Eastern State Hospital’s top administrator has resigned in the aftermath of last week’s escape during a Spokane County Interstate Fair field trip of a criminally insane patient committed to the hospital for the slaying of a Sunnyside, Wash., woman 22 years ago.
The escape ignited public fury and led to calls for changes to state law. The controversy also prompted Harold “Hal” Wilson to leave his post by Oct. 1.
His resignation came a day after Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was embarrassed that the state took Phillip A. Paul and other mental patients with violent crime histories to “Family Day” at the fair. At the same time, Gregoire said she now will consider pushing for changes to state law that would send such patients to more secure facilities such as prisons. Paul has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
In his resignation letter to Susan Dreyfus, secretary of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, Wilson wrote: “Hopefully, this will move to help signify that a change in leadership at the Hospital is being taken and that new vision and direction can be brought forth to lead the Hospital.”
Public reaction to the episode has veered from disbelief to anger to incredulity. Comedian Jay Leno made the fiasco a punch line this week in his prime-time television monologue.
The resignation was not forced, said Doug Porter, assistant secretary of DSHS’ Health and Recovery Services Administration. He said Wilson had planned to retire.
Dreyfus has launched an investigation into the incident and plans to release her preliminary findings Oct. 2. The full report is expected to be completed in late October.
Wilson will be off the job by then, ending a 28-year state career that culminated in heading the mental health hospital for the past decade.
“I leave with saddened heart and can only hope that we can overcome public sentiment and once again provide the treatment for our patients that they so desperately need,” Wilson wrote.
He did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.
Connie Wilmot has been assigned the job as acting administrator while the investigation continues and state officials plan the hospital’s leadership transition.
She has been the hospital’s chief operating officer for the past nine years.
Wilmot’s background includes work as a psychiatric staff nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center in the early 1970s. In the 1990s she became the mental health quality assurance chief at Eastern State Hospital, reviewing practices to ensure treatment met professional standards. At the time she also worked in a management position at St. Luke’s hospital.
She worked for a year as director of quality management at Eastern before assuming the job in August 2000 as operating officer, where she is in charge of the hospital’s day-to-day operations.
Greg Davis, president of Washington Federation of State Employees Local 782, which represents Eastern State Hospital workers, called Wilson a “man of honor and trust.”
“I don’t know if it’s a smart move to start accepting resignations when you’re only a few days into this investigative process,” he said.
Davis last week leveled criticism at administration policies and practices that allowed the types of field trips from which Paul escaped. The hospital workers union, he said, has made known its concerns about allowing murderers, rapists and pedophiles committed to the hospital as criminally insane to attend public events such as the fair and baseball games.
He also laid blame for the two-hour delay in notifying police of Paul’s escape on administrators, who he said were notified by staff within minutes of when Paul was deemed missing.
Wilson has contended the hospital staff followed its policies and procedures, even as criticism continues to mount from all corners, including local law enforcement.
Paul was carrying a backpack on the trip to the fair last Thursday morning when he jumped a fence and walked away to meet a friend he had called for a ride to Goldendale, Wash., a small town near the Columbia Gorge about 250 miles southeast of Spokane and near his hometown of Sunnyside.
He was captured by a team of Spokane County deputies searching the area after the friend tipped searchers of Paul’s location. When he was captured, the backpack contained a scythe.
Paul was returned to Eastern without incident.