Couple Murdered and Partially Eaten by Man During What Appears to be a Psychotic Episode
On August 15th, 2016, Michelle Karen Mishcon and John Joseph Stevens were victims of a completely unprovoked and random attack that resulted in their deaths while they relaxed in their garage listening to the radio. A nearby neighbor tried to intervene and was stabbed repeatedly, sustained a skull fracture and required surgery to save his life. When police arrived on scene the perpetrator, 19-year-old Austin Kelly Harrouff was biting John Stevens about the chest and face resulting in significant trauma. Austin made animal noises and did not respond to commands, stuns by a taser, dog bites by police K9 units, or hits and kicks by police officers. It took 5 police officers and deputies to physically get Austin off of John, since shooting him would have caused John to get shot as well.
An investigation into the case showed that Austin’s mental state was declining in the time leading up to the murders. He had no arrest record and had never received any psychiatric care until after the murders. It is inconceivable how the once normal well-adjusted teenager with good grades who participated in football and wrestling ended up brutally murdering and biting the flesh off of his innocent victim. The following overviews the case, with a focus on the perpetrator’s deterioration leading up to the murders to better understand what may have caused this heinous crime.
Austin Kelly Harrouff was born in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida and had a sister who was one year younger than him. Austin recalls his father yelling and screaming at his mother a lot until they separated when he was in the 3rd grade. This situation made Austin later claim that he felt like he “did not know what it was like to have a family”. His father would pick him and his sister up and take them out, but he primarily lived with his mother. They formally divorced when he was 13.
In middle school Austin began to feel insecure and rejected by his peers. He later stated that he felt as though he was hopeless and that he had a depressed mood “in his head”. He also began experiencing sleep paralysis where he felt like a “demon was over him”. Once he entered high school, his relationship with his father began to improve with him eventually looking up to his father. He was not popular in high school even though he participated in football all 4 years and wrestling his sophomore year where he got injured tearing his ACL. He had no known history of head trauma bad enough to lose consciousness. Although he was not popular, he did have a one-year long relationship while in high school.
Towards the end of high school when Austin was 17 years old, he was offered an alcoholic drink by a friend, and he noted that it calmed his nerves and took the edge off since he was shy. During the remainder of high school, he continued to drink occasionally. During this same time period he experimented with marijuana a couple times a month with friends in a group setting but had a low tolerance and said that a couple of hits would make him “hungry and stupid”.
After graduating from high school in 2015, Austin took college classes during the summer. He then went on to major in biology, receiving a GPA of 3.3 at Florida State University. During this time period Austin began experimenting with other drugs including Vyvanse and Adderall that he took to help him focus and stay up all night to study. He stated that he took Vyvanse six times, Adderall four times, and mushrooms, LSD, half of a molly, and Xanax one time each. He stated that the LSD and mushrooms were disappointing because he wanted a cool experience that others had described. Text records indicate that he likely used drugs more often than he reported. His drinking also got worse, drinking alcohol about three times a week and becoming drunk enough to black out and not be sure how he got to where he was every other week.
While in college Austin stated that his feelings of inadequacy and not belonging intensified from middle school. During the summer of 2016, Austin began experiencing some feelings of heightened self-importance, and at night he would become paranoid and have heightened religiosity. He started to research religious figures such as Buddha, Gandhi, and Krishna, which gave him some comfort. He began to experience auditory hallucinations which he described as “demonic things” but could also hear God’s voice. He expressed to his college girlfriend, different from the one in high school, that he was experiencing monsters and that the “devil was harassing him”. At the same time his mood would fluctuate widely, often feeling lonely, losing interest in things that he cared about, and feeling very overwhelmed. He stated that sometimes he would feel depressed and other times he would be hopeful and feel “on top of the world”. Austin extensively wrote about these problems, including feeling like he was Jesus, in journals that spanned from 2013 to 2016.
In the summer of 2016 Austin started a job as a dental assistant. He reported that he had a feeling of “go go go” where he was motivated to perform rap music and become famous. He started spending excessive amounts of money on clothes and designer sunglasses and considered dying his hair blue and getting a gold chain to be more “fashionable”. Even though he did not feel accepted by his peers, he posted a video on YouTube where he described himself as a “goofy person” which he felt good about. He had no history of counselling or psychiatric treatment prior to the murders and had never been in trouble with the law.
Austin’s Deteriorating Mental State
For a few weeks prior to the murders, Austin’s family and friends reported that he was acting unusually to the point that his sister felt the need to lock her bedroom door because she felt that Austin was not himself anymore. One week prior to the murders Austin “acknowledged the poor, wanted to pay for meals, and felt extra generosity”. He told a forensic psychologist that he would feel better after he gave to others and that, at the time, he thought if he helped others that things would work out for him. Austin’s internet searches demonstrated his declining mental state during this timeframe. Internet searches included “must I sleep?”, “I think I’m going crazy, am I?”, “what am I?”, “how to know if you’re going crazy?”, “can we really control more than we think?”, and “what is white magic?”. He also clicked on the WebMD article “What ‘Am I Crazy’ Really Means”, and other articles titled “Why Aren’t We Happier?” and “The Pursuit of Happiness”.
On August 10th he searched “how to relax my mind”, “auditory hallucinations when falling asleep”, “is it okay to overthink things?”, and “schizophrenia”. Sometime before August 11th, 2016, Austin decided to stop using all drugs. He texted his girlfriend and said, “I just know that, for me personally, the drugs are taking a toll on me and I can’t handle”. He texted his mother and said that he had already quit doing drugs.
Friday August 12th was Austin’s last day of work for the week as a dental assistant and stated that he felt like he was “Jesus” at work. He talked to patients about God and felt that he had “special abilities”. He recalled that he felt love and peace and thought that he was able to bless the dentist’s instruments by praying and pouring water over them. He remembered that while he was at work there was a radio playing and that he could heart themes of God through the radio. He reportedly cried for patients during the day and felt a special connection with a patient that had the same birthday as Austin. After he got home from work, he found any remaining drugs that he had and flushed them down the toilet stating that he “saw the evil”.
That night he went to a friend’s house but felt paranoid and could not sleep. He searched “satan”, “what exactly is hell?”, and for biblical scripture related to Adam and Eve. These searches throughout the week prior to the murders coincided with what his family said about him in that time period. They stated that he started to patrol the house stating that there was an evil presence that he had to protect them from starting a couple weeks before the murders. He apparently also told them that he had hypnotized himself and thought that it caused him insomnia and that he needed to find a way to undo the hypnotism. As time went on, he told his sister that he had “powers”, was immortal, and that he was half-horse. This thinking pattern can be seen in his searches on August 13th where he searched “what’s the weakest thing about a centaur?” and “what is the biggest help to a centaur?”. He also texted his girlfriend explaining his reason for not doing drugs anymore, saying that the drugs made him “vulnerable to evil”.
On this day, the 13th, he stated that he felt lethargic and thought he had a special connection with animals, as well as feeling like the water at a restaurant was the fountain of youth and that God was talking to him. As the day continued on, he felt like he had a force field around him that would protect him from others until he was getting a ride from a man in a Dodge pickup truck and felt like the RAM symbol was “like the devil looking at him”. He stated that he did not know the man who picked him up, and that he got picked up while running to a “safe place”. That night he was so paranoid that he slept in his sister’s room with his dog for protection.
On the next day, Sunday the 14th, while Austin walked his dog he started to run and felt like he was half dog and half person. He began to feel as if “dog spirits” were a part of him and that he had the strength and agility of a dog. The theme of having a special connection with animals continued. He went to a gun show with his father. While there speaking with a knife vender he felt “paranoid of spirits” and that he needed protection. He thought that if he ate a snake, he would get power over the devil and evil like Adam and Eve did.
Day of the Murders
On Monday the 15th, Austin put on a Michael Vick Jersey because he believed that “dog spirits told him to put it on”. Once he did, he felt invincible. He then put on a FitBit and felt like he was a “terminator”. He went to a beach and while petting dogs he felt a special connection again as their fur touched his face and body. In the early evening he went to a fraternity brother’s house for about an hour where they wanted him to smoke and drink but he refused. He reportedly felt “super hyper” and poured beer onto his hand. He left and fraternity brothers began looking for him throughout the neighborhood.
From there he went to Duffy’s restaurant with his father and stepmother, where he felt like time stood still and like he was “the grim reaper”. At some point he left the restaurant and ran two miles to his mother’s house. There, he drank a bowl of Wesson cooking oil and parmesan cheese before his mother brought him back to the restaurant with his dad at 8:30 P.M. Back at the restaurant a confrontation between Austin and his father ensued where his father told him to stop being weird and suggested to Austin’s mother that he may need to be Baker Acted (which is the name used locally for an involuntary psychiatric hold). Austin left and both of his parents called the Jupiter Police Department to report that he walked out of the dinner and that they were looking for him because he was upset and acting erratic. His mother reported to police that he was acting strange the last week or so saying that “it seems like he’s a little delusional and feels immortal and like a superhero”. A transcript of her 911 call can be found here. She told police that Austin left towards his father’s house but did not make it there. After the murders, Austin’s father stated that Austin was making strange and suicidal threats while at the dinner.
After Austin broke away from his father he ran towards his dad’s house “following the stars” and heard voices in his head saying “I am sin… I am in control…”. Two blocks from the scene of the crime, news crews found a pair of shorts that Austin’s father said were the shorts Austin was wearing at the restaurant, as well as a trail of blood. Austin’s father believes that it was at this location that Austin nearly severed off his own thumb. During this time, Austin saw a figure which he perceived as having a white face and black clothing that scared him. Right afterwards he saw a light that he started running towards while crying out. This light may have been the light from Michelle Karen Mishcon and John Joseph Stevens’ garage light being on.
Michelle and John would often sit in their garage with the garage door open relaxing. It was common for neighbors to come by if they saw the garage door open and chit chat for a while or have a drink. The night of August 15th was no different and they were sitting out there listening to the radio with the light on and the garage door open. The next thing that Austin remembers is having a machete in his hand and stabbing Michelle, noting that it was “like she was covered in darkness”. He remembers seeing a man and that “he was like glowing white”. He also stabbed the man with what he remembers to be a machete and falling to the floor. He stated that he put a dog into a truck for safety. Austin stated that he felt like a dog during the murders and remembers having a machete in his mouth and biting. He claims that he blacked out at that point and does not remember anything until waking up at the hospital.
In actuality, Austin used various weapons that he found in the garage during the attack, as well as a fairly large switchblade which Austin was known to have. These weapons of opportunity were used to cause massive lacerations, stab wounds, and blunt force trauma to the front and back of both murder victims. Evidence suggests that John put up a strong fight during the attack, with some of the bloody weapons in the garage possibly used by John in an attempt to defend himself and Michelle. At some point it is suspected that Austin drank chemicals he found within the garage. During the attack, a neighbor across the street, Jeffery Fisher, tried to intervene.
According to Jeffery’s father, at first Jeffery thought that Michelle was being attacked so he went over to their house. He was not completely sure what was happening until, according to Jeffery’s father who was told what happened after the fact by his son, Austin said “you don’t want none of me and you don’t want none of this”. When Jeffery approached, he thought he was being hit by Austin along the left side of his head, but was actually being stabbed in the head. Jeffery backed up before approaching Austin again, getting stabbed again. Jeffery hit Austin in the jaw and knocked him backwards, but Austin came back and stabbed him in the stomach and left side. At this point, Jeffery reportedly punched Austin in the throat and knocked him down. Jeffery went to get on top of Austin when he saw the blood and realized he had been stabbed. He ran through Michelle and John’s house to get out another door and retreated to his house where he called 911. During the attack Jeffery sustained a skull fracture, subarachnoid hemorrhage, a fracture to his right thumb, and multiple lacerations requiring internal and external surgery consisting of repair to the left temporal artery and scalp, left flank, left lower abdominal quadrant, and exploratory abdominal surgery to determine the presence of internal bleeding.
Jeffery Fisher called 911 at 9:20 P.M. and told dispatchers that there was an assailant with a knife attacking a woman who was bleeding and that when he tried to intervene, he got stabbed himself and returned to his house to call authorities. While Jeffery called 911, his wife called his father who rushed to the scene. After checking that his son was okay, Jeffery’s father went across the street to see if he could help. He saw Austin on top of John, with John in some sort of headlock. The first officer, Deputy Zopf, soon arrived and ran diagonally up the yard to John and Austin while Jeffery’s father stayed further back. Standing a few feet away with her weapon and taser drawn Deputy Zopf yelled “get off or I’ll shoot” three times. According to Jeffery’s father he said, “shoot the motherfucker, he just tried to kill my son” and Austin said, “go ahead and kill me”. According to authorities, Austin moaned for help and made animalistic noises.
When Deputy Zopf arrived on scene, she reported that she saw Austin on top of John attempting to bite him around the chest. On numerous occasions her and other officers and deputies saw Austin bite John and spit out John’s flesh while on top of him in the driveway, with John facing up. Michelle was inside of the garage already deceased. Deputy Zopf deployed her taser while Austin caused significant trauma to John’s face via biting but the taser had no effect. She took hold of Austin, but he was exhibit abnormal levels of strength, making her unable to stop him. A few seconds later other deputies and officers showed up, with Austin still biting the side of John’s face when Deputy Trocan arrived.
Throughout the ordeal, Austin did not respond to any commands, several stuns from a taser nor to bites from police K9s. Officers were not able to shoot Austin because the position he was in on top of John made it nearly impossible to not shoot John at the same time as Austin. After several minutes of fighting with three or four deputies, an officer, and a police K9, authorities were able to get Austin off of John using “all of the force that they were able to muster physically”. Both Michelle and John were pronounced dead at the scene, and Jeffery was taken by ambulance to a helicopter where he was flown out for surgery.
While being taken into custody, Deputy Day and Sergeant Dykes heard Austin say, “help me, I ate something bad”. Sergeant Dykes responded, “what did you eat?” to which Austin responded “humans”. Before and after this exchange Austin was mostly making animal noises and was “somewhat incoherent”. While at the hospital, Detective Marcaida observed Austin spit out what appeared to him to be human flesh which was recovered by crime scene technicians, as well as the human hair Austin had in his mouth. Austin was then put under sedation and had surgery to his hand. Because of his mental state, being sedated, and being on a breathing tube, he could not be questioned right away.
Austin was charged that evening with 2 counts of 1st degree murder with a weapon, attempted first degree murder with a weapon, burglary of a dwelling with an assault or battery while armed, and resisting an officer. The latter two charges were dropped. Austin was treated for his injuries at St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach where he had surgery on his hand. When his mother went to see him for the first time after the attack, his lungs and liver were still failing, presumably because of poisoning from the chemicals he drank inside of the garage of the victims. In the beginning it was not clear if Austin would survive or not, but he made a recovery a couple weeks later. He was officially arrested on October 3rd after being released from the hospital.
Blood samples were taken on August 16th and August 17th which showed no illicit drugs besides a small amount of THC. His alcohol concentration was at 0.175 when he arrived at the hospital. Illicit, over the counter, and prescription drugs were tested for, including ethanol, flakka, antihistamines, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, cocaine and metabolites, opioids, and synthetic cannabinoids, among others. None were found in his system aside from the THC and alcohol. Additionally, Austin’s body temperature was normal, where as Flakka/bath salts cause hyperthermia (a high body temperature).
Austin’s attorneys are going for an insanity plea, and he has undergone three psychiatric examinations to determine if he is sane by law. One psychologist for the state and one psychologist for the defense has found Austin insane at the time of the crime, where another state psychologist found Austin to be sane, though he has not yet provided a report to the defense team and did not conduct any tests during his examination of Austin via Zoom.
During one such psychiatric evaluation, state selected expert Gregory Landrum who is a clinical and forensic psychologist stated that Austin appeared to be of average to above average intelligence and scored on testing similar to people who have anxiety disorder and who are dependent, self-effacing, and noncompetitive. This would likely make him feel vulnerable if separated from those who supply support. It was noted that Austin reported the same general experience to defense attorneys, another doctor, and Dr. Landrum after the crime, and friends and family via text messages before the crime. Dr. Landrum found that the results of his evaluation were consistent with a mood and/or thought disorder resulting in a psychotic episode, though it was not possible to determine if the episode was brought on by substances or if substances exasperated a psychiatric disorder Austin was already developing.
Austin is being treated for schizophrenia at the Marion County jail, having been prescribed Geodon, Trazodone, and Zoloft, and taking Celexa and Zyprexa in the past while incarcerated. Despite full medication compliance and no illicit drug intake, Austin still is symptomatic. Jail records show that he still experiences feeling of depression and sadness about two times a week, and continues to experience feelings of invincibility, fearfulness at night, and “intrusive thoughts”. After a review of test results and scoring, psychological evaluation, and extensive review of Austin’s history, Dr. Landrum stated the following:
“Forensically, given the above findings, absent evidence of drug usage at the time of the incident, and observations made by first responding officers, it is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Harrouff was experiencing a decompensated mental state associated with an emerging mood and/or thought disorder resulting in an acute psychotic episode. As a result of this condition, it is opined that Mr. Harrouff was unable to distinguish right from wrong.
It is recommended that if the court finds that Mr. Harrouff meets the criteria for legal insanity at the time of the offence, consideration should be given to his involuntary commitment to a secure forensic State hospital as he has a mental illness, and, because of the illness, is manifestly dangerous to himself or others.”
Dr. Landrum also addressed what should happen regarding release from a State forensic hospital:
“It is additionally recommended that, prior to any release from the forensic State hospital, Mr. Harrouff complete a formal violence risk assessment by an independent forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to determine his potential for future acts of violence towards himself or others.”
Austin is currently awaiting trial, and the families and friends of the victims are still reeling from this terrible and unfortunate crime that cost the lives of two innocent people and severely wounded another.