State Senator’s Son Was Talented and Troubled

Friends and family remember Gus Deeds as lively and musical, but he struggled after his father's losing campaign and parents' divorce

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Hyunsoo Leo Kim / Virginian-Pilot / AP

State senator Creigh Deeds, right, with his son Gus while campaigning for governor of Virginia in 2009

Johnny Camacho was at work in Salem, Va., on Tuesday when he glanced up to see his friend’s father’s image on a television screen.

“I thought maybe they were doing an interview,” says Camacho. “Then I saw it said, ‘Senator Deeds stabbed and son confirmed dead.'”

A near namesake of his famous father, the 24-year-old Austin Creigh “Gus” Deeds died on Tuesday in an incident that has left family broken, friends shaken and politicians wondering whether Virginia — still reeling from the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech — needs better protection for citizens under mental duress. Authorities say Gus stabbed state senator Creigh Deeds multiple times in the face and upper torso before fatally shooting himself.

The violent outburst shocked family and friends. “Gus brought a lot of joy and a lot of smiles to our faces and a lot of great music as well,” says Jared Leopold, press secretary for Deeds’ 2009 campaign for governor. Leopold remembers a banjo-toting, father-doting young man who made music throughout the commonwealth.

“Just about everything about him stood out,” says his faculty adviser at the College of William and Mary, Brian Hulse. “A wide, expansive personality, and he always contributed to class every day.”

Tony Walters graduated from Bath County High School the year after Gus Deeds was named the school valedictorian and followed him to William and Mary, where Gus pursued his love of music. “He was like a brother to me — one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” says Walters.

But Walters suggests that Gus suffered a breakdown after his father’s 2009 political loss — Gus had put college on hold to help out — and his parents’ divorce the following year. The Washington Post reported that state senator Deeds had told friends his marriage to his college sweetheart Pam had fallen victim to political ambition.

Walters says Gus’ lifelong appreciation of religion suddenly turned into a more zealous perspective. “He would claim that God was speaking to him or that God told him to do this or do that,” says Walters. “At one point he drove across the country and then drove back. God told him to see the Pacific.”

Two summers ago when Gus returned to Nature Camp in nearby Vesuvius, where Walters was working as the head of male staff, he says there was concern over letting Gus come back as a counselor. As it turned out, Gus performed so well he returned the following summer and won the Director’s Award.

“He was good with homesick children, coming up with hike ideas, and generally thinking outside of the box,” says Walters.

At one point, Walters remembered that Gus went to work in the kitchen of the nearby Homestead resort. Washing dishes wasn’t glamorous work, but jobs can be hard to find in this part of Virginia.

Walters agrees with longtime family friend and Charlottesville-based state delegate David Toscano that the father took “Herculean” measures to help the troubled young man, getting him therapy, medication, an inpatient stay, and then ensuring that he took frequent hikes to get out of the house. Gus withdrew from William and Mary last month.

Camacho, who says he and Gus bonded as elementary-school trombone players and remained friends even after choosing separate schools, remembers the father and son as easy companions.

“They loved cracking jokes and busting on each other,” says Camacho, who once accompanied the father and son on a campaign swing. “It was such a high level of wit that it played like a scene from Shakespeare.”

The issue of mental health was more than personal for state senator Deeds. After the Virginia Tech shooting, Deeds was among the state lawmakers who championed a wave of mental-health reforms designed to improve the state’s ability to protect individuals at risk of harming themselves and others.

Tragically, it became all too real this week. Gus underwent a state-ordered emergency mental-health evaluation on Monday, but was released the same day.

Authorities say Gus attacked his father early on Tuesday morning by the horse barn on the family compound, which occupies the top of a wooded knoll. Despite his injuries, the elder Deeds broke free, escaping down the hill and out to Route 42, the two-lane highway that bisects the rural municipality of just 4,700 residents.

A sheriff’s deputy says it was a cousin who found the wounded Deeds and summoned medical attention. A few hours later, across the street, another cousin, Gerald Wood, alternated between staring at cable news and answering a reporter’s questions.

“Gus used to come by here trick-or-treating,” recalls his wife Betty Wood. “And every Christmas we’d get a Christmas card.” On school breaks, she remembers, he would join the local men who’d play music in the hunting cabin in front of their house.

“You just wonder what happened,” says Gerald Wood. “And why.”