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A few months back, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had some explaining to do. Crime statistics had shown that, including the recent triple slaying at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern in April, Washington was witnessing the sharpest spike in homicides since the late ’80s. Up 40 percent in two years, homicides were occurring with such frequency that by the end of the year, the final tally threatened to reach 325almost one a day and the most since 1996. The numbers bespoke enough carnage to recall the District’s days as the nation’s murder capitoland sparked a predictable debate over crime prevention: Were Ramsey and his troops doing enough to stop murders?
When cornered on such matters, Ramsey often falls back on well-worn rhetoric about crumbling family values in embattled urban neighborhoods. This time, though, he shunned broad-brush sociology in favor of specifics. To prove that policing can prevent only so many murders, police officials pointed to the following cases:
•A 49-year-old woman who allegedly set a fire that killed her elderly aunt;
•A 60-year-old man who allegedly stabbed his mother to death;
•A 45-year-old woman who was charged with pushing her drinking companion over a third-floor railing and killing him; and
•A 46-year-old man who allegedly shot and killed his grandmother and wounded his brother.
“You could be next door and you couldn’t have stopped some of these things,” Executive Assistant Chief of Police Michael Fitzgerald told the Washington Post.
And so the debate followed a predictable pattern, with the police chief arguing that stepped-up patrols wouldn’t have a great impact and his detractorsconsisting chiefly of activists and D.C. councilmemberssaying they would. The terms of the discussion, too, were familiar; both sides talked about police service areas, foot patrols, staffing levels, and so on. Yet no one bothered to highlight the one factor that unifies most of the “unpreventable” murders cited by Ramsey: mental illness.
Take a look:
Sharon D. Williams, the woman who allegedly set fire to her aunt’s house, was under the care of a psychiatrist and involved with a mental-health program for the first half of 2002. After the fire, in February, a judge ordered a competency evaluation to determine whether Williams was fit to stand trial, according to court records. On May 19, the psychologist who did the exam reported that Williams was uncooperative, and on May 22, she was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for a 45-day mental observation. The fire hadn’t been Williams’ first run-in with the law, either. In 1997, she was charged with stabbing her father to death; the charges were later dropped.
William Whitlock, the man charged with stabbing his mother to death on April 10, was found unfit to stand trial and sent to St. Elizabeths for treatment and mental observation.
Tanya Lyles, the woman accused of pushing her drinking companion over the railing, was described in pretrial reports as having “emotional problems”; the charges against her were dismissed.
As for Jeffrey Daniels, the man who shot and killed his 96-year-old grandmother and wounded his brother, court records do not reveal his mental state.
These tragedies are part of an epidemic that unfolds before us daily. Just as Alzheimer’s disease turns the elderly into wraiths in nightgowns wandering across suburban golf courses and diabetes can make a sober driver act drunk, mental illness can saddle its victims with alternative realities, which all too often lead to violence.
The press and the public look for motives in these cases, trying to weave a narrative, ferret out a rational answer for an incomprehensible act. When Virginia scientist Robert Schwartz was killed with a 27-inch sword, the four young people charged with conspiring to commit the crimeincluding Schwartz’s 19-year-old daughter, Clarawere described in the media as “goths,” or kids “obsessed by vampires, assassins, and magic.” In fact, the two key figures in the case were suffering from mental illness. (Kyle Hulbert, who actually killed Schwartz, has been alternately diagnosed with, among other things, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; he has been in and out of mental institutions almost his whole life.)
The public narrative constructed around such horrible crimes is mostly artifice, comforting window dressing that obscures the one and only explanation for them, which is serious, untreated mental illness. Even in a region that’s home to dozens of criminal-justice think tanks, the National Institute of Mental Health, the federal Center for Mental Health Services, and both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, the conversation on public safety hasn’t yet acknowledged that the mentally ill are wreaking an untold amount of misery, with no public-policy solution in sight.
When activist Dorothea Dix founded St. Elizabeths in 1855, she declared that the hospital’s mission was to provide the “most humane care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia.” Her vision of mental-health care was rooted in the 19th-century ideal of the “asylum,” a benevolent institution that would provide a serene and enriching setting where people with “nervous disorders” could be restored to health. The 300-acre St. Elizabeths campus was as verdant as any Ivy League college, offering large gardening projects and other outdoor recreational activities for the patients. By the ’40s, the hospital housed some 7,000 people.
But as time went by, St. E’s, and with it mental-health care in general, lost its idyllic trappings. It got lumped in with all the other places where people committed against their will were put in straitjackets and forced to get lobotomies and massive shots of Thorazine.
These days, the mentally ill don’t get an asylum or even forced treatment. They generally don’t get anything for what ails them, in part because there is simply nowhere for them to go. According to data compiled by the Maryland-based Treatment Advocacy Center, more than 90 percent of state-psychiatric-hospital beds have been eliminated since 1960. It’s a trend that has only accelerated in recent years. During the ’90s, for instance, 44 state psychiatric hospitals closed their doorsmore closings than in the previous two decades combined. Nearly half of state-psychiatric-hospital beds were eliminated between 1990 and 2000.
In 1955, there were 559,000 individuals with serious brain disorders in state psychiatric hospitals. If the same proportion of patients were in hospitals today, 893,000 mentally ill people would be in institutions. In fact, there are fewer than 70,000.
The Washington area has participated fully in the de-institutionalization. According to a federal survey, Washington, Maryland, and Virginia had a grand total of about 5,100 patients in mental hospitals in 1998, with fewer than 600 of those at St. E’s. That’s down from almost 28,000 at the end of 1955. If hospital admissions had kept pace with population growth, 43,000 people would be in Washington-area mental hospitals, according to data collected by psychiatrist and Treatment Advocacy Center President E. Fuller Torrey.
New developments in pharmaceuticals and a better understanding of brain disorders, to be sure, have cushioned the spillover from institutions, allowing for more people to be treated in less restrictive community settings. But there are still a large number of sick people in need of more intensive mental-health care. An estimated 4.5 million Americans today suffer from the severest forms of brain disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The National Advisory Mental Health Council estimates that 40 percent of these individuals, or 1.8 million people, are not receiving treatment on any given day.
Ramsey and his foot soldiers know exactly where those folks have ended upon the streets, in homeless shelters, and in jails. Never before have these places held more people who look a little bonkers and seem a bit dangerousand probably are.
Untreated serious mental illness is a huge risk factor for violent crime, particularly among those released from mental hospitals. A 1992 study by Dr. Henry Steadman, now the chair of the national advisory board of the Center for Mental Health Services & Criminal Justice Research, found that 27 percent of released patients reported having engaged in at least one violent act within four months of being discharged. Those findings mirror older research suggesting that discharged patients had arrest rates for violent crimes 10 times that of the general population. Another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002, found that about 14 percent of adults with severe mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) had been violent within the previous year. Not surprisingly, then, 16 percent of jail inmates are estimated to be mentally ill, according to the Justice Departmentsome 300,000 people, or four times the number who are in mental hospitals today in the United States.
The people most vulnerable to violence by the mentally ill are their family members, who are liable to be harmed in just the kind of cases that Ramsey suggests can’t be prevented. According to a 1994 Department of Justice Statistics Special Report, Murder in Families, 12.3 percent of defendants who killed a spouse had a history of mental illness and were not being treated at the time of the crime, like 16 percent of parents who killed their children. Parents of mentally ill children are particularly vulnerable25.1 percent of children who killed their parents fit the same description.
One researcher, Dr. Peter Marzuk, wrote in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1996, “In the last decade, the evidence showing a link between violence, crime and mental illness has mounted. It cannot be dismissed; it should not be ignored.”
And yet, it is ignored, in favor of new police-patrol boundaries.
Washington is perhaps the nation’s premier destination for nut cases. Close a mental hospital in Florida and you get Juan Tubbs, the man who recently stymied police with a fake grenade in a high-profile encounter at Union Station. The region just happens to house many of the institutions that pop up in delusional fantasiesthe CIA, the FBI, the White House. What better way to bring your conspiracy theories to the world than to make a splash at their front doors?
Unfortunately for area residents, mentally ill people capable enough to get to D.C. to try to press their cases with the president can be very sick and very dangerous. Paranoid schizophrenics, in particular, seem especially attracted to Washington.
A 1990 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that men who had been detained by the Secret Service after showing up at the White House were between two and five times more likely to be arrested later for violent crimes than the general population.
And where does the Secret Service take these people if they aren’t charged with a crime? Usually to a D.C. homeless shelter, which is also where they often go after being released from St. E’s.
Examples of D.C.’s magnetic effect on dangerous lunatics abound. The most famous, of course, is John Hinckley Jr., who in the course of watching the movie Taxi Driver 15 times became obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley’s parents asked his psychiatrist to institutionalize him in Colorado, where he lived, but his doctor rejected the idea, suggesting that his parents cut him off to force him to grow up. So they did, and in 1981, Hinckley flew to Hollywood from Colorado, boarded a bus to D.C., and arrived at the Washington Hilton in time to take a shot at President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to get Foster’s attention.
Francisco Martin Duran, 26, made a similar trek from Colorado to D.C. in 1994, after he started hearing voices telling him to combat a “mist” over the White House. After a man crashed his airplane on the south lawn of the White House, Duran believed he had final confirmation of his orders to attack the mist. So on Sept. 30, Duran told his wife he was going to buy some stuff for “target practice,” got in his Chevy pickup adorned with “Fire Butch Reno” and right-to-bear-arms bumper stickers, and drove to Washington. On Oct. 29, he stood outside the White House in a trench coat and opened fire on the mansion. Because he was apparently attacking only the “mist,” no one was hurt. Duran was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
In 1998, Russell Weston Jr., another paranoid schizophrenic, shot and killed two Capitol police officers and wounded a bystander in a bizarre assault on the U.S. Capitol. Weston thought the CIA was out to kill him and that the government had been spying on him from a neighbor’s satellite dish. He had a history of making threats against people and had assaulted a nurse when he was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in Montana for several months in 1996. At the time of the Capitol shootings, Weston had refused to take medication to control his symptoms for many yearsthe major predictor of violence among the mentally ill.
It’s too soon to know for sure the mental state of sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Malvothe government is more interested in executing them than diagnosing them. But their behavior certainly fits the profile of people with a brain disorder, particularly Malvo, whose prison writings and drawings suggest a certain mania.
On balance, mentally ill people don’t commit all that many crimes. The Justice Department estimates that they’re responsible for about 5 percent of all homicides nationally, and mentally ill people who are taking medication are no more dangerous than the rest of the public, according to a MacArthur Foundation study of violence and mental illness. But the crimes committed by the unmedicated sick people tend to be unusually spectacular and disturbing because they are so often seemingly random.
For instance, Peter Odighizuwa, a 44-year-old Nigerian native, allegedly went on a shooting spree in January 2002 at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., after being suspended for poor academic performance. Odighizuwa is charged with killing three people, including the dean of the school, and wounding three others. Like Weston, Odighizuwa suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He believes he is the victim of a government conspiracy and harassment by the FBI and CIA. Odighizuwa was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was transferred to Central State Hospital in Petersburg, where he has remained, like Weston, mostly psychotic as prosecutors wait for drugs to restore his sanity so a jury can put him on death row.
In September 2000, Ronald Edward Gay walked into a gay bar in Roanoke, Va., and shot six people, killing one of them, because he claimed he was tired of being teased about his name. Gay, a Vietnam vet, had been hospitalized for post-traumatic stress syndrome and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Prior to the shooting, he had been living in a tent in the mountains above the city. He had recently stopped taking his medication.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the media have covered terrorists with customary overkill. Investigative reporters have gone back through the lives of al Qaeda terrorists in search of the “roots of their anger” and other data that might explain their actions.
When the topic of their mental profiles arises, experts on the psychology of terrorism who chatter on cable about such things insist that we must not consider Islamic terrorists crazy people. For example, Willard Gaylin, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a research institute for the study of ethical issues and the life sciences, has argued that viewing terrorists through such a psychological prism trivializes their crimes and even romanticizes the perpetrators.
And Jerrold Post, who founded the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, told this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association that, on the basis of his interviews with 21 Islamic extremists in Israeli and Palestinian prisons, “We should not think of these individuals as crazed fanatics, as seriously psychiatrically ill. It’s a security risk to have an emotionally unstable individual in your terrorist group just as it would be in the Green Berets.”
And yet mental illness seems to lurk everywhere you turn in stories about al Qaeda. Radical Islam and its associated terrorist groups seem to have a tremendous draw for those suffering from brain disordersin fact, judging from the sheer number of them who’ve been apprehended, one might argue that al Qaeda is recruiting them on purpose. After all, as psychiatrist Torrey observed, “Who else is stupid enough to try to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge?”
Torrey was referring to Iyman Faris, the Pakistani man secretly arrested in Columbus, Ohio, this year after prosecutors alleged he was linked to an al Qaeda scheme to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. He had several bouts with mental illness, and his ex-wife told the Columbus Dispatch that Faris heard voices and suffered hallucinations in which he thought someone was choking him. He attempted suicide and spent some time in a mental hospital in the late ’90s.
The father of Wael Ali al-Shihri, a 26-year-old Saudi who is thought to have studied at a Florida flight school before joining the other hijackers on Sept. 11, told the Times of London that his son had a history of mental problems. Al-Shihri’s father hadn’t seen or heard from him since he had gone to the holy city of Medina during Ramadan so he could be treated by a cleric for his psychological problems, according to the Times interview.
Then there is the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. The 34-year-old French-Moroccan man is the only person charged in relation to the events of Sept. 11. He was arrested after a flight-school instructor tipped off the FBI that he had asked to learn only how to fly, but not to take off or land. The government is working very hard to persuade people that this is a serious prosecution of a man who was supposed to join 19 other terrorists in hijacking four passenger planes on Sept. 11. They would like the world to believe that Moussaoui is a dangerous threat to national security and a calculating operative of al Qaeda who should be executed. But Moussaoui’s behavior has made that an uphill battle. His filings in federal court led lawyers interviewed by Legal Times to dub him “crazy as a loon.”
Moussaoui, who is representing himself, insists on referring to himself in court documents as “slave of Allah.” According to a story in the New York Times Magazine, by the time Moussaoui was 27, he had become deeply paranoid and reactionary, combative with his mother, and a conspiracy theoristall possible symptoms of serious mental illness, which tends to strike people in their early to mid-20s. Two of his sisters have been pegged as schizophrenic, and one has made many suicide attempts. Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component. Moussaoui refused to cooperate with a competency exam in the legal proceedingseven after his own mother asked for a second oneso it’s hard to know exactly what if anything is wrong with him.
In his legal filings, Moussaoui has asked for a forensic expert to examine the things the FBI seized from him. His main concern is an electric fan, which he claims was “mysteriously left on my car like a present” in Norman, Okla., and in which he believed the FBI had planted a bug or a tracking device.
Apparently even the real al Qaeda terrorists thought Moussaoui was too nuts to work for them. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who is supposed to have masterminded the attacks and is in U.S. custody somewhere in the world, has said that Moussaoui was too unstable to be trusted in the hijacking.
Alleged terrorists rounded up around the world after Sept. 11 have also proved to be a complicated bunch. One of the first captives released from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was Abdul Razeq, a 25-year-old Afghan who was shipped back to a locked ward in Afghanistan after U.S. officials realized he was psychotic, according to news accounts. Military officials in Cuba have suggested that the 5 percent of detainees in the camp who are currently on antidepressants were suffering from mental illness before they got therea claim that human-rights activists dispute.
Last year, when a Palestinian man, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, was detained in England under the new British anti-terrorism act, a prosecutor dubbed him one of the “most dangerous men in Britain.” Abu Rideh had a long history of mental illness and was under the care of psychiatrists when he was arrested with nine others for allegedly associating with Abu Hamza, the radical imam of London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, which shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Moussaoui both attended.
Another alleged terrorist, Venezuelan Hazil Mohammed Rahaman, was arrested in February at London’s Gatwick Airport with a grenade in his luggage. He had been hospitalized at a psychiatric clinic for a few weeks in the late ’90s, before heading off to Afghanistan and other countries in what British authorities believe was preparation to form a Latin American al Qaeda or other terrorist cell.
And these are only the cases we know about.
For years, Maryland had one of the least useful civil-commitment laws in the country. The statute made it virtually impossible to do anything for mentally ill people in need of treatment, even those who were potentially dangerous.
But then in 2001, four people, including two law-enforcement officers, were killed in the state within a 48-hour span by unmedicated schizophrenic men with a history of violence. In the first case, a man in Columbia allegedly bludgeoned and stabbed his mother and a boarder to death, hours after he tried to seek help at a local mental-health clinic.
Two days later, two police officers were shot to death while responding to a complaint at the Eastern Shore home of a schizophrenic man off his meds. As if that weren’t enough, a year later, two more Maryland sheriff’s deputies were killed while serving an emergency psychiatric petition on another man, whose mother had been trying without success to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Nothing moves legislation quite like the murder of police officers. Following the killings, state legislators in Annapolis finally amended the law to make it easier to get a court-ordered emergency psychiatric evaluation of someone suffering from mental illness, in the hope that early intervention could prevent such tragedies. Gov. Robert Ehrlich signed the bill in May.
The Maryland episodes demonstrate how much grief our society must sustain before acknowledging the scourge of untreated mental illness. Even as the wreckage of this crisis makes headlines weekly, fixing it isn’t a priority for local governments or public-safety advocates. As a result, treatment is so difficult to come by these days that family members of the mentally ill often want them to get arrested so they might get the help they need.
Certainly the mental-health system is suffering the same fate as other social servicesnamely, underfunding. Mental hospitals are expensive to maintainwhich is the main reason so many have been closedand group homes require careful monitoring. It’s much cheaper to warehouse the sick in homeless shelters, like the now-closed Open Door shelter at 3rd and C Streets NW, where rusting trailers once overflowed with floridly psychotic women, many of whom used to reside in hospitals. Still, in the big scheme of things, it’s not exactly cheap to have dangerous lunatics prowling city streets unencumbered, either. The millions that will be spent to prosecute Russell Weston could fund good community programs for D.C.’s mentally ill many times over.
Money, though, doesn’t explain in full why this regionand the countrytreats the insane the way it does. The real reasons go much deeper. Famously recovered schizophrenic mathematicians aside, brain disorders are simply misunderstood. Science has vastly expanded its understanding of the biochemical roots of serious mental illness, abolishing forever the notion that a disease like schizophrenia could be brought on by such external forces as bad parenting, a theory popularized by Sigmund Freud. Yet very little of this understanding has trickled out into the popular culture and civic institutions.
The diseases themselves also resist easy definition. Mental illness is complex, its symptoms mercurial, changing depending on the environment. Just as the press and public demand a narrative to rationalize horrific crime, so do insane people attempt to create their own story lines to explain the frightening chaos in their brains. The narrative is a coping mechanism. With a disease such as schizophrenia, which can cause aural, visual, and even corporeal hallucinations, most people either have to face the reality that their brains are malfunctioning or come to believe, as Weston did, that a neighbor’s satellite dish really is spying on them. The brain seems to prefer the fiction, which often is less frightening.
When creating their narratives, the mentally ill draw heavily from cultural cues, in an attempt to make their tales socially acceptable. That’s why, when extraterrestrials and UFOs started to enter pop culture through books and radio in the ’50s, delusional people started claiming to have been abducted by aliens. The 1953 movie Invaders From Mars set off a wave of such reports. In the United States, schizophrenic people often claim they’re being spied on by the CIA or the FBI. In Ireland, delusions focus on the IRA, and in the Middle East, the guilty party is often the United States or Israel and Jews.
Often, too, delusions have some basis in fact, with slight distortions. For instance, when a schizophrenic claims that the CIA did mind experiments on him, he knows that it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility, because the CIA really has done mind experiments on people. Or when African-Americans claim AIDS is a government conspiracy to wipe out their race, they only have to point to the Tuskegee syphilis study as evidence of what unthinkable horrors the government is capable of.
The cultural context of delusions blurs the line between sanity and insanity in a way that makes it difficult for people to intervene with a mentally ill individual before he blows up a federal building. For instance, before Clara Schwartz conspired to have her father murdered, she claimed that he was abusing her. Because such allegations are commonand commonly ignoredno one really challenged her assertion or recognized it as a symptom of illness, even when Schwartz went so far as to make the rather paranoid charge that her dad was poisoning her food. And certainly no one ever imagined that she would make the leap to violence.
The classic example of these blurry lines is the Unabomber, whose manifesto is a surprisingly coherent document that touches upon all sorts of relevant issues such as technology and its impact on humanity. Accordingly, people are still debating whether paranoid schizophrenic Ted Kaczynski is really sick or a misunderstood and eccentric genius.
Complicating the contextual issues of mental illness is the nexus with religion. The most common symptom of psychosis is hearing voices, and when most people try to come up with an explanation for those voices, there are only so many culturally acceptable options to choose from. In America, if you’re hearing voices, your brain isn’t malfunctioning. It must be God! And if God is talking to you, you must be someone special, a chosen holy representative.
That’s why so many mentally ill people speak the language of religious fanaticism and are drawn to fundamentalist religions. Those groups offer a refuge from a real world that constantly challenges their belief systems. A delusional person can blend in a lot more easily in a church where people routinely fall out of their seats and speak in tongues. “The fundamentalist religions include a disproportionate number of people with psychosis,” says Torrey. “But that’s not very politically correct to say.”
America is not a place where one can freely dub religious fervor “crazy.” Faith is something we respect, even in its extreme forms. So when Zacarias Moussaoui refers to himself as “slave of Allah,” or writes to his mother that when the U.S. government “fabricate[s] proofs and witnesses….Allah will make their plot ridiculous,” we don’t question his sanity in any official capacity. After all, if Moussaoui is crazy, what does that make the man who is prosecuting him? Attorney General John Ashcroft, a fundamentalist Christian who anointed himself with oil each time he took public office, espouses a faith that embraces prophecy, miraculous healing, personal conversations with God, and ecstatic revelation.
Whatever its packaging, mental illness is still just that: an illness, and one that is not so different from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Yet many, many people still refuse to accept the science as fact, particularly in the context of violence. Americans don’t like the idea of mental illness as a mitigating factor in criminal punishment because it diminishes our sense of vengeance and the need for black-and-white issues of culpability. Law-and-order types insist that mental illness is no excuse for lawlessness.
It doesn’t help that the mentally ill are often young, vigorous, and, especially when they’re eating out of dumpsters and failing to bathe regularly, hard to sympathize with. It’s now unconstitutional to execute retarded people, because most people recognize that their impaired brains make them less responsible for their crimes. But someone like Weston, who also has an impaired brain but who could chop wood for 12 hours straight and get organized enough to file a lawsuit against an elderly woman in Montana, is still a target for the death penalty.
On the flip side, people who do sympathize with the brain-disordered recognize that often helping themand protecting the publicrequires treading heavily on civil liberties. The nature of the disease is to lack insight into one’s own condition. The mentally ill are often cursed by an inability to seek help. And the most dangerous people are the ones like Weston, who refuse to take medication because they don’t think they’re sick. Consequently, protecting the publicas well as helping the sick personoften requires treatment by force and a lifetime of coerced medication.
Lots of people are uncomfortable with this notion because of its potential for abuse. We also are very reluctant to deprive someone of liberty on the grounds that he might someday become dangerouswhich is why the United States has such lax civil-commitment laws. So instead, we wait for something horrible to happen before taking action. For better or worse, though, so many horrible things have happened in recent years that some states are starting to recognize the problem. New York, for instance, passed “Kendra’s Law” in 1999, after an untreated schizophrenic man pushed 36-year-old Kendra Webdale in front of a subway train and killed her.
The law allows for court-ordered community treatment for violent mentally ill people who have a history of refusing medication, so that failure to take their medications can now land them in an institution. Kendra’s Law has been such a success that advocates for the mentally ill are lobbying to get similar statutes on the books across the country. The only blemish on the story’s happy ending is that crazy people had been pushing innocent strangers in front of subway trains for years before anything happened. Researchers D.A. Martell and P.E. Dietz even published a study of New York subway pushers a decade ago in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showing that all but one of 20 people who had pushed or attempted to push a stranger in front of a train were severely mentally ill. It wasn’t until Webdale’s family made it a cause célèbre that the state finally decided to act.
In Maryland, even as the new law helps nudge recalcitrant people into treatment, the state’s budget crisis is closing mental-health programs left and right, meaning that those same people might have nowhere to go for their court-ordered help. Similar trends are playing out nationwide.
Without serious money invested in better mental-health services, we’ll continue to wake up to newspaper stories like those of June 10. That edition of the Post reported the following events from the previous day:
Damien Lee, 26, stood in the middle of the 1600 block of E Street NE, blocked traffic, and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at people and cars. Wearing a bulletproof vest, Lee yelled profanities and declared to passers-by, “I am God.” When police arrived at the scene, Lee started shooting indiscriminately. The officers shot back but missed. Rather than run to evade capture, Lee walked away, threw down his rifle, and cursed it. Then he took off his vest and stripped naked. Police apprehended Lee after siccing a dog on him.
That same day, in Montgomery County, jurors heard final arguments in the murder trial of Erika Sifrit. Sifrit is charged with killing Martha Crutchley and Joshua Ford in Ocean City in a bizarre incident in which Sifrit and her husband allegedly lured the couple to a luxury penthouse suite, then killed them and dismembered the bodies. During closing arguments in her trial, her lawyer argued that Sifrit was a “fragile, psychologically weak young woman” who relied heavily on the prescription drugs Xanax and Paxil. After she was convicted, a judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Sifrit before sentencing.
And Juan Tubbs, a 38-year-old homeless man, tried to rob a Redskins souvenir store in Union Station that day by threatening to pull the pin out of a grenade. His demands? Twenty bucks. Tubbs, who had been living in a shelter on Massachusetts Avenue, had a history of bizarre criminal-assault charges in Georgia and Florida, where he lived before coming to D.C. a month earlier. According to court files, Tubbs had “emotional problems” that had endured for some 17 years and for which he had been treated at a veterans’ hospital.
At least one person that day saw the writing on the wall. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, while referring to Tubbs, could have been speaking for many of the defendants in the paper that day: He said that Tubbs “is in need of mental help.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Robert Meganck.