Mental health: 'I'm coming to kill you': Inside a Polk family's struggle

·13 min read
Matthew Gardner holds up a photo of his cousin, Anna Catherine Haney, who has been arrested multiple times for threatening to kill her various family members. She is awaiting trial for threatening to kill Gardner, his wife and their children.
Matthew Gardner holds up a photo of his cousin, Anna Catherine Haney, who has been arrested multiple times for threatening to kill her various family members. She is awaiting trial for threatening to kill Gardner, his wife and their children.

LAKELAND — Anna Catherine Haney’s June 30, 2021, letter from the Polk County Jail to her aunt, Donna Gardner, started out nice enough, with a greeting of, “Hey how are you doing today. I’m doing good today.”

But the next sentence turned sinister, as so many of her messages to the Gardner family and her family have over the years, court documents show.

“I’m going to kidnap all of Matthew’s kids and then I’m going to come over there and kill you first and then I’m going to kill Matthew and his wife and kids after I kidnap all of them and if you want to be safe you are going to need a injunction on me because I’m coming to kill you and Matthew and his wife and kids so need to whach (sic) your back because I’m comeing (sic) to kill you all and I mean what I said and I not going to quit threarting (sic) you all I’m going to kill you all after I beat you all with a baseball bat...,” the letter continues.

The language was familiar, but still frightening, to the Gardners. Haney, 32, who they say is schizophrenic and bipolar, has been charged at least half a dozen times with threatening to blow up, shoot, beat with a bat, or kill various family members via text messages, Facebook messenger or in letters from jail.

In fact, she was in jail on charges of making those same threats in March to Matthew Gardner and his wife when she wrote to her aunt — Matthew Gardner’s mother. And she was still on probation for making similar threats in 2019, for which she was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. She lost her mail privileges after the June letter.

Frustrations with the judicial system

The Haney case illustrates the frustration many victims have with a system they say allows often psychotic behavior to continue unabated, without helping the perpetrator. Court officials say there are thousands like her in the system in the 10th Judicial Circuit.

But the courts' hands are tied because, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the mentally ill cannot be held indefinitely and a U.S. district court of appeal ruling allows the mentally ill to go without treatment.

“I lost my job over it. It got to the point where I was having to go to court and take off so much time from work,” said Matthew Gardner, 43.

He said the threats to his mother and him started about 3 ½ years ago when Haney began borrowing money from his mother without his knowledge. Then Haney took it a step farther.

To get help

Polk County's Peace River Center offers a 24-Hour Emotional Support and Crisis Line: 863-519-3744 or toll-free at 800-627-5906

"She got my mom’s whole social security check. Anna went down to the bank and withdrew the whole thing,” Gardner said in early June as he helped a family member build a wheelchair ramp on his home. “That happened a couple of months in a row. I told Anna not to come back to the house, not to contact my mom. I thought about contacting social security because (Anna) gets a check. She didn’t need Mom’s money.”

Instead of leaving the family alone, Haney began sending threats via Facebook messenger and texted a video to Gardner while he was on a truck-driving job out of state. Gardner said the video showed Haney pointing a gun at Gardner’s 4-year-old son while the boy played in the front yard.

The legal history of Anna Catherine Haney

Anna Catherine Haney has been arrested multiple times for threatening to kill family members and others.  Her family says she is mentally ill and suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Anna Catherine Haney has been arrested multiple times for threatening to kill family members and others. Her family says she is mentally ill and suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Her first arrest for making harassing texts came in March 2013, when she texted a woman, “I’m (watching) you ever (sic) day I see ever (sic) thing you do.” The victim said she was afraid for her safety. Haney was arrested and charged with making harassing phone calls, a misdemeanor.

Just eight months later, Haney was charged again with misdemeanor stalking.

In May 2014, Haney’s threats heightened.

“I’m going to blow up Auburndale police department now. Some one help them,” said one of two texts she sent as she sat in the Auburndale Public Library. That’s where police found her, the texts still on her phone, along with a similar handwritten note scrawled in a spiral notebook. She was charged with making a threat to discharge a destructive device, a second-degree felony. She was found guilty and placed on two years' probation, which she violated in September 2014.

Her former boyfriend filed for a restraining order that month, saying Haney was threatening him, his stepsister and his new girlfriend.

“I had to call the cops on Anna because she won’t (leave) me alone,” he wrote.

At the beginning of 2015, she and a new boyfriend, Allen Dyal, began filing and counter-filing restraining orders against each other.

The new boyfriend wrote that Haney’s mother didn’t want Anna to have any friends and that the older Haney had threatened to kill him, which an Auburndale Police officer heard.

“(The) cop told my mom to tell me, ‘Don’t talk to Anna Haney. She is crazy, very wild and (has) a bad name,” Dyal wrote. “Afraid 4 my self because Haney has a very bad trouble with law 4 being a (bad) actor.”

The next year, the messages were elevated again, with Haney threatening to kill a woman, her fiancée and Haney’s brother, D.J. Haney. A police affidavit shows that between June 21 and June 25, 2018, Haney sent 38 texts or Facebook messages, and left seven voicemail messages, threatening to kill or assault them all. The woman obtained a restraining order, which Haney violated.

In January 2019, Haney threated to kill her sister-in-law and her family.

“I will blow audery (sic) up tonight and I will blow the cops up too,” a police affidavit shows she texted. Haney also threatened to blow up the woman’s home “with everyone inside, kidnap her 3-year-old son and murder him, and kill everyone in her family.”

She was charged by the State Attorney’s Office with felony aggravated stalking, making harassing phone calls and a threat to discharge a destructive device, along with violating the restraining order. She was sentenced to 270 days in jail.

And when she got out, she sent Matthew Gardner Facebook messages from August through October, asking Gardner to kill her brother, his wife and their children, saying she would pay him for it. When he didn’t respond, she threatened to blow him up, blow up her brother and blow up the Sheriff’s Office.

Gardner told the Sheriff's Office that he changed his cellphone number twice in as many months, but she managed to get his new number through an unknown source.

The investigating deputy wrote in an affidavit that he saw 27 messages from Haney to Gardner on his phone. When she was asked why she kept making threats to kill Gardner, “she shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘I don’t know.’”

In July 2020, she was sentenced to a year and a day for that felony case, including time already served in jail.

A Florida Department of Corrections document on file with the Polk County Clerk of Courts office shows Haney is listed as a “VIOLENT FELONY OFFENDER OF SPECIAL CONCERN.”

She was released on Oct. 8, 2020, and was placed on probation for one year. But in March 2021, she began texting Gardner and sending him Facebook messages — again, threatening to blow him up. She also sent messages to his wife.

Haney was arrested and placed in jail, but continued writing threatening letters from jail — which stopped when The Ledger asked jail officials about it.

In one of her final letters, she writes: "im coming after them too not just the 3 old but all of the kids." And then she signs it "love anna"

A letter allegedly sent by Anna Catherine Haney to her aunt, Donna Gardener, threatening to kill her cousin Matthew Gardner's son and his family. Kimberly C. Moore/The Ledger
A letter allegedly sent by Anna Catherine Haney to her aunt, Donna Gardener, threatening to kill her cousin Matthew Gardner's son and his family. Kimberly C. Moore/The Ledger

Mental health help in jails, prisons is 'not enough'

Lea Johnston, a professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who specializes in mental health and criminal law and procedure, said not only does the criminal justice system fail people with mental illness, so does society.

"Communities offer insufficient treatment options. So now many more individuals with serious mental illness are in our nation’s jails and prisons than in psychiatric facilities," Johnston said.

She added that incarceration institutions are not the place for people with mental illness because they have inadequate mental health resources and correctional officers are not sufficiently trained.

Lea Johnston, professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law
Lea Johnston, professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law

"They are stressful and often violent environments. Yet today jails and prisons are often the only places where people with mental illness can find help," Johnston said. "As Anna’s story shows, that help is not enough. They end up cycling in and out of the system as their illness remains essentially untreated."

A family’s struggle with mental illness

Gardner said he tries to be understanding with Haney because he suffers with bipolar disorder himself.

“Bipolar runs rampant in our family. It took me 20-something years to learn how to control it — I get by myself,” Gardner said. “That’s why I started driving trucks again. A job by myself and nobody bugs me. I have manic-depressive disorder. There are different forms of bipolar.”

He said he has gone to counseling, but he doesn’t like taking medicine for it because it makes him eat constantly, plunges him into depression and gives him suicidal thoughts.

Gardner has seven children and he said all of them suffer with some kind of mental health issue.

"Until I can find the right doctor to treat them, we teach them how to deal with it,” Gardner said. “My oldest son with (my) current wife is bipolar and has major depression disorder and we both have anxiety. He has social anxiety. It sucks. It’s a never-ending story. It’s affected my family, my friends. There’s no correct way to deal with any of it. It’s going to be a doctor and trial.”

He said Anna, her twin sister Jessica and their brother D.J. all deal with bipolar disorder.

“D.J. has the worst case I’ve ever seen – very physically abusive to his sisters,” Gardner said.

Court records show Donald Justin Haney, 31, has been charged with felony burglary dating to 2012. When he violated probation on that charge, court records show a judge ordered him to be held until a bed opened up at Peace River Center, one of several facilities in Polk County that treats the mentally ill. When he violated probation again, he was ordered to serve 15 months in state prison. Anna Haney also applied for a restraining order against him in 2012.

“I was rideing (sic) my bike down hobbs road and he pushing me off the bike into the road then he put his hands around my throw and told me to die and have a (stroke),” she wrote.

A judge granted her the restraining order.

Jessica Haney also has multiple arrests on her record. Among them: making multiple bomb threats to several law enforcement agencies, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Lakeland Police and the Polk County Jail. Jessica has had to undergo at least three competency evaluations, including one on Sept. 24. Jessica was assigned to mental health court, but violated her probation and sentenced to jail.

Anna Haney was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation in June and a hearing on that was held Aug. 24.

A competency evaluation looks at the defendant's capacity to:

• Understand the charges and allegations against him or her.

• Appreciate the range and nature of possible penalties.

• Understand the adversarial nature of the legal process.

• Disclose to his or her attorney facts pertinent to the case.

• Use appropriate courtroom behavior.

• And testify relevantly.

According to court documents, "a stipulation was entered by the state and defense that she is incompetent to proceed."

'They dropped the ball'

Gardner said he feels like the justice system isn’t helping Anna Haney or him, as the victim in this case.

“They dropped the ball. The first time she did this to me, they could’ve gotten her help because they’re mental and have to take it easy on them,” Gardner said. “They’re still humans, so they have to learn to be accountable for their actions and furthering citizens in society, so why not have a program that teaches them that? Probation is designed for people who made a mistake and want a better future. They gave her probation and a jail sentence. I understand a jail sentence, but do it in a facility that can help. They rush you in and out. As far as medication, they put you on what they want.”

Gardner blames Haney’s mother, who died in February 2018 for her children’s behavior. Both Anna and Jessica Haney were in the Polk County Jail when she died.

"She was known for teaching family how to manipulate the system, to get social security without jumping through hoops and seeing doctors to get help,” Gardner said.

Despite all that she has put him through, he said he is concerned about Anna Haney’s safety.

“She’s going to threaten the wrong person and they’re either going to beat the brakes off of her or kill her,” Gardner said. “If the judicial system could find a way to help people like her, to me, it’s a huge red flag. She’s wanting to go to jail, she’s wanting help. If she was trying to get help, she had (counseling) appointments...and either she wasn’t going or they weren’t helping.”

Haney released again

On Oct. 11, Circuit Court Judge Larry Helms released Anna Catherine Haney from the Polk County Jail after she was declared incompetent to stand trial by Dr. Tracey Henley, who described her as "intellectually disabled." There was no mention of schizophrenia or bipolar.

Haney must receive competency training from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, live at her home on 1st Avenue in Auburndale, not possess any firearms or weapons, stay away from Gardner and his family, and report for further court-ordered evaluation regarding competency at specified times. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities will provide the court with reports on her progress at least every six months.

A motion to adopt the court-appointed committee's findings states that an assistant state attorney, "was consulted in regards to this issue and has no objection to this motion."

In Judge Helms' court order, it states: "The defendant understands the conditions of release listed and agrees to comply with them."

State Attorney Brian Haas would not speak directly about the Haney case, but did say that repeat violent offenders should not be released into the community.

"If mental health concerns prevent a violent offender from being prosecuted, the law should be changed to require they be placed in a secure facility that can address the mental health of the offender while protecting our community at the same time," Haas said in a written statement to The Ledger.

Haney's attorney, Kaysha Shelindell Hutchinson, said she did not want her client to speak with The Ledger.

Haney's next court appearance is scheduled for April 8.

Stories in series: Mental health in Polk County and Florida: Read every story in our series

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk family illustrates frustrations with mental illness, legal system

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