The Rise And Fall Of Jon Mattox
An honest cop killed himself; wasdepartmental hazing to blame?

by Todd Matthews
Free Press Contributor

Seattle Police Officer Jon Mattox was a hero. Over the course of his eleven-year career, he helped quell a jailbreak and received nearly a dozen letters of commendation. Mattox had a way of dealing with private citizens that was rivaled by no other. He was extremely approachable, with a unique and innate compassion. In a 1990 letter to Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons, a victim of car vandalism wrote in praise of Mattox's work. "He went out of his way," wrote the victim, commenting on Mattox's manner of handling the incident. "[He] extended extra effort and, by doing so, exemplified what many of us refer to as 'community policing' in its essence. [He] is certainly the type of professional I would like to see [the Police Department] recognize, encourage, and support when needed or necessary." In 1988 Mattox responded with "warmth and sensitivity" to a woman mugged in downtown Seattle. In 1986 he managed to head off a near-violent feud between Seattle Water Department officials and a private contractor.

Mattox was an exceptionally bright man, often described as a "straight arrow"-a cop who went strictly by the book. "He didn't like cops who slept on duty or screwed off," one officer reported. "He became a police officer because he really wanted to help people."

Yet, there was also a side to Mattox that very few people knew. One November morning in 1990, the accomplished police officer got inside his patrol car, drove down an alley, and shot himself-once in the stomach and once in the heart.

An Off-duty Rookie Cop Becomes a Hero
Jon Eugene Mattox was born on June 2, 1952, in Little Rock, Arkansas. As a youth, he moved with his family to Seattle, Washington, where he and his twin brother attended Nathan Hale High School, graduating in 1971. Eight years later he graduated second in his class from the Law Enforcement Academy, and began working as a police officer on February 23, 1979.

Mattox was recognized as a hero after only eight months on the force. One mid-October evening in 1979, Mattox, off-duty and headed home, was sitting in his car at Fifth and James when he looked into his rear-view mirror and saw two men running-one man was holding a gun. At first he thought the gunman was chasing the other man, but quickly realized that both men were wearing jail overalls. "I knew something was wrong because of the overalls," Mattox told a reporter, after the incident. "I shouted, 'Police officer! Stop or I'll shoot!'"

The gunman continued on foot-with Mattox trailing a short distance behind-before seeking cover in some bushes. "I drew on him," Mattox said, "and shouted, 'Let's see some hands or you're a dead man!'" The man stuck his hands out of the bushes and Mattox made the arrest.

Mattox heard gunfire and, when he looked down Cherry Street, he saw a police car "being shot to hell." Seven prisoners from the jail atop the King County Courthouse had escaped. Police immediately cordoned off a six-square-block area of downtown. Mattox was in a precarious situation-dressed in street clothes and holding a gun on a suspect while, just a short distance away, a shootout between police officers and jail escapees were taking place. Mattox reported, "I thought I might get shot by my own men." One officer was shot and wounded. An escapee was killed during the gunfire. Within thirty minutes, all of the fugitives were apprehended except one, who was captured two days later near the Canadian border.

Mattox wasn't shot at by his fellow officers. Instead, he was singled-out and praised for his efforts.

The Beginning of the End
Mattox's career as a cop was enviable. Aside from letters of appreciation, he received raises totaling more than $800 per month after just two years on the job. His personal life was soaring as well. In 1981 he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, Megan.

But in the mid-1980s things started to fall apart. Mattox and his wife separated in early-1985 and, soon thereafter, divorced. Mattox lost custody of his daughter and was ordered to pay $380 per month in child support. The separation destroyed Mattox and he requested a 60-day leave of absence "to work out problems within myself so that I can find some direction in my life and become a better person."

His leave was approved.

Nine days later, at approximately 10:00 p.m., officers responding to a suicide call on the Aurora Bridge discovered Mattox, ready to jump. Mattox was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where he remained for nearly two weeks. Upon his release, he continued outpatient psychiatric medical treatment. His progress was monitored by the Seattle Police Department for approximately six months. On January 21, 1986, Lieutenant Schumacher phoned Mattox's residence. Mattox told the Lieutenant that he wanted to return to duty at some time in the future.

Mattox returned to work on May 1, 1986. Less than three weeks later, it was business as usual, and letters of commendation began to pour into Chief Fitzsimons' office. A victim of a hit-and-run accident wrote to the Chief, praising Mattox for his work. "As a result of [Mattox's] calm, systematic professional examination at the scene of the accident," the victim wrote, "and his follow-up counsel, I was able to obtain restitution. Jon Mattox's attitude exemplifies the 'fine' in 'Seattle's Finest.' I hope you will be able to recruit other officers of such caliber."

Mum's the Word
It would seem easy to conclude that Mattox's suicide attempt was prompted by his divorce and subsequent custody dispute. But Mattox was struggling with more than just domestic issues. Shortly after Mattox's suicide on November 2, 1990, Seattle Times editorial columnist Don Williamson pursued Mattox's story. How could things possibly be so bad that a repeatedly commended police officer, revered by scores of private citizens, would turn his own revolver on himself? Domestic issues were definitely factors, but Williamson suspected there was something else.

Williamson went to the Appointment Bar-popular hangout at the time for off-duty cops-and candidly asked about Mattox. According to several officers, in 1980 Mattox had reported an instance of police brutality to his superiors. Mattox told of how his partner had beaten a handcuffed prisoner. The Seattle Police Department investigated the matter and Mattox's partner was eventually exonerated.

No charges were filed, but the matter was hardly resolved.

"Jon spoke up about unnecessary roughness and he paid hell for it," an officer told Williamson. Many of Mattox's friends and relatives told Williamson about what Mattox had to endure from fellow police officers. Mattox had been harassed by his colleagues for ten years. His calls for back-up were met with a reluctance to respond (something that put both Mattox's safety and the safety of citizens he called upon at risk). His locker was wired shut and scribbled upon with vile words. His tires were slashed, his home was vandalized.

While Mattox was praised as a "hero" by private citizens, he was labeled a "snitch" by many of his colleagues.

"Jon got out of the mainstream and got on the morning shift," one officer reported. "[He] drew more and more into himself." Some officers only knew Mattox as a person with a history of psychological problems who suffered from severe depression. They described him as a "strange and moody kind of guy who kept to himself." Other officers thought Mattox was too sensitive for police work.

Williamson published two scathing columns, each within a week of the other, which offered readers some insight into the turmoil surrounding Mattox's life. His columns were somewhat critical of the Seattle Police Department.

At Mattox's funeral Mayor Norm Rice said, "We come to tell you, Jon, that we love you. Police Officers are expected to be perfect, but they are just human beings with human frailties."

Chief Fitzsimons blamed the suicide on the stresses of police work. "Today more than ever," said Fitzsimons, "police officers are being called upon to take care of the ills of the world." When asked if Mattox's suicide may have been related to ostracism or harassment as a result of the 1980 incident, Chief Fitzsimons stressed that the incident happened a long time ago and linking it to Mattox's suicide was "inappropriate."

But one officer reported that harassment by other officers contributed to Mattox's suicide. "It broke him," said the officer. "[T]he treatment broke him."

On the job stress was a factor in Mattox's suicide, but it is debatable whether that stress came from the perils inherent in police work or if it came from being harassed by his colleagues.

Dreading the Job
On September 14, 1990, Mattox requested six months of leave beginning November 8, 1990. In his request, Mattox wrote, "[I'm] frustrated and burned out with the continual day-in and day-out negativity the job exposes me to-eleven years now. I need some time away from this job to regain a balanced perspective again." Two weeks later, Mattox received an inter-office memo informing him his request for leave had been denied. The memo also advised Mattox that he had "the option of resigning from the Department."

The day Mattox committed suicide, his face was ashen and his supervisor told him to go home sick. Others suggested he see the Department's psychiatrist. Deflated and disappointed about his request for leave being denied, Mattox left the police station two hours before his shift ended. He got in his police car and drove away. Several officers were alarmed by Mattox's physical appearance and worried that he might be unstable. A number of officers soon left the police station and searched for Mattox. They found his car parked in the alley; he had shot himself twice.

Williamson's columns for the Times were followed by a flurry of letters. One woman wrote, "It would be fitting if the guilty were dismissed from the force. I know that this will not happen. Because of this sorry chronicle in [Fitzsimons'] management of the Police Department, Fitzsimons should resign."

One officer wrote in defense of his colleagues. "Jon was a lonely and troubled person. We all tried to help. But Jon would not let us in his private world. He was respected and well liked by everyone who had the pleasure to work with him. Williamson's opinions denigrate his memory. His comments make me sad and angry. I will miss Jon Mattox. We all will."

Another officer phoned Williamson to report that he knew of others on the force who were harassed yet they didn't commit suicide. Williamson commented, "It just didn't register with my caller that there was something wrong with savaging someone who didn't fall in line or who spoke out about perceived wrongdoing."

And one response from an unidentified veteran officer summed up Mattox's story well. "A department hurts itself when it loses a Jon Mattox," the officer wrote. "We've got to have people who have a sense of the police mission that goes beyond knuckles and machismo."

True. The Seattle Police Department needs another Jon Mattox. He was a good, decent, honest man who took his work seriously. But the real issue is whether another Jon Mattox necessarily needs the Seattle Police Department.

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Contents this page were published in the July/August, 1998 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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