing himself harm or could do harm to others.

We asked Brenda if she felt that he was unable to make the right decisions. "I do," she responded.

Four months later, the state petitioned the court to deem Jeff Pendergrass incapacitated and appoint him a guardian. Missouri law provides that step can be taken if an investigation by the Department of Health and Senior Services finds a subject "is unable to give consent to receive protective services and presents a likelihood of serious physical harm."

The family joined together in support of the effort.

"Anything we can do to get this guardianship going and getting him the help that he needs before he ends up dead or killing somebody else," said Jeff's aunt, Darlene Hurley.

But as that happened, Brenda was forced to file court papers of her own.

We asked if she could talk about why she had to file an order of protection, or why she did.

"He threatened to kill me and his dad," Brenda responded.

As online court records indicate, Jeff Pendergrass' guardian case still hasn't been resolved.

"One court delay after the other. I don't really understand all of it," Brenda said of the process.

"It's been hard watching my niece try everything that she can to get her son help. And it seems like they're going to help him, and then the door closes," said Anita Riddle.

In the meantime, Pendergrass finds himself back in the Mississippi County Jail on another assault charge.

"I want the people of Bertrand and the people of Mississippi County to know that we're doing our job," said Sheriff Keith Moore of taking Pendregrass into custody when he is accused of breaking the law.

We asked Clinical Psychologist Dr. David Van Pelt about Pendergrass's case.

"He's in a safe spot right now, incarcerated," he said. "But he's not going to necessarily get the help that he needs while there. They'll provide some stabilization. But as far as getting the active treatment that he needs, that's not going to happen."

"We can't just put them in jail and say we're taking them off somewhere, because we have to wait for the system to work for us," Sheriff Moore added.

That leaves Brenda Pendergrass struggling with the fear that her son's story will end in tragedy.

"Probably with everybody else that's done all these kind of bad things and it ends up badly with them killing people, what did their families try to do for them," she asked.

Jeff Pendergrass' guardianship case is now set for February 23.

No one could explain to us why it's been delayed. The state pointed to the court, the court pointed to the attorneys.

In the meantime, the judge in Pendergrass' current assault case has called for a psychiatric evaluation.

His family hopes one or both of these legal steps will get him the help he needs.

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