City Paper is not for tourists
Ari Fleischer’s most persistent fan carries forth a long and rich Washington fixation.
When President Bush was trying to lure White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer into his camp in the heady days of the 2000 campaign, Fleischer demurred that what he really wanted to do was find a nice Jewish girl, settle down, and have some kids. Then 40 and never married, Fleischer recognized that a White House post could be hard on the love life.
And how. One night last April, 32-year-old Cambridge, Mass., resident Mei Ling Lin spotted Fleischer on the evening news. She proceeded to look him up on the Internet and print out a map with directions to his house. About eight hours later, Lin rang the doorbell at Fleischer’s Capitol Hill apartment, beginning the monthslong saga of the press secretary’s first official alleged stalking.
Lin made several appearances over the next few days at Fleischer’s apartment. She even employed a tactic familiar to those in the media biz, allegedly ambushing the press secretary as he returned home from work. On April 24, police arrested Lin and charged her with unlawful entry and stalking. When she went to court, a judge found Lin incompetent to stand trial and sent her to St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, according to court records.
By June 2001, psychologists in D.C. had decided that Lin was competent enough to go back to court. The judge released Lin on the condition that she leave Fleischer alone, return to Cambridge, and check in regularly with mental-health officials and the Secret Service.
Lin apparently didn’t think to alert them when, on Nov. 17, with the aid of a credit card from her sister, she traveled to D.C. and checked in to the Super 8 Motel on New York Avenue.
Shortly afterward, she showed up at Fleischer’s place. A neighbor called the police, but by the time officers got there, Lin had disappeared. To the delight of investigators, she had left behind a pizza box bearing a receipt with her name and the Super 8 address. Lin returned to Cambridge that day, and the Secret Service tracked her down there. She was charged with felony contempt of court for violating the terms of her release, and a psychologist recommended immediate hospitalization at St. Elizabeths, according to court documents. She was scheduled for a Jan. 24 court appearance, following a 45-day mental observation period.
In her St. E’s interviews, according to documents in D.C. Superior Court, Lin said she had come to the United States in 1979 from Taiwan with her family. After settling in the Boston area, Lin attended the University of Massachusetts. But Lin’s college career was cut short in 1998 when she was committed for six months to the Eric Lindeman Hospital in Boston, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court records.
After her release, Lin was supposed to receive treatment from a public mental-health clinic in Boston. But by the time she arrived on Fleischer’s doorstep, she had gone more than a year without taking her anti-psychotic medication, according to D.C. court documents. She didn’t need the medication, she said, because she was not ill and never had been. When asked why the Boston doctors had hospitalized her, Lin replied, “They thought I was delusional because I made too many phone calls.”
Those phone calls appear to have been a little more menacing than Lin let on. As it turns out, Lin’s six-month hospitalization stemmed from her prosecution in Boston for stalking another man, according to the victim. That man, who doesn’t wish to be identified for fear of a repeat encounter with Lin, wasn’t lucky enough to have Secret Service protection, and his ordeal with her lasted nearly two years.
That man first encountered Lin in court, when she was being evicted from an apartment his firm managed. Lin had quit paying rent because she insisted something was wrong with her apartment’s brand-new stove. The man says he was nice to Lin and replaced the stove. For the next two years, Lin called him 40 times a day, at his office and at home, he says. She would call his wife and say she was having an affair with him.
Initially, the police didn’t take the man’s complaints seriously, because they suspected that Lin really might be a jilted mistress. Then a couple of beat cops found her standing in front of the man’s office with a brick in her hand, threatening to throw it through the ground-floor window. When Lin was arrested, the man says, the cops found her largely incoherent and realized he had been telling the truth. D.C. prosecutors asked the man to come to D.C. to testify in the Fleischer case, but he refused for the same reason he doesn’t want to be identified in this story: “She scared the shit out of me,” he says.
Washington is a magnet for the politically obsessed mentally ill. The big events make big headlines: Everyone remembers John Hinckley, who thought Jodie Foster would be impressed with him if he shot Ronald Reagan. Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who shot and killed two security guards at the Capitol in 1998, came to D.C. from Montana because he believed that “evil cannibals” inside the Clinton administration were using a time machine he had built for nefarious purposes.
Some disturbed D.C. interlopers develop fascinations with anonymous paper pushers. Several years back, a man checked into St. Elizabeths Hospital claiming to be Abner Mikva, then the Clinton White House counsel. The man even provided hospital officials with Mikva’s office phone number at the White House.
In 1989, 31-year-old Michael Breen, muttering something about earthquakes and revelations, punched Ohio Sen. John Glenn in the face while he was attending a tree-planting ceremony in front of the National Air and Space Museum.
Sometimes the sick people are even related to Washington’s elite. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan’s brother Hank, who suffers from bipolar disorder, once broke into the garage of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s brother-in-law and slashed his car tires before brandishing a gun and fleeing.
Dr. Robert Keisling, who served for many years as the director of the District’s Emergency Psychiatric Response Division, says local homeless shelters are full of those afflicted by big government. Keisling says he now has a homeless client who thinks she has an electrode implanted in her nose and has been writing to President Bush trying to get the attention of some federal officials.
Another former St. E’s psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, used to oversee a part of the hospital known as the “White House” ward. “I had one who followed poor Teddy Kennedy for five years,” recalls Torrey.
Given Washington’s appeal to delusional individuals, you might suppose that its mental-health system would work with all the precision of a presidential motorcade. But the political establishment seems happy to let the Secret Service serve as the city’s de facto psych cops, despite the demonstrated flaws of that strategy. Weston, for instance, was on the Secret Service watch list before he went on his Capitol shooting spree.
With the men in black and white guarding the shop, Lin could be a pain in Fleischer’s ass for a long time to come.
In theory, the Secret Service can petition to keep people like Lin in a mental hospital indefinitely under the District’s civil commitment laws. The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to make such a commitment stick under the standard of “danger to self or others.” As Lin has shown before, she’s fine as long as she’s on medication. Once she is stabilized, the hospital pretty much has to let her out.
The District does have an outpatient-commitment law that could require people like Lin to take their medicine while living in the community. The problem, though, is that someone has to make sure they actually do so. And in the District, not even the Secret Service hands out daily doses of Zyprexa to all the people on its watch list. (The Secret Service declined to comment for this story.)
Fleischer, ever the compassionate conservative, says he asked the Secret Service to get medical treatment for Lin, as opposed to simply locking her up.
White House entreaties notwithstanding, the criminal-justice system is ill-equipped to deal with cases like Lin’s. First, as often happens with mentally ill people, her initial crimes were misdemeanors, carrying a maximum sentence of six months. And the chances are pretty slim that a sick, 90-pound Asian woman who has so far never hurt anyone is going to do any serious prison time. Even if somehow prosecutors could muster a longer sentence, jail really isn’t the place for someone like Lin, whose nuisance crimes are a product of her illness. But it’s not the job of criminal-defense lawyers to get their mentally ill clients treatment. They just keep them out of jail.
Keisling, now at Unity Health Care, is working with Green Door, a nonprofit organization, to run a jail-diversion program that helps get people like Lin who are arrested for misdemeanors into intensive treatment with assertive social workers, who ensure that they take their medication every day. But with the new felony charge, Lin no longer qualifies. So what’s a stalked White House press secretary to do?
“The solution is really in her hands,” says Fleischer. “She needs to take her medication.” The press secretary has a stake in that outcome: “It’s really uncomfortable to have someone ringing your doorbell at 3 in the morning.” CP