MEDFORD, Ore. – A man found guilty by reason of insanity in the stabbing death of Ashland partygoer now says marijuana use might have contributed to psychotic delusions.
Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez made the suggestion during a hearing last week before the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board. The Mail Tribune obtained an audio recording.
Sabalsa-Mendez killed 20-year-old Avi Feldman at a party on Nov. 6, 2016. A witness said Sabalsa-Mendez had been acting strangely at the party. He then stabbed Feldman while yelling “Suicide!”
Sabalsa-Mendez, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was committed to the care and custody of the review board. He is being held at an Oregon State Hospital psychiatric facility in Junction City.
Sabalsa-Mendez, however, is starting to question the role drugs may have played in the murder, according to testimony at the hearing.
“Very recently, as in the last week and a half, Mr. Sabalsa has expressed a lot of concern that his symptoms could be substance-induced,” Dr. Matie Trewe told the board.
Sabalsa-Mendez said he was using more marijuana at the time than he previously disclosed, according to a recent evaluation report.
But Trewe said Sabalsa-Mendez – before the murder – was seen at least twice at a hospital because of psychotic symptoms. Toxicology tests were performed and he tested negative for drugs.
“To me, that makes it extremely unlikely that his substance abuse alone was responsible for his psychotic symptoms,” Trewe said.
Prosecutor Laura Cromwell, who handled the Sabalsa-Mendez case, said it’s not uncommon for Oregon State Hospital patients and their defense attorneys to argue symptoms were triggered by drug use. The argument could win a patient’s release.
In one case, Heather Marie Everman stabbed a man in Medford in 2014 and was found guilty of second-degree assault except for insanity in 2015. Although she was sentenced to spend up to 10 years under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, she was released in 2016 after her symptoms faded away and officials decided she actually had been experiencing drug-induced psychosis.
Since her release, Everman has continued to run afoul of the law for allegedly possessing methamphetamine, fighting with law enforcement, trespassing and stealing, court records show.
Everman also has been found mentally unfit to aid and assist in her own defense in the new cases – raising questions about her actual mental state, her drug use and the relationship between the two.
Since the Everman case, the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office has taken a tougher stance on potential insanity cases, pushing for prison sentences when it believes methamphetamine-fueled delusions and hallucinations contributed to violent crimes.
Sabalsa-Mendez tested positive for marijuana after murdering Feldman. In anticipation that Sabalsa-Mendez would make a drug intoxication argument before the Psychiatric Security Review Board, Cromwell had him sign a statement in August that “neither controlled substances nor alcohol played a substantial role” in his actions during the murder.
“I think anytime something comes back positive, that’s the only shot. They have to put that defense out there,” she said. “I’m not concerned at all in this case. We’ve had two separate psychiatrists say he actually is suffering from schizophrenia. I think it’s normal for him to put that out there. It has been a common defense – sometimes warranted and sometimes not.”