Patient with violent past escapes at fair
Grounded: Hospital halts field trips pending review of disappearance; Fair warning: Patient was missing two hours before authorities notified
Fri., Sept. 18, 2009
Officers from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department confer in the parking lot outside the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center on Thursday following a report that an Eastern State Hospital patient had walked away from a field trip. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The day after a mental hospital patient who brutally killed an elderly woman 22 years ago escaped from a group outing to the Spokane County Interstate Fair, local officials still have some vexing questions.
Why did Eastern State Hospital bring a group of 31 patients – including at least one with a violent criminal past – to the fair without notifying anyone of their presence? And why did it take Eastern staff two hours or more after Phillip A. Paul went missing to notify fair officials or police?
Many people – from the sheriff to county commissioners to the fair director – wanted answers, even as the search for Paul continues today.Deputies believe Paul is heading for the Tri-Cities area and possibly his home town of Sunnyside.
“I think it’s wrong – it’s totally wrong,” said Jennifer Craig, who was at the fair with her husband and grandchildren Thursday. “You’re putting too many kids and old disabled people like me at risk.”
The head of the state-run mental hospital, Hal Wilson, said Paul had been “a fairly model patient,” and described Thursday’s escape as “surprising.”
State officials have temporarily halted all outings for state patients with criminal histories while they conduct a review.
“This is very serious,” said Susan Dreyfus, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Eastern. “We need to understand what happened and why.”
Paul, 47, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to the Medical Lake hospital in 1987, after being found innocent by reason of insanity of strangling and slashing the throat of a 78-year-old woman in Sunnyside, Wash. According to previous reports, Paul said the voices in his head said the woman was a witch.
On Thursday, he walked away from a group of Eastern staff and other patients attending the annual event at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. It’s not the first time Paul has walked away from those in charge of his care.
In 1990 he escaped from Eastern and was convicted of first-degree escape and second-degree assault after injuring a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy who helped detain him.
On Thursday the hospital said no patients had escaped from the “forensic services” unit of the hospital in 20 years. Wilson said he couldn’t recall Paul’s previous escape.
“He’s not acted out in any way,” Wilson said.
Hospital officials told police that Paul, who authorities consider criminally insane, hadn’t exhibited violent behavior in years, and they have argued in the past that he should be released – though his petition for release was rejected in 2003.
It’s unclear what time Paul went missing from his group at the fairgrounds, but a witness said he went into a business about four or five blocks west of the fairgrounds around 11:15 a.m., and asked for a job application.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan said his agency was notified by Eastern about the escape about two hours later, around 1:15 p.m.
Deputies, police officers and security officers began scouring the fairgrounds looking for Paul, and people at the gates were given his photo. Reagan said that they soon determined – based in part on the witness sighting – that Paul was likely no longer on the fairgrounds.
Reagan and fair director Rich Hartzell said that alerting everyone at the fairgrounds about the escape, or otherwise closing down the fair, would have created an unnecessary panic. Reagan also said that deputies believe Paul may be trying to go home to Sunnyside and is more motivated to get away than to hurt someone.
“Our sense of things was that he didn’t present an immediate danger to anyone at the fair,” he said.
As a precaution, the West Valley School District dropped off elementary school students riding buses at their doorsteps, as well as middle and high school students riding last night’s activity buses home. The district’s schools are situated near the fairgrounds.
But everyone involved in the search for Paul was baffled by the fact that he was even at the fair to begin with – and about the lag in reporting that he was missing.
Hartzell said he got a call from hospital staff around 1:30 p.m., notifying him of the escape.
“The word ‘field trip’ was used, and I said, ‘Did you say “field trip?” ’ ” Hartzell said. “My biggest question is why someone like that was here and why weren’t we notified?”
He said that when schools organize field trips, they typically do notify someone at the fairgrounds. It’s not required, however.
Other public officials also voiced concern. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich questioned why someone with Paul’s history would be taken to a place that’s heavy on family activities.
“It’s outrageous that security was so inept that a guy who’s officially regarded as criminally insane, was able to just slip away from the group,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley.
Wilson acknowledged that a two-hour gap in reporting would be “excessive,” though he said he didn’t have all the details surrounding Thursday’s incident, and needed more time to investigate.
Jim Stevenson, a public information officer for DSHS, would not comment on Paul’s case, but said mental health professionals at the hospital would make any determination about a patient’s eligibility for community outings.
“A patient thought to be dangerous to the community would not be allowed out,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the outings are not uncommon for patients at the hospital, and field trips to the fair are an annual event.
In fact, it’s apparently not the first time Eastern State Hospital has taken Paul to the Spokane County Interstate Fair on a field trip. Paul told the Yakima Herald-Republic in 1993 that he and other patients were taken on supervised field trips to baseball games and the local rodeo and fair. He told the paper he had previously won a Best of Show award for a woodcarving contest at the fair, for a large eagle he carved.
Fair officials said they would like to be notified if the hospital intends to bring a group of potentially dangerous patients.
“I’m not saying we don’t have mental patients here or handicapped folks, but certainly it is not common practice to have criminals,” Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard said.
Stevenson said the outings serve an important function in a patient’s recovery process “in a way that is very therapeutic and necessary.”
John Tran, the medical director for Spokane Mental Health, said that often patients are allowed outings, to “see how well they will adapt back in the community.”
“We also want to know how well whatever treatment they are receiving is working, whether they are stable enough to cope with stress,” Tran said.
Although Tran was not familiar with Paul or his case, he said that for a patient with Paul’s background, it would be “a high risk to even have that person, even supervised, at the fairgrounds.”
Tran also said that most of the time, patients who require medication by injection are usually non-compliant with their medication regimen.
Wilson confirmed that Paul takes his medicine by injection, but didn’t specify when he had last received any. Law enforcement said officials told them Paul needed to be found in 48 hours or he could become a threat to the public.
“Given the nature of his charges and that he had a previous escape, you have to ask yourself why was he given this opportunity again?” Reagan said.
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