Ground Control to Mr. Meline
Rob Meline always dreamed of being an astronaut. He became a teacher instead. When he fell victim to a family secret in October 2012, he became the symbol of a flawed judicial system. What his students did next was out of this world.
Down on Earth, the crowd had dispersed: The awestruck military attaché. The 62nd Airlift Wing captain in combat fatigues. The radio producer, mike in hand, headphones parenthetically gripped over his skull. The civilians of all ages, colors, and socioeconomic background who had craned their heads skyward and raised their cameras until they snapped nothing but clouds. Only the mission commander, sitting at his monitor, knew the truth.
The spacecraft was lost. Minutes after liftoff the onboard computer had gone silent, and the vessel, now presumably high over the planet and designed to transmit its location, offered nothing. The mission commander couldn’t explain why. Maybe the beacon was damaged during the launch. Maybe the vessel had been destroyed during its climb into space.
One by one the crewmembers who’d helped build and launch the vessel approached, asking, either verbally or with a searching look, Where is it?
The mission commander hesitated. Had they not experienced enough loss for one year? Enough heartbreak? After the violent revelations disclosed in news reports, after all their planning and hard work, the singular focus it took to prepare for this day—what was he supposed to say? We may never recover the vessel and its precious cargo?
How do you tell your crew that, when your crew—it bears mentioning—is a group of 11-year-olds?
When a friend told Nae’Ana Aguon her teacher had died, the sixth grader assumed it was a prank. She texted the friend back, “Is this is a joke?” The response that flashed on her phone sunk any hope the friend was kidding. “Look at the news.”
Online, on TV, and on the radio, the truth was there for Nae’Ana and her classmates to absorb. Robert Wayne Meline, 56, husband, father, teacher, murdered in the early hours of Thursday, October 25, 2012. The only suspect, the media emphasized, was his own son.
Mr. Meline has a son?
For as long as Nae’Ana Aguon could remember, she wanted Mr. Meline as a teacher. Her older brother had been in Mr. Meline’s class years earlier, and she had visited the classroom, a classroom like no other at Spanaway’s Camas Prairie Elementary: telescopes, models of NASA shuttles, Star Trek posters, a mobile of the solar system. And every year Meline’s class built a comet—rocks, dirt, dry ice—then studied the comet with the intensity of a science team in a sci-fi film who’d discovered it in some exotic location.
Mr. Meline didn’t disappoint when Nae’Ana reported to room 33 on the first day of school in early September 2012. He handed out a word search, a jumble of letters from which the students excavated NASA-related terminology. And then the launch: not of a rocket, but of the man.
He had attended the Space Academy for Educators in Alabama that summer and piloted a NASA simulator. In class he acted out the entire adventure, kneeling on the carpet to represent the rocket rumbling on the launchpad, sound effects included. He rose—palms flat against each other as if in prayer—as the imaginary rocket blasted off, until he stretched beyond his six-foot frame, arms overhead, and the palm-rocket soared toward a galaxy of ceiling tiles. He was so loud, Nae’Ana could swear the class next door heard the whole thing.
Mr. Meline enlisted Nae’Ana and her classmates into a kind of space academy of his own design, issuing each a pin with flight wings to display on their desks. Play by Mr. Meline’s rules—pay attention in class, complete assignments—and your wings remained upright. Run afoul, and your wings were turned upside down until you proved yourself.
The experience changed Nae’Ana almost overnight. “Her weakness had been science,” her mother Renay San Nicolas would later recall. But Mr. Meline awakened in her an innate love for the subject, especially where space was concerned. The class tracked the cycles of the moon, read about the space program for their reading unit, and, on the last day Nae’Ana would ever see her teacher, watched footage sent back from NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.
Now Nae’Ana thought, What son? During the nearly two months she’d been in his class the teacher had mentioned a wife, daughters, his love for the Washington State University Cougars, and—of course—NASA and space galore. Not a word about a son.
The day after the murder a sort of quiet chaos reigned at school. Teachers and admin staff were in tears, their voices catching as they feebly gave instructions. As one teacher would later put it, some on staff had known Rob Meline, who’d been at the school for 24 years, longer than they’d known their own children.
In class, principal Sean McKenzie read a prepared statement—it said only that Mr. Meline had passed away—and told the students that a new teacher, Scott Birdseye, would start Monday. The Bethel School District brought in a counselor, and kids were allowed to go home early if their parents felt it necessary.
By that evening, the police and media knew a lot more: Mr. Meline’s son, Jonathan, had allegedly killed his father with a hatchet. And there were questions about why Jonathan, charged but yet to be prosecuted for a previous violent crime, hadn’t already been behind bars.
At home over the next few days, Renay noticed Nae’Ana’s descent into—was it depression? “She just wasn’t herself. She kind of shut down, you know? ‘Do we talk about it? What do we do for her?’” Renay decided she’d start by turning off the TV.
The Pierce County Prosecutor's office knew the name. Jonathan Meline’s rap sheet, which included a series of misdemeanors (public disturbance, trespassing, marijuana possession) and a felony charge, typically would not have received special attention. But the Meline situation had long vexed prosecutor Mark Lindquist and his deputies.
On August 24, 2010, according to court documents, Jonathan Meline, then 26, walked onto the lot of Tacoma Dodge and told a salesperson he was interested in purchasing a 2010 Jeep Wrangler. The salesperson took Meline’s driver’s license and tossed him the keys. Meline got behind the wheel, locked the doors, and started the engine. The salesperson rapped on the window and asked to be let in. Meline backed up the vehicle, aiming right at the salesperson, who leaped out of the way to avoid being hit. The salesperson got in front of the Jeep and yelled at the driver to stop the vehicle.
Meline shouted back. “I’ll run your fucking ass over!” The salesperson jumped to the side, and Meline sped away.
When a Tacoma police officer pulled over the stolen Jeep, Meline announced that he had done nothing wrong. “I took this for the people,” he proclaimed. “I’m in line with the Illuminati.”
Officers disabled the driver with a Taser and arrested him. He was subsequently held at Western State Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Records revealed that Meline, diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19, had spent the past several years in and out of mental institutions.
Eight months later, a forensic psychologist at Western State convinced a judge the suspect was incompetent to stand trial. In May 2011, when prosecutors learned that he hadn’t been civilly committed—involuntarily held at the hospital by court order—the prosecutors refiled charges.
A testy email exchange on July 18, 2011, between deputy prosecutor Sabrina Ahrens, eager to see Meline go to trial, and forensic psychiatrist Gregg Gagliardi, reveals tensions between the two agencies. Ahrens had asked Gagliardi whether the defendant had been restored to competency. “I don’t know the defendant’s current mental status as I have not seen him for about three months,” Gagliardi replied.
Ahrens interpreted Gagliardi’s response as a refusal to complete an additional evaluation.
Gagliardi sent another email explaining that Meline’s delusions “render him incapable of rationally assisting defense counsel,” and furthermore, since six months of inpatient treatment had shown no results, he would not likely be able to stand trial in the foreseeable future.
On January 2012, Western State released Jonathan Meline without notifying the prosecutor’s office. Hospital staff had definitively concluded they could not restore Meline’s competency and had no legal grounds on which to keep him hospitalized.
After Meline allegedly murdered his father in October, prosecutor Mark Lindquist would reflect on his release as a “major mess up.” It’s a gap in the law, he said. “Jonathan Meline was deemed incompetent to stand trial, and Western State thought they couldn’t hold him because their job is to restore patients.”
A little over a week into his role as Rob Meline’s replacement, Scott Birdseye faced an angry mob. His students demanded to know why he had removed Mr. Meline’s stuff—the posters, models, and memorabilia that had made Nae’Ana Aguon think of the classroom as a NASA gift shop.
He hadn’t. He explained that Mr. Meline’s wife Kim, also a teacher in the Bethel School District, had come in over the weekend and boxed things up, hoping to give the students a clean start.
Birdseye was struggling. He’d barely heard his friend and fellow teacher had been murdered before he was asked to take over the class. A faculty member at Camas Prairie for five years—including teaching sixth grade next door to Rob Meline—he had recently been reassigned to another school in the district. By coincidence, he was in the district office, near campus, for a meeting on October 25 when Principal McKenzie pulled him out of the meeting and broke the news, followed an hour later by, “Would you consider coming back?” Birdseye didn’t take long to answer. He loved the school—grew up, in fact, just a few miles away.
Spanaway, an unincorporated suburb 13 miles from downtown Tacoma, abuts Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Its eight square miles are split by Pacific Avenue, the closest thing the community, population 27,000, has to a main strip. The residential streets seem more rural than suburban. Sidewalks are rare, farm animals—chickens, goats, horses—common, and yards in an almost primordial stage of overgrowth.
The drive to Camas Prairie Elementary is a voyage, the numbered streets collecting zeros as if by ionic bond. You pull off the freeway around 110th Street and motor up Pacific—fast food joints, auto repair shops, and a hollowed-out video store franchise—and you hit 130th, 150th, 160th, and finally 176th, the outer limits. A sharp left and there’s Camas Prairie.
More than half of the school’s 676 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Demographically the school is one of the most diverse in the state: 18 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, 9.4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. A quarter of the student body comes from military families. “We have a highly transitory population,” says Principal McKenzie, who notes that the economic and racial mix is the source of both great challenges and great pride. (Whenever district administrators want new promotional literature they point their photographer toward eclectic Camas Prairie.)
Rob Meline, one of four faculty members who’d taught at the school since it opened in 1988, proved exceptionally effective. He was known for taking students apathetic toward learning or who had discipline problems and getting them excited about school. In fact he volunteered to take on the hardest cases.
“You get two types of teacher when they’ve been around for that long,” explains Birdseye. “You get the ones who’ve been doing it the same way for 30 years: ‘I’m not changing.’ Or you get the ones who really want to learn how things are changing, and learn to bend with it. Rob was that kind.”
It was obvious to Birdseye now that Rob, in just two months, had cemented an unusually strong bond with this particular batch of students. Some were especially withdrawn and saddened by the loss. (One girl cried every time the topic of space came up.) And Birdseye had hardly processed his own grief.
Unlike the students, he’d known about Kim and Rob’s trouble with their son and his mental issues. But until he heard about the murder, he didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation. The couple never said much about it.
Were they embarrassed by Jonathan? No, says Birdseye. “It was more that they didn’t want to burden anyone else with it. You know, Rob was always in such an upbeat mood, and he always had such a bright attitude about life…. It was more like, ‘This is something that we deal with and we live with.’”
Now Birdseye, 32, still at the beginning of his teaching career, yearned to find a way to reach Rob’s students. Of course he knew he could never replace the man—not his energy, his passion for science, and most certainly (who could?) his laugh.
She first heard it through the receiver of a dorm room telephone. High pitched and drawn out, like a hyena, she thought. A laugh so outrageous you couldn’t help but laugh yourself. And she did—the laugh forced an equally loud giggle from her, and it would for the next 37 years.
A freshman in the Stephenson dorm complex at Washington State University, Kim McNeal was reading her Psychology 101 book on Tuesday night, right after Thanksgiving break, 1975. The phone rang. The guy on the other end confessed he dialed her room at random. He and his friends knew the first couple digits for Stephenson, where he said “all the foxes lived.” The remaining digits were pure chance.
She set down her textbook and humored him. He was a student in a nearby dorm and said he’d grown up in a small town not far away, a town where he’d been a star athlete. He described himself as a tall, blond basketball player. Ninety minutes later they were still talking, the voice on the other end erupting in penetrating laughter nearly the entire time. It seemed like little more than an innocent, albeit very long, prank call. Kim didn’t even bother telling him she had a boyfriend back home in Gig Harbor, on the other side of the state. Figured she’d never hear from this guy—he called himself “Rob”—again.
Two nights later, Kim’s phone rang. “This is Rob again.”
“I have a friend coming up from Cheney tomorrow and we’d like to go out with a couple of girls. Could you and one of your roommates or something go out?”
Kim explained she had a boyfriend, but said one of her roommates really likes tall, blond basketball players. That roommate and another roommate could join Rob and his friend. By date night one of the roommates canceled. Kim relented and agreed to join them.
When the two guys showed up at the girls’ dorm, one said, “Hi, I’m Rob, and this is Rob,” pointing to a tall blond guy. But the voice Kim recognized belonged to the shorter brown-haired boy. The prank, it seemed, was ongoing. The blond Rob was Rob Breidenbach; the other, the one Kim had talked to on the phone, was his best friend, Rob Meline.
The roommate and blond Rob hit it off. Kim and Rob Meline quarreled flirtatiously all night. By Christmas she had broken up with her boyfriend in Gig Harbor. Rob and Kim were inseparable after that.
It hadn’t all been a fib. Rob Meline really had been a star athlete in high school, lettering in baseball, basketball, football, and track every year, and he had the physique to show it: thick shoulders one could almost mistake for football pads and massive hands that—as anyone who watched intramural football on the WSU campus could tell you—snatched balls from the air as if his fingers were flypaper. And the town he came from, Washtucna, population 350, was as small as they come.
During what became frequent weekend trips to Washtucna, 70 miles west of campus, Kim came to know her laughing hyena in a new way. The Melines were a big Presbyterian family: four boys, one girl. His parents owned the only hardware store. And the town idolized Rob Meline. It was one part charisma—no one could recall ever seeing Rob without a giant smile splitting his face. And one part, well, one part what happened on Saturday, November 16, 1974.
The state championship for Class B eight-man football, for schools with under 100 students, was in Port Angeles. The game was Joyce High School’s to lose. “They had a freshman quarterback who was supposed to light the world on fire,” recalls Rob Breidenbach, the blond Rob, who happened to be Washtucna’s quarterback.
On Friday the Washtucna Wildcats piled into a bus for the five-hour drive to Port Angeles, among them the Fearsome Foursome, as Breidenbach, Meline, and two other players were known.
It rained the entire ride from Wash-tucna to the coast, and all night and throughout Saturday morning, finally letting up around 1:30pm, game time. The Wildcats and the Joyce Loggers faced off on a muddy field. Given each squad’s limited number of team members, most, including Meline and Breidenbach, played both offense and defense.
Instead of lighting the world on fire, the Joyce quarterback threw a pass that Rob Meline ripped from the sky and ran with for 40 yards. Touchdown. After that, the Loggers and their QB were crushed. Final score 46-6. Meline accounted for 141 of his team’s 237 yards and notched 11 -tackles. All told, Meline held the 1974 season record in Washington for interceptions, 14, tying Rob Breidenbach’s record from the previous year. (The Robs hold the state record to this day.)
He had bigger ambitions than football. Since anyone could remember, Rob Meline had dreamed of going into space. Like most kids of his generation, he had watched the Apollo moon landing in 1969. He had soaked up every adventure of Captain James T. Kirk and the Enterprise. “His bedroom was a shrine to the space program,” recalls Breidenbach.
When he learned his eyesight was insufficient to qualify him as a military pilot, much less an astronaut, he was heartbroken. Someone suggested he could be support crew instead. No way, Rob said. If he couldn’t have the whole sky, then he wanted none of it.
He fell back on his second love, athletics, and majored in Physical Education at WSU, with a minor in biology. Kim joined the education program too.
In 1980, both with jobs teaching in and around Washtucna, Rob and Kim were married. The kids came quickly: Kristina, Jonathan, Shannon. By the time their two youngest, Sara and Katie, were born the couple had bounced around the state and landed in Western Washington. Rob got a job at a brand-new elementary in the Tacoma suburb of Spanaway.
Kim didn't know if she should be proud or worried. Her nine-year-old son had just taken a self-guided tour of Tacoma, the family’s new home, on his bike. The city dwarfed Kim’s Gig Harbor and made Rob’s hometown seem smaller than ever.
Jonathan told Kim about the places he’d seen from the seat of his bike, locations, by her estimation, at least five miles from the house. She was surprised he hadn’t gotten lost. His superb spatial sense extended to art: In fifth grade he penned a comic strip about two characters, Bow and Tie. He maintained a 4.0 up through eighth grade, when he started to become withdrawn. He had always wanted to be outside, but now mostly stayed alone in his room. Kim took him to the doctor. “I think that Jonathan may be suffering from depression or something,” she said. The doctor dismissed it as typical adolescent behavior.
A year or so later Jonathan said to one of his sisters, “Well you hear voices too, right, in your head?” He continued to withdraw from friends and family and dropped out of high school by junior year.
At 19 he donned all white—white shoes, white pants, white hoodie—and swam into the near-freezing waters of the Tacoma Narrows. Onlookers called 911, and the Coast Guard fished him out. That resulted in his first stay at Western State Hospital, the psychiatric facility in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood, and a schizophrenia diagnosis.
He was in and out of institutions or living on the streets after that. He’d go missing for several weeks then yo-yo back home and stay with his parents for a while. Kim could see he was getting worse. He thought God was talking to him. He thought Tupac was talking to him.
In 2008, Jonathan, then 25, told a Ta-coma police officer that his parents, Kim and Rob Meline, were not his real parents. They had in fact murdered his real parents, he said, and stolen him as a child. The officer didn’t take the claim seriously, but called Kim to tell her what Jonathan had said. The officer said Jonathan had added, “So don’t you think that’s justification for me to kill them?”
Even before he tried to run over the Jeep salesperson in 2010, Rob and Kim had come to the difficult realization that Jonathan should be permanently committed. They were told that state budget cuts made it highly unlikely their son would stay in the hospital for long.
When Western released him in January 2012, it was either let Jonathan fend for himself on the streets or bring him home. The family opted to care for him, but the relationship had changed. They were terrified. He thought his sister Sara was a robot, one that needed reprogramming, which he tried to do via voice commands and gestures. All Sara could do in defense was yell. “Jon, stop it, stop it!”
When not harassing his sisters, he disrupted the neighborhood, shouting at pedestrians from his bedroom window, or saying inappropriate, borderline sexual things to kids at city parks.
In June 2012, Rob thought he heard Jonathan tell him, “I’m going to kill you.” When Kim asked Jonathan if that was true, he said no, of course not, he was just talking to himself.
Heck, if Hello Kitty gets to go into space, why not Rob Meline? In early 2013 Scott Birdseye came across a YouTube video in which a middle-school student affixed her Hello Kitty doll to a helium balloon, fastened some cameras, and let the balloon climb 93,000 feet into the sky.
He showed his class the video, then asked, What do you think? The kids cheered. Principal McKenzie gave him the green light for the project but said there was no money to fund it.
Birdseye figured they needed at least $2,800—for the balloon kit and three GoPro cameras to record the trip. He logged onto GoFundMe, a Kickstarter-like fundraising site. His plea for funds mentioned his fellow teacher’s death and passion for science. “We are a low-income school,” he added. “A project of this magnitude is simply not in our budget.”
Next, fearing that if they ever did manage to launch the balloon it would likely enter Joint Base Lewis-McChord airspace, he contacted military officials. He described the project, asked if he needed their permission, and, boldly, asked for help: “We…have a fairly high percentage of military families. If you have funds available to help sponsor this endeavor into STEM learning, the community outreach benefits would be immeasurable.”
The military had no problem with the launch. The balloon’s payload, under four pounds, would be too small to be of concern. But like Bethel School District, the military was on a tight budget too and could not help monetarily, JBLM spokesman Bud McKay told Birdseye. Instead McKay invited all three Camas Prairie sixth-grade classes to the base. (The students toured JBLM’s weather station and a C17 cargo plane.)
The donations trickled in slowly. Kim Meline donated $150. A young woman in San Diego who Birdseye had never heard of contributed $1,000.
He folded the project into his lesson plans. The students began tracking wind currents to determine where the balloon and its payload might go, and where it might land.
To himself Birdseye kept thinking, “Rob would so do this.”
No one can be sure if Jonathan Meline had waited for his mother to leave. But on October 24, 2012, Kim Meline and her mother flew to Spain for a vacation they’d planned for years, leaving Rob, their oldest daughter Kristina, and Jonathan alone in the house.
According to court documents, the three ate dinner together that evening. Rob left the house for a few hours, returned, and went to bed. Around 2am, Jonathan woke up, drank coffee, and crept into the master bedroom where Rob was asleep.
Rob sat up at the sound of Jonathan fumbling in a backpack. I’m just looking for something, Jonathan said. When Rob lay back down his son brandished a hatchet and lunged at him. Rob kicked and punched in defense. Jonathan chopped at his father with the small ax.
Kristina, whose room was just below her parents’, woke at 2:30am to the sound of her father yelling, and her brother screaming, “Die, die, die!” She heard several loud thumps.
She tiptoed to the stairwell, where she saw her brother, standing with the bloody hatchet. Kristina pleaded for her life. Jonathan said he wasn’t going to hurt her, but that he had to kill their father. He was going to turn himself in.
Kristina walked in the dark with Jonathan, covered in blood, for more than two miles to the Pierce County Jail. There Jonathan told officers he had killed Rob, and said he did it because his father was “hurting children.”
He told them that back at the house they would find the murder weapon, which he said he bought the day after he threatened to kill his father in June.
When state representative Jamie Pedersen spoke to Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist about events that led to the schoolteacher’s murder—the “gap” that allowed someone as dangerous as Jonathan Meline to avoid prosecution and remain on the streets—he knew he’d found his man. Pedersen was sponsoring House Bill 1114, written to address the very issue Lindquist was protesting. In September 2012, a month before Rob Meline’s death, the Washington Association of Prosecutors had submitted a bill that addressed the fact that “violent, incompetent, and mentally ill individuals” are released “back into society to commit further acts of violence whereupon the cycle of short-term commitment and vio-lence repeats itself due to continued incompetence.”
Now they had a story to tell, one very much on the public’s mind. On January 24, 2013, Lindquist testified before the House Judiciary Committee in Olympia. He briefly outlined the Meline case: Jonathan committed a violent act—the Jeep theft—and couldn’t be prosecuted due to incompetence, and couldn’t be held at Western State Hospital, which determined it couldn’t restore his competence, leaving him free to commit another act of violence, the murder of his father.
HB 1114 would give his office—and the offices of prosecutors all over the state—the tools they needed to keep the public safe from Jonathan Melines in the future. Under the bill’s provisions, the psychiatric hospitals wouldn’t simply release defendants into the community. Instead, the hospital could hold defendants for successive 180-day periods, until competency to stand trial is restored, after which charges could be refiled. Hospitals would stay in communication with the prosecutors; no more releasing felony--committing patients without notifying the proper authorities.
The state’s Office of Financial Management determined the added cost to the Department of Social and Health Services—which oversees Western and other state psychiatric hospitals—would eventually total about $10 million a year. Hardly appealing for a state already working in the red.
The Washington Defender Association warned that the bill was unconstitutional, that such a law would violate defendants’ right to due process and would be challenged frequently, costing the state countless dollars in trying to defend its stance.
Representative Roger Goodman, parting with his fellow Democrats, agreed with the defense attorneys. “There was a provision that didn’t require enough proof or judicial findings to continue to confine [the defendants] on a rolling 180-day basis,” Goodman later explained. “So it was confinement without sufficient due process. That was my concern.”
The bill awaited an April 22 vote.
After multiple delays due to cloudy weather, the launch date was set: Monday, May 20, 2013. The entire school—more than 600 students, faculty, and some parents—poured onto the field behind Camas Prairie Elementary. Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokesperson Bud McKay, who had arranged the sixth-grade field trip to the base, came to show support, along with his colleague in combat fatigues, Captain Ali Kojak.
Gabriel Spitzer, a producer for the public radio station KPLU, arrived to interview Scott Birdseye and his students. One student told Spitzer how Mr. Meline had once explained to them the concept of infinity, and how the launch was appropriate because they were sending a vessel into space in Mr. Meline’s honor, where he could join the infinite.
Birdseye’s class presented to the crowd the USS Meline, a shoe-box-size Styrofoam vessel covered in reflective tape, with four projectiles made of thin wooden dowels. The name, written in red, was a salute to Mr. Meline’s beloved Star Trek. They replaced the USS Enterprise’s docking number, NCC-1701, with “NCC-1012,” signifying October 12, Mr. Meline’s birthday.
On board was a small computer that would record speed, heading, temperature, air pressure, and altitude; a GPS beacon; and three GoPro cameras. One camera pointed at the vessel’s finishing touch: a two-dimensional wooden rocket. Rob Meline, wearing a blue Space Academy for Educators astronaut suit (in a photo taken the previous summer) grinned through the rocket’s porthole window.
The balloon that would carry the vessel, a latex, high-altitude weather balloon, was the same kind meteorologists use to transport weather instruments into the atmosphere. Birdseye and the students filled the balloon with helium, and it grew to the size of maybe a VW bug. Nae’Ana held the balloon in place and felt it tug her upward, so much so that another student held onto her lest she float away. Meanwhile, Birdseye and another pair of students attached the balloon and a parachute to the four dowels on the vessel.
According to the plan the balloon would pull the craft nearly 100,000 feet up, reaching what scientists refer to as the stratosphere. The lack of air pressure would expand the helium until the balloon exploded, sending the craft back to earth. (Its fall would be broken by the parachute.) Thanks to the onboard beacon—transmitting its location to GPS tracking website FindMeSpot—Birdseye and the students would recover the craft and watch the camera footage.
First, the countdown: The entire student body chanted the numbers. Ten, nine… But the students of classroom 33 thought as they counted… This is for you Mr. Meline… three, two, one…
The balloon towed the USS Meline skyward. Up, up, up until it dissolved into the sky.
After the onlookers dispersed, Birdseye logged onto the GPS site to track the ship’s progress. No signal. He kept trying, hoping he wouldn’t have to tell the students about the malfunction. But after several failed attempts, he broke the news.
Hours ticked by, and the class’s anxiety grew as the time the vessel was supposed to be in space—two to three hours—expired. No one could concentrate on anything but the spacecraft’s fate. Finally the school day came to an end with no word from the Meline.
In Olympia that same day, May 20, Governor Jay Inslee sat down for a bill signing ceremony. Weeks earlier the senate had voted almost unanimously—47 votes—in favor of HB 1114. The bill had fared well in the house too—89 votes. Democratic representative Roger Goodman and a smattering of Republican representatives voted against it. “I tilted in favor of civil liberties,” says Goodman, who says he’s still concerned with the lack of defendants’ rights in the bill.
The law that Inslee signed, in front of a throng of prosecutors and mental health advocates, is weaker than the one representative Jamie Pedersen, Mark Lindquist, and the state’s prosecutors originally proposed. Pedersen and his fellow sponsors were only able to get roughly $1.3 million set aside annually, versus the annual $10 million the measure was expected to eventually cost.
“But the bottom line is we got specific funding for it in the budget,” Pedersen says. “We’re focusing resources on a population that we know causes harm, and trying to get them help and trying to keep the public safer by keeping them in a place where they can get treatment.”
Where are you Mr. Meline? For Nae’Ana the loss of the spacecraft brought back the wound of losing her favorite teacher. Nowhere near the pain, of course, but this new loss tugged on her like an oversize balloon.
Mr. Birdseye encouraged his students to think positively—at least we got to see it take off, right?—but by now he was certain the spacecraft had been destroyed. Maybe it had never even made it to the stratosphere. Or perhaps it did but perished during landing, perhaps because the parachute hadn’t deployed.
He told friends and family about the GPS tracking site, and invited them to check on the vessel’s whereabouts. He stayed at school after the final bell on the day of the launch to work on the next day’s lesson plan. At 5pm he headed home.
Who can explain what happened next? The universe, as his predecessor had so often emphasized, is a big, beautiful, and mostly mysterious place. Unexplainable things happen all the time. Can you dial a phone number at random and find the love of your life?
On his way home, Birdseye’s phone buzzed. It was a friend, logged onto the GPS site. The USS Meline was beaming its location.
The vessel was 45 miles from the school, and nearly a mile from the closest road, Interstate 90. Birdseye hiked for two hours from the interstate toward the landing spot, through brush and mud and over shale outcroppings. He scrambled until daylight drained from the sky and he had to return to the car.
All day Tuesday the students begged him to get in the car and retrieve the vessel right away. On Wednesday afternoon, along with his brother and a friend, he tried again. They hiked for three hours and finally spotted the USS Meline 35 feet off the ground, in a tree. They tried to knock it down with rocks for nearly an hour in the rain before retreating. He returned on Friday with a professional tree climber, who pulled the vessel down.
At home he reviewed the camera footage, some 12 hours’ worth. What he saw stunned him.
In late August, Kim Meline sat between her mother and sister in a Pierce County Superior courtroom. Her son, in cuffs and leg restraints and flanked by armed sheriff’s deputies, entered the room. The judge read his decision, handwritten on a yellow legal pad: While the defendant still suffers from delusions—that others can control him via telepathy and that his mother and father were part of a worldwide conspiracy to kill children—the judge said that Jonathan is lucid enough to understand the legal proceedings and can assist his attorney with his defense. The judge declared him competent to stand trial for the murder of his father. An arraignment was set for early September. Jonathan looked at his mother exactly once during the proceedings. His face was expressionless, but he stared for maybe five seconds.
Kim has sold the house in which her husband was murdered and now lives in an apartment complex overlooking Commencement Bay. Her daughters have all moved out, pursuing careers and relationships, though Sara stays with her occasionally.
Kristina, the daughter who witnessed the murder, is struggling to cope with the event that changed their lives a year ago. She jerks awake in the middle of the night, screaming, “No!” Her dreams involve trying to warn her father just before the attack.
Kim keeps a memorial dedicated to Rob in her bedroom: photos of their last vacation—a church trip to Scotland—and of Rob’s last adventure at the Space Academy in Alabama.
She’s teaching math at a middle school this school year, coincidentally alongside her and Rob’s pal Scott Birdseye. She loves what Scott did for the students and for Rob. She can imagine Rob getting such a kick out of it—a proud and goofy grin on his face. It’s not that her husband was bitter about becoming a teacher instead of an astronaut, she says, but he was disappointed he spent nearly all of his 56 years dreaming of going into space and never did.
Now that dream belongs to his student. Nae’Ana Aguon wants to join NASA, either as an astronaut or a spacecraft engineer. “She’s my nerd,” her mom said, proudly, at their home this summer. Nae’Ana said Rob Meline changed her life. She fought back tears when she said it. Seconds after the conversation about her teacher ended, she popped off the living room coffee table on which she had been sitting and darted away, consulting her iPhone. Her mom said she’s excited about starting middle school this year.
In the final edit of the footage Birdseye recovered from the vessel, Nae’Ana appears in the second frame of video, straightening out the parachute. We then see her holding the bottom of the balloon as it fills with helium. The camera pans out and we see the whole scene: her classmates, Birdseye, the student body as it shouts the countdown in unison.
From the point of view of the vessel as it rises, we see the crowd and Camas Prairie Elementary shrink, then the streets of Spanaway materialize and disappear in the distance. Mount Rainier blinks into focus, and it too goes small.
The blue sky goes dark. And the wooden rocket bobs as the balloon pulls it higher. Up and up it soars until the camera lens starts to freeze over and the curvature of the planet arcs on the bottom half of the screen. The video cuts to another of the vessel’s three cameras, aimed at the helium balloon. At about 87,000 feet—some 16 miles from Earth—the balloon explodes.
For a split second the camera catches another glimpse of the ground below. It’s an indecipherable blur of terrain, but down there is the Evergreen State, from Seattle to Tacoma to Washtucna—where chance phone calls and laughter turn into lifetimes of love and sometimes grief. Where men and women learn to become bigger than their beginnings and inspire generations. And unfulfilled dreams have a way of playing tricks on you, until you realize the life you wanted is the life you had all along.
Then the USS Meline, 57 years in the making, falls to Earth.
This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Seattle Met.