Cody Riddle's parents say he was a ticking time bomb they tried to defuse before it was too late.
The 20-year-old’s troubles began long before police arrested him Aug. 27 on suspicion of kidnapping and sexually assaulting an 8-year-old girl at his north Lincoln home.
He was on probation for assault by the time he was 10. He was sent to the Kearney youth detention center -- twice -- and to Epworth Village in York and to a series of group homes, according to his parents and court records.
And then he turned 19, and the state sent him home.
Andy and Sheri Riddle said they tried to get help preparing him for living in the community as an adult but were stymied by a state mental health system that has no safety net for people aging out of the juvenile justice system.
They told authorities they couldn't care for or adequately supervise their son, and then they took him back into their home.
What parent could kick their child to the curb, the Riddles ask.
And now, three months into his 20th year, Cody Riddle sits in jail, accused of committing a crime in the garage of his parents' home as they slept on the other side of a wall.
“Here I sit with the frustration from hell on this deal and a little 8-year-old girl gets hurt because of it," Andy Riddle said during an interview in that same garage last week.
"And it did not have to happen if our mental health system worked."
May 26, 1995
Cody Riddle was born in trouble, the umbilical cord wrapped so tightly around his neck that the neonatal emergency team rushed him out of the delivery room.
His parents have never had official confirmation that the frontal lobe in their younger son's brain is under-developed, but behavioral experts and psychiatrists have told them his behavior and intellectual capacity are consistent with that diagnosis. The Riddles also have a son who is a couple of years older than Cody.
Cody didn’t sleep through the night until he was almost 5, and he cried all the time, his parents said.
At school, his teachers said he started lagging behind his peers as early as kindergarten, so he was held back.
He entered the state’s juvenile justice system in 2006, accused of assault after he shut down at his Raymond Central elementary school and kicked a staff member who tried to force him to cooperate, his dad said. Court records indicate he violated the terms of his probation.
The Riddles moved him to Lincoln Public Schools in time for the transition to middle school, hoping the district's special education program would better serve their son's needs.
A school psychiatrist examined Cody and determined he was low-functioning, his brain function roughly that of someone half his age, Andy Riddle said.
His behavior got so bad, the Riddles considered giving him up at a hospital under the state's Safe Haven law before lawmakers amended the law in 2008 so it applied only to infants.
That year and in early 2009, Cody picked up a series of disturbing the peace and criminal mischief charges, a judge declared him a ward of the state and he went to live in a group home in Lincoln.
A few weeks after Cody became out of control and violent at the group home, a judge transferred him to the Boys and Girls Home in South Sioux City, court documents show.
While he was in the system, his parents said, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In October 2010, he was sent home again.
'I fear for the safety of my family'
The year 2011 was largely uneventful, but in early 2012 the situation at home and school deteriorated, court records show.
On Jan. 26, Cody punched another student in the head at North Star High School after he told Cody to be quiet, then tackled the teacher who tried to break them up, juvenile court records show.
Sheri Riddle told the school resource officer investigating the incident that her son had threatened to take a gun to the school and said he wanted to burn the place down.
Andy Riddle wrote a letter to Cody's probation officer pleading for help. His son was a “ticking time bomb,” he wrote.
He had threatened to slice up his mother as she slept, and both parents were afraid.
“I fear for the safety of my family and of society, that he could cause harm to all,” Andy Riddle said in the letter.
“I love my son so much and feel that I am abandoning him, but he needs professional help that I am unable to provide."
Three days later, a judge ordered Cody Riddle be taken to the Lancaster County youth detention center. In March, he was sent to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney, and in May to Epworth Village, a less restrictive treatment center in York for youth with some mental health issues.
Over the course of a year, he bounced between different units at Epworth after he clashed with and assaulted other boys and threw chairs through windows.
He was also admitted to a local emergency room after threatening to hurt himself, according to court records.
In spring 2013, Epworth Village staff sent Cody back to youth detention in Lincoln after concluding he wasn't fit for mental health treatment there. His problems were behavioral in nature, they said.
The courts sent the now 17-year-old back to Kearney.
Looking for help
About the same time, Andy and Sheri Riddle applied for developmental disability assistance through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. They hoped to get Cody into a residential treatment program after he aged out of the juvenile justice system.
The application and appeal were denied, and Andy Riddle said they were never told why their son didn't qualify.
HHS spokesman Russ Reno declined to comment specifically on the Riddle case, citing confidentiality laws.
But at the time of the application, Ben Johnson from the HHS Office of Juvenile Services said in court documents that Cody had been given many opportunities to change his behavior.
HHS had provided him with services that included case management, service coordination, Medicaid, placement at various treatment centers and group homes, individual therapy and family team meetings.
"Since Cody Riddle's involvement with the Department of Health and Human Services, Cody Riddle has continued to struggle with law violations, attending school, following the rules of his placement, destruction of property and aggressive behaviors," Johnson wrote in an affidavit.
As Cody approached his 19th birthday in 2014, an HHS employee met with his parents to tell them he'd be placed back in their care before his birthday.
Andy Riddle said he protested, saying they couldn't provide the care or supervision their son needed.
The HHS worker told them if they didn't take Cody back, they'd be charged with child abandonment, his dad said.
Again, Reno said he couldn't address specifics, but he said state law does require parents to be responsible for their kids until they're 19.
"If we saw a child in danger, we may report it to law enforcement," Reno said. "But we by ourselves couldn’t have done anything."
Still, the Riddles knew their son needed some supervision and they couldn't bring themselves to leave him to fend for himself, they said.
They reached out to Region V Systems. The behavioral and mental health services system has a program designed to help 17-to-24-year-olds with serious mental illness integrating into the community from the juvenile justice system.
Cody met with a transition age specialist monthly at the Riddles' home at 3201 Richard Court, but his dad said the meetings never lasted more than an hour and essentially were just chats. Sometimes, he said, Cody wouldn't even talk to the worker during the visits.
He said he knew his son needed more intensive care, but efforts to get help through Region V didn't pan out.
Spokeswoman Kim Michael said Region V doesn't disclose patient information.
Region V Child and Family Services Director Reneé Dozier said the transition age program aims to help participants and their families meet the needs they identify.
"We're not a medical facility," she said. "We're a program of case managers that work to help people who are referred."
One promising option -- a vocational rehabilitation program that would have helped Cody get a job -- stalled after he was charged in a January 2015 burglary in Fairbury. The charge has been reduced to a misdemeanor and is pending in Jefferson County.
Cody had been staying with a relative that night, his parents said.
Trying to watch a young adult
Even at home, the Riddles said, they couldn't always keep an eye on him. They both work full-time, and they didn't feel like they could lock him in his room while they slept.
So, Andy Riddle said, Cody roamed the streets at night.
He wasn’t taking the medication prescribed to deal with his mental health issues, his parents said, and by now he was 20. They couldn’t make him.
“Since the law looks at him as a legal adult, I can’t be a father,” Andy Riddle said.
At home, the Riddles said, Cody berated his dad and called his mom at work just to call her names. He threw temper tantrums, once tearing a TV and a phone out of the wall, and punching holes in the walls. Now 227 pounds, one day he bull-rushed his dad into the garage door, the Riddles said.
One day last month, Andy Riddle said, he took Cody fishing to try to calm him down. They caught some fish and built a fire at their campsite.
“We had a wonderful time,” Andy said.
Cody was so excited to get up and fish again the next day, he said, but when they woke up, he had turned, and refused to fish.
“Just like that. He just flips.”
A whole new level of trouble
A few days later, police would arrest Cody Riddle on suspicion of first-degree sexual assault of a child, kidnapping and burglary.
Investigators allege he went into a garage late on Aug. 26 to burglarize it but changed his mind after seeing an 8-year-girl through a window.
The girl would tell her parents and police that Cody took her from her home and she woke up in his garage, her mouth taped shut and her hands bound behind her back.
Police allege he sexually assaulted her and then threatened to kill her and her parents if she told anyone. Then, they say, he let her go.
He is in Lancaster County jail and faces a possibility of life imprisonment if he's convicted of the charges.
Andy Riddle wouldn't comment on the pending criminal case against his son, but he said he needs treatment akin to that provided at the Lincoln Regional Center.
His father wishes he would have had the option of staying in treatment after he turned 19 or at least have had some transition from the youth center in Kearney to home.
"There is no next step in our mental health system," he said.
"We love our son. We hate what happened."
Anne Hobbs, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Juvenile Justice Institute, understands.
"Sometimes kids age out and it's kind of like they get dropped off a cliff," she said.
For the Riddles, the consequences are clear, and it's not just themselves and their son they worry about.
“Tomorrow," Andy Riddle said, "a child like my son could be living next door to you.”