Minutes before the fiery crash in Windsor Hills that killed five people last month, Nicole Linton was not making sense, her older sister said.
FaceTiming with Kim Linton while driving her Mercedes-Benz, Linton would start speaking and stop after a few words.
“You know when you have a dream and you remember fragments of the dream? That’s how she was talking,” Kim said. “She’d just say one or two words, then something else. ... I was just confused.”
The call came in at 1:24 p.m. Aug. 4 and didn’t last long, but it was when she realized her youngest sister was once again ill, Kim said. Worried, she called sibling Camille Linton with an urgent message.
“I think Nicky is having a manic episode.”
By then, it was too late.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., Linton barreled through a red light at La Brea and Slauson avenues, speeding around 130 mph and slamming into multiple cars, prosecutors have said in charging documents against the 37-year-old nurse.
The crash killed five people, including a pregnant woman.
The crash shocked Los Angeles and left many trying to understand how the woman they knew as a kindhearted nurse with a bubbly personality could be involved in such a horrific chain of events.
Linton’s family said she has struggled with bipolar disorder since 2018. Few but her closest confidants knew about her diagnosis. Her illness did not stop her from a nursing career that spanned at least five states and eventually brought her to Los Angeles.
But Linton’s disorder occasionally manifested, her family said, with manic and sometimes aggressive behavior toward restaurant workers, neighbors, boyfriends and police. She seemed almost unrecognizable during those times, her sisters said.
Friends and colleagues are struggling to come to grips with how the woman they knew as a consummate professional and kind caregiver could be involved in such a horrific chain of events.
It remains unclear what the various hospitals where she worked knew about her mental illness or her condition in the days before the fatal crash.
But the legal case against her will probably call into question whether more should have been done to monitor her mental health.
Prosecutors alleged in a motion opposing Linton’s release from jail that she was conscious and recalled parts of the crash she caused, had failed to take prescribed medication to treat her bipolar disorder and had a history of reckless driving. Her license was suspended in New York in 2012 for failing to pay a fine. She also caused two car crashes and received three speeding tickets in New York — though all occurred more than a decade ago,prosecutors said in the motion.
But Linton’s family and attorneys say she may have lost consciousness in the throes of a manic episode that left her unable to remember the crash.
Linton’s mental health struggles started in the past few years, her family said. She had been an intensive care unit nurse for more than a year when she decided in 2017 to go back to school to become a nurse anesthetist.
In May 2018, as final exams approached, Linton feared she had failed a class.
“She was stressing out,” her sister Camille said. “She was just constantly studying. She wasn’t really sleeping.”
Linton’s aunt Glena, who did not wish to be identified by her surname, said that around that time, Linton went for a jog to get out of her apartment after a small kitchen fire. She ended up at a restaurant, where she began hallucinating, her aunt said. Linton believed her family was there to throw a surprise party for her, and she tried to enter.
“She saw me, her brother, her mother, and she kept trying to get in the room,” said Glena, who was visiting Houston from Jamaica at the time. “And they barred her, and that’s when they called the police.”
When officers approached, Linton jumped on top of their cruiser. She was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct, her attorneys wrote in a bail motion. Camille said the charges against her sister were dismissed.
Linton’s mania continued over the next few days as her aunt and Camille tried to persuade her to seek help.
Linton was convinced she was being surveilled by neighbors and became angry if family members used their phones, her family said. She thought her sister was surreptitiously recording her.
“She was not resting, not sleeping,” her aunt aid. “She was pacing, going from place to place. But she kept insisting all she needed to do was rest.”
Linton’s sister and aunt finally persuaded her to see a school counselor from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where she was studying. After seeing the counselor, Linton checked in to Ben Taub Hospital.
While there, she slammed her head against a glass partition while ranting about her arrest, claiming she would sue the police and take the case to the Supreme Court, her lawyers said in a bail motion in the Los Angeles case.
She sang a Bob Marley song as the medical staff stitched up her wound, crooning, “Don’t worry, about a thing,” as blood streamed from her forehead, her sister said.
“I am like, bawling, like: What is happening?” Camille recalled.
Linton, then 32, was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward, according to the bail motion.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied Nicole Linton’s request to be released from jail to a psychiatric hospital.
Despite Linton’s bipolar disorder diagnosis and arrest — and an agreement with UTHealth Houston to take a year off from her studies — it is not clear whether the university notified the Texas Board of Nursing, which receives complaints for “impairment or likely impairment of the nurse’s practice by ... mental illness.”
A university spokeswoman declined to discuss whether complaints were filed against Linton. The Texas Board of Nursing said investigations are confidential.
“If an individual is in an acute state of a psychiatric illness ... manifesting signs of illness that interfere with ‘the ability to maintain minimum standards of professional nursing,’ the individual is ‘practicing while impaired,’” said Madeline Naegle, a professor emerita at New York University’s Meyers College of Nursing. “If the student (in case of school) or practitioner of nursing is posing a threat to public health and refuses to seek appropriate treatment, the school, training program and/or employer is required to report the individual to the state board for nursing.”
While Linton is not accused of having issues while working as an ICU nurse in Texas, a board complaint could have triggered her being more closely monitored by her peers, said Dr. George Woods, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at UC Berkeley who has testified at hundreds of criminal trials for defendants who have bipolar disorder.
Due to privacy laws, it is not clear whether a complaint against Linton was filed to a state board of nursing. But Woods said that in healthcare, reporting colleagues can be frowned on by some.
“You think there’s a thin blue line in police? Doctors, nurses — they don’t tell on their own,” Woods said.
Linton told police after the Windsor Hills crash that she had been struggling at work that day, failing to provide medication to patients on time and working more slowly than usual, according to prosecutors’ motion to keep Linton in jail. She also had been crying at the hospital, the motion said.
“She could not log into the system, her monitor would turn off, and she felt like everyone was watching her,” prosecutors wrote in the court filing.
The California Board of Nursing has an intervention program established in 1984 as an alternative to discipline designed specifically for nurses struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse.
More than 2,000 nurses have completed the program, according to the board. The program seeks to “rehabilitate registered nurses whose competency may be impaired due to substance use disorder or mental illness, rehabilitate those nurses and return them to practice in a manner that does not endanger public health and safety.”
It is not clear whether Linton was part of the program. The California Board of Nursing declined to comment on her case.
“If the board receives information that indicates a licensee’s ability to safely practice nursing may be impaired due to a mental or physical condition, the board has authority to direct the licensee to undergo a mental and/or physical evaluation,” spokesman Vincent Miranda said. “If it is found that the licensee’s ability to practice safely is indeed impaired, the board may take action against the license.”
Linton’s mental health struggles have brought back painful memories for her aunt Glena, who considers Linton a daughter.
Glena’s brother died by suicide in 1988. Like Linton, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Linton’s sisters said she is not suicidal but acknowledged the family’s history of mental health struggles.
“I had visited him earlier that year, and I remember he got up in the middle of the night and woke me up and told me how stressed he was at work,” Linton’s aunt said of her brother. “I remember he said to me sometimes he wished he would just die.”
He had attempted suicide before and told his sister from his hospital bed he just needed some rest.
“It’s almost like déjà vu when I talk to Nicole and she says she just needed rest,” Linton’s aunt said.
Another family member — the son of Linton’s late uncle — also struggled with mental health issues, her family said.
Like Linton, he was a good student and a hard worker. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees before his mental health began to deteriorate. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent nearly two years in jail after a violent attack.
Linton’s aunt said the family’s history of mental health issues can’t be denied.
“You have to start to wonder whether there is some genetic factor in relation to mental illness in the family,” she said. “It makes you wonder.”
Linton’s first manic episode in Houston, when she jumped on the police car in 2018, was not her last. While her family contends Linton’s bipolar disorder was not getting worse, she continued to experience manic phases.
She jumped out the first-floor window of her Houston apartment in May 2019, scratching her chest and arms, Camille said. Prosecutors and defense attorneys both confirmed the incident in recent court papers.
After that, she decided to end her pursuit of the nurse anesthetist program.
Seven months later, Camille said, a neighbor called her when her sister was spotted running around her apartment complex naked.
“Witnesses at the location described defendant as angry, talking nonsense, screaming, chasing the maintenance crew and hitting vehicles driving through the parking lot,” L.A. prosecutors wrote in their motion opposing her release from jail.
After that episode, Linton’s sister Camille persuaded her to move in with her in Charlotte, N.C. Soon after, Linton decided to begin work as a travel nurse, moving from hospital to hospital around the country as needed.
Without a fixed home or permanent workplace, it was more difficult to monitor the nurse who appeared to have it all under control.
After stints in North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia, Linton began working at Kaiser Permanente’s West Los Angeles Medical Center in 2021.
She drove her Mercedes-Benz to L.A. and found an Airbnb on a quiet street in the West Adams neighborhood.
She worked hard, completing four 12-hour shifts a week, Kim said.
“She told me how stressful and crazy being a nurse in Los Angeles was,” said a college friend who reconnected with Linton after she moved to California.
The two went hiking at Runyon Canyon in November. Later, they saw a Will Smith show at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
But Linton eventually stopped responding to the woman, who did not wish to be identified.
Family said Linton was thriving in L.A. She was surfing, meditating, eating healthy, going to the gym and learning to roller skate. Her friends said she didn’t drink.
It was all part of her mindfulness and “self-love” — taking care of her health, Kim said.
“She was doing fine,” her sister said, adding that the long workdays were hard on her. "[But] I know she was getting burned out.”
Linton told investigators after the fatal crash she had been prescribed medications such as Ativan, which is used to treat anxiety, but had stopped taking the medicine because it made her gain weight and become depressed, according to the motion prosecutors filed to keep her in jail.
Kim, who lives in Pennsylvania, said she noticed the signs only in retrospect.
Her sister was having trouble sleeping. She was stressed at work. She was cleaning obsessively.
Numerous family members said these were indicators Linton was possibly headed toward another manic episode.
That first time, in Houston, Linton stayed up all night cleaning. She washed the laundry and dried it, then re-washed it and dried it again, Camille said.
Three days before the Windsor Hills crash, Linton was cleaning again.
“Her roommate had left and a new roommate was coming, and she said she wanted it clean. ... It was like nonstop cleaning for hours,” Kim said. “I didn’t put two and two together.”
The next day when they talked on FaceTime, Linton’s eyes were bloodshot and she said she was having trouble sleeping, her sister said.
The following night, the sisters had another long FaceTime conversation, during which Linton seemed agitated and strained.
“The majority of the call was about different stresses of her job,” Kim said.
The day of the crash — Aug. 4 — Linton’s mental state dramatically changed, her sister said.
“She seemed confused. She just seemed very confused,” Kim said.
Linton phoned her older sister four times that day, beginning with a call before work.
She also FaceTimed from the hospital, saying her co-workers were “acting weird.”
Later, Linton repeated the complaint.
“She turned the video, and there was someone walking with her and she introduced me to the person. My first thought seeing the person was that they were escorting her around,” Kim said.
The person followed Linton to the elevator, her sister said. As Linton continued talking with Kim, the worker tailed her around the hospital.
Kaiser Permanente declined to answer questions about Linton’s performance or whether an employee was following her around work the day of the crash.
About half an hour after the sisters hung up, Linton called from her car.
She told Kim she was getting married. She named a famous actor. She looked confused on the phone screen.
“Everything she said did not make any sense,” Kim said.
They ended the call. It was the last time they would speak before Linton approached the Windsor Hills intersection.
Linton was still in a manic state hours after the fatal crash, her older sister said, noting they talked while Linton was being treated that night in the hospital.
When Kim said she was coming to Los Angeles, her sister gave her the address of her Airbnb.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Linton told her sister.
“Maybe she thought it was a dream or something. ... I realized she does not know what was going on,” Kim said.
But reality eventually dawned on Linton.
“She was devastated and kept talking about the victims. ... She didn’t understand why it happened to them,” her sister said.
Kim and Linton talked on the phone every day before Aug. 4. Now their chats are full of pain and regret when Linton calls her older sister from L.A.’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
“She cried. She broke down crying,” Kim said of one call. “She cried the whole time.
“She knows this is something she has to live with the rest of her life.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.