Here’s how to rile a pair of county sheriffs: send a letter that implies a confessed killer found incompetent to stand trial a month ago could be walking around the community unsupervised within 30 days.
State leaders say their formal notice, sent Aug. 9, was misunderstood, but the prospect sparked heated words that bounced among Bellingham, Olympia and Pierce County over the past two weeks. The debate, played out in correspondence, illustrates the bumpy implementation of a new law designed to alert law enforcement agencies about the potential release of mental patients with violent histories.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo got his first warning from the state three weeks ago, and later shared it with Sheriff Paul Pastor, his counterpart in Pierce County. Their resulting frustration led to an apology from state leaders earlier this week. Still, the sheriffs are far from happy. The same goes for prosecutors in both counties.
“First of all, this was a really horrendous and vicious crime,” Elfo said Wednesday.
The original letter, sent Aug. 9 from Western State Hospital in Lakewood, said a patient named Per Olaf Johansson would “have the ability to earn temporary unescorted authorized leaves into the community” within 30 days. It added that Johansson “will be allowed authorized leave(s) to Lakewood and Tacoma.”
For Elfo, the sting was sharp. Johansson, 35, is notorious in Whatcom County. He was arrested in December 2010 and charged with second-degree murder and second-degree assault. According to charging papers, he stabbed his father at least 30 times in a deluded rage, and stabbed his mother and 13-year-old niece. The two women survived; Johansson’s father didn’t.
Johansson admitted his actions to deputies and mental health experts. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he said he’d stopped taking his medications to cleanse himself. In subsequent interviews with state psychologists, he said he was Jesus Christ.
Whatcom County prosecutors spent two years trying to bring Johansson to trial. He shuttled between the county jail and Western State while mental health experts tried and failed to restore his competency. At the jail, he hoarded his feces and refused to bathe, according to court records. At the hospital, he denied any mental illness and refused to pursue an insanity defense.
In mid-July, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Johansson, handcuffed by his lack of competency. He was transferred to Western State.
A few weeks later, Elfo got the letter from the hospital, hinting at Johansson’s potential unsupervised release. He fired back with a letter of his own that described the 2010 killings and Johansson’s behavior while incarcerated. He cited court findings from July that said Johansson presented “a high risk for future serious dangerous behavior” and “a substantial danger to other persons.”
State assistant attorney general Sarah Coats, who represents the hospital, responded to Whatcom County on Aug. 20 with a clarification: the original letter wasn’t meant to suggest that Johansson would be released immediately; only that he could be released eventually, if he progressed in treatment. The process is standard procedure for hospital patients who move from the criminal side of the hospital to the civil side — even patients who have been charged with past crimes.
Elfo wasn’t satisfied. On Aug. 22, he sent another note, questioning the state’s response.
“If the letter was not intended to imply that Mr. Johansson had the ability to earn unescorted authorized leaves into the community in 30 days from the date of the notice,” he asked, “why did it clearly state that he would have such eligibility?”
Elfo also sent an internal law enforcement alert that reached Pierce County and Tacoma late last week. It referred to the prospect of Johansson’s release. The alert got Pastor’s attention; it said Johansson could be granted leave into Pierce County — his turf.
Pastor sent a note of his own to hospital leaders, objecting to the idea.
“The decision to allow leaves in the community is inconsistent with this clear indication of Mr. Johansson’s dangerousness and likelihood to do violent damage to other people,” Pastor wrote.
The circular debate hit higher levels Monday. Jane Beyer, an assistant secretary with the state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the hospital, sent a note to Elfo and Pastor, apologizing for the confusion. Beyer said she understood why the sheriffs “were disturbed by the information you received,” and added that “it is clear the notification letters must be changed.”
Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar sees such notices regularly. The state hospital sits within the city limits, so he’s copied on every release notification. The letters look alarming, he said; but in his experience, patients with violent histories don’t get released that quickly.
“The murderers don’t get out in 45 days,” he said. “Could it happen? By statute, yeah — but I’ve never seen them restore anybody that quick. I’ve been dealing with this for my whole career. We get them all from Western Washington. So it wasn’t a shock to me to read that stuff.”
A similar case rocked Tacoma and Pierce County last October when Jonathan Meline, a former Western State patient, chopped his father to death with a hatchet. Meline had been released by Western State in January 2012, after he was found incompetent to stand trial on a prior charge of assault.
The case provoked outrage over Western State’s notification procedures and the release process. State legislators passed a law in the most recent session that required more explicit notification to local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors when the hospital releases patients such as Meline and Johansson. The law took effect July 29.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist testified in favor of the bill, calling it a measure to address so-called “gap cases” involving patients with violent histories. Lindquist knows about the recent controversy over Johansson. He said the situation illustrates the need for the law.
“This is an example of why we needed the gap bill. Requiring notice gives us a chance to say ‘no way’ when we see something potentially outrageous like this,” he said Thursday. “This bill’s especially important to Pierce County because historically we’ve been the dumping ground for this type of offender. And we have to remain vigilant so that the dumping does not resume.”
In Whatcom County, Elfo accepts the state’s apology for the misunderstanding, but he also wonders whether state and hospital leaders understand the gravity of the situation.
“When we get a letter that says he’s gonna be eligible for temporary release within 30 days, it gets us gearing up resources, it gets us notifying victims,” he said. “So I hope I’m not being overly optimistic in hoping that we could get a good resolution out of this and that they improve the system.”