Father details son's mental descent from star athlete to accused killer of his own mother

The Kollie family tried to find help for James Diawo Kollie Jr., but answers were hard to find. Eventually, it became too late when the man allegedly killed his mother in her Moorhead home.

A West Fargo Sheyenne High School track athlete runs on a track with hurdles and another runner behind him.
James Kollie competes in the 300-meter hurdles for West Fargo Sheyenne during a track meet at Fargo Davies High School on Friday, April 22, 2016.
Dave Wallis / The Forum

MOORHEAD — The days and months before Receia Kollie’s death were filled with unanswerable questions that a growing number of North Dakota families are facing.

What is wrong with my child? Who can help me? Will my child hurt me?

The Kollie family looked for help, but answers were hard to find. On Dec. 1, Receia Kollie was fatally stabbed in her home along the 3800 block of 32nd Street South in Moorhead, according to court records.

Her 25-year-old son, James Diawo Kollie Jr., who according to family refused mental health assistance, was indicted by a grand jury in Clay County on a first-degree murder charge for allegedly killing his mother. The grand jury upheld a second-degree murder charge initially put forth by prosecutors.

The killing happened weeks after James Kollie Jr. threatened Receia Kollie's life during a family argument.


A woman in a plaid peplum shirt leans against a car and smiles on a cloudy day.
Receia Kollie was killed on Dec. 1, 2022. Her son, James Kollie Jr., 25, has been charged with her death, and her surviving family is asking how could they have protected her.
Contributed / Kollie family

Receia Kollie, 56, had been a registered nurse for about two years and worked in the psychiatric unit at Prairie St. John's. Even with her experience working in the mental health field, there was nowhere for her to turn for help, according to her husband, James Kollie Sr.

“No, she didn’t bring this on herself. We both didn't know he had mental illness, but we were seeking a mental health evaluation so we could know that. If we knew that, then we could have taken precautions,” James Kollie Sr. said.

After all, their son was an adult. Their hands were tied if he refused treatment.

There were unmistakable signs that something was wrong: Their son became reclusive, antisocial, disorderly. He dropped out of college. Once a star athlete featured in a photograph by The Forum in 2016 from Sheyenne High School, they feared he was trapped by drugs.

As pastor of Harvest Intercontinental Church in Fargo, which Receia Kollie attended, Gabriel Barbly said the impact of her death was like an earthquake through the congregation.

“The mom, who knew all the signs of mental illness in her son, but he doesn’t want to admit he is mentally ill, and it leads to the conflict between the two of them, reaching a boiling point, and he takes it out on his mother,” Barbly said.

Pamela Sagness, executive director of behavioral health for the North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services, hopes laws will soon provide answers for families like the Kollies.

“We really struggle with this. Even when we have service, the support we need for families is so much more. If you were to call us, I don't have one person whose job is to help families find what they are looking for,” Sagness said.


Wearing a yellow American Eagle hat, a zipper sweater and black parka, the strain of James Kollie Sr.'s wife’s death and his son’s prosecution for her killing are evident. A cyber engineer, he pulls out a cellphone with the picture of his son competing in the 300 meter hurdles.

“He once made a movie in Fargo here, and it was shown at the Fargo Theatre, and he also ran track,” James Kollie Sr. said.

As James Kollie Jr.’s condition worsened, however, his mother became afraid of her son, according to court records.

“He was normal at some point doing normal things, and all the sudden he started deteriorating, and he became more erratic and more of a concern starting in 2020. There was a sign there, but we couldn’t put our finger on it,” James Kollie Sr. said.

‘State of crisis’

It is no secret that finding mental health help for a loved one, friend or family member in North Dakota is more than difficult.

“There has certainly been a growing awareness of behavioral health needs in North Dakota. It goes back to 2014 after a study was done in the state, which said that the state's behavioral health system was in a state of crisis,” Sagness said. “And COVID brought more awareness. We know that at any point in time about 20% of the population is dealing with some form of mental illness."

That’s about 118,000 people in the state, with about 34,000 suffering from persistent mental illness, she said.

State legislators recognized a gap in community health services and recently proposed two bills to establish certified community behavioral health clinics that would offer nonstop assistance, Sagness said, but change is slow.


“A lot of things are happening, but we are just new to it. ... Five years from now, the things the Legislature has supported will have a significant impact,” she said.

Depending on the severity of illness, families are already able to file a petition for commitment for a person to be institutionalized, have their loved one become involved in outpatient services or require them to meet with a psychiatrist, Sagness said.

“There is a lot of shame and stigma. We want to keep families together," she said. "How do we wrap care around a family instead of breaking it apart?”

The state fields thousands of people wanting to access programs every year, and depending on the situation, some with severe mental illness end up going to prison, which costs the state about $42,000 per year per person.

The average cost for an individual to participate in an existing program to increase recovery support services to people with behavioral health concerns is about $425 a month, Sagness said.

“With that $425, we’re not preventing them from working or putting children in foster care. Keeping someone safe and housed is going to save money compared to doing none of those things and criminalizing mental health,” she said. “We still believe we have unmet needs and that program will continue to grow for a bit yet."

‘A public health crisis’

Receia Kollie was born in Monrovia, Liberia. She graduated high school in 1989, the same year the Liberian Civil War began, her family wrote on a GoFundMe website , which has raised more than $40,000 so far.

She fled the country with her high school sweetheart, James Kollie Sr., and the two married, settling in the Ivory Coast on the southern coast of West Africa. It was there they started a family, later relocating to North Dakota.


Unable to find assistance for Receia Kollie's mother in North Dakota, the family moved across the river to Moorhead to seek better health care.

While the Kollie family moved to Moorhead for better assistance for an elderly mother-in-law, mental health issues throughout Minnesota aren’t improving, either, according to a press release from The Mental Health Legislative Network.

More than 40 organizations banded together recently to raise concerns about a growing mental health problem, stating the issue is “a public health crisis that requires immediate action.”

"We know what works. It costs a lot more to not do anything in terms of dollars and people’s lives," said Sue Abderholden, Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, a branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Barriers to building Minnesota's mental health system disproportionately affect people of color, LGBTQ people and rural communities, said Willie Garrett, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists, in the press release.

Starting in 2020, James Kollie Sr. and Receia Kollie looked for help. They searched the internet, called private groups and tried to find a loophole in state laws.

25-year-old James Kollie appears for an extradition hearing in Richland County District Court.
Matt Henson / WDAY News

For a time, James Kollie Jr. studied communications at North Dakota State University.

“But all the good stuff just started going. Every time we told him to get help, he said it wasn’t going to help,” James Kollie Sr. said.


And then his son dropped out of college.

“The challenge is, if we know someone has mental health (issues) and is diagnosed and you have to try to trick him to get help. His room was dirty, his clothes were never washed, socially reclusive and not getting along with people,” James Kollie Sr. said.

“One day, he behaved normally, and then the other day, we questioned (what was wrong), but he wasn’t, like, hurting anybody," he said. "We didn’t know he would kill his mother; that’s not what we saw."

James Kollie Sr. questioned why the state doesn't have emotional test centers, something like testing centers for COVID-19. He also wondered why there are no laws protecting parents from abuse from their own children.

"This may just be one way to start figuring out what is wrong or if there's early signs of mental disorder," he said.

Mental illness can feel embarrassing and disgraceful, James Kollie Sr. noted. "I’m not a psychiatrist, but it develops over time. ... Maybe during that process some of the signs start showing up, and it’s too late."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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