He’s got money, mental illness and his Northeast Tacoma neighbors scared to death

Pierce County court orders mental health evaluation for Philip Rees

Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner Meagan Foley orders April 4 that Philip Rees' competency to go to trial be evaluated. Rees was charged with assault, harassment, trying to elude police, and malicious mischief.
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Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner Meagan Foley orders April 4 that Philip Rees' competency to go to trial be evaluated. Rees was charged with assault, harassment, trying to elude police, and malicious mischief.

Philip Rees landed in the Pierce County Jail on April 2 after he allegedly tried to run three people over with his truck, threatened to kill Tacoma cops and fled when they came to round him up.

That was six months ago. Rees, 54, hasn’t been home since.

After almost three months in jail, he was transferred to Western State Hospital in Lakewood. At his empty house in Northeast Tacoma, a neighbor mows the lawn occasionally, keeping up appearances. Letters stuff his locked mailbox. No one has the key. The power was turned off in June.

Apart from fighting criminal charges and waiting for his mental health to be restored so he can face them, Rees is about to lose the house. It’s slated for a foreclosure auction.

Whether he can save his house and regain his freedom is an open question. For most of the past two years, according to court records describing attempts to treat him, Rees has been out of his mind.

TNT_Rees_House_Lead photo for online.jpg
Tall grass surrounds the unoccupied home of Philip Rees in Northeast Tacoma which is slated for a foreclosure auction. He’s currently trying to recover his mental health at Western State Hospital after a series of violent incidents landed him in jail on April 2. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

On one level, the neighbors hope he returns. They believe he needs treatment. They also worry it might not work since it hasn’t before, and the wrong man will come back.

They hope it’s good Phil: the genial guy who moved into the neighborhood in 2011, hosted backyard barbecues and hired cellists and pianists to play background music, the beefy longshoreman ready to help friends unload a pickup.

They fear bad Phil: the guy who hammered a neighbor’s door with a baseball bat, the guy who they say threatened to shoot people in the head, the guy who stands in the street in the middle of the night, shouting at phantoms.

“He’s gonna kill somebody, or somebody’s gonna kill him — out of fear,” said one neighbor who doesn’t want to be named.

The request is universal. None of the neighbors wants to be named. They’re afraid Rees will attack people who talk about him. Over the past two years, his behavior has grown too erratic to predict.

“He’s had so many chances,” said Greg Rees, a cousin who lives in Pierce County. “He’s been in and out of those rehab places. He just doesn’t seem to get it. He doesn’t get that nobody’s trying to kill him. He thinks that he’s so smart, and the rich people are trying to kill him. He needs help, that’s for sure, but he’s a really good guy.”

Tacoma police know Rees well. Public records show they’ve answered 29 calls for service to his address since January 2016, most initiated by Rees himself, others by alarmed neighbors.

Rees is a walking exception, an anomaly stuck in procedural purgatory who doesn’t fit the typical profile of criminal defendants tangled in the state’s mental-health system. Police and courts have limited power to curb his conduct unless he crosses the blurry line that defines an imminent threat, leaving frustrated neighbors with little recourse apart from enduring the hostile behavior of a neighbor from hell.

Rees has no prior criminal record. He pays his bills and manages his money. He’s not homeless, not struggling to survive on the streets. He’s not addled by drugs or long-term addiction. For 32 years, until late 2016, he worked as a longshoreman at the Port of Tacoma.

To put it another way, he’s a well-off, middle-aged white guy residing in Brown’s Point, one of Tacoma’s wealthier neighborhoods. A picturesque deck wraps around the back of his high-end house, offering a spectacular view of Commencement Bay.

Single and alone

The News Tribune tried to contact Rees during his jail stint. The request was denied. As a patient at Western State, his visitation rights have been restricted. Details of his life and personal history come from public records and the few people who know him.

He collects art and buys fancy cars, including a cherry red, 1999 Jaguar XK8. Rees claims it’s worth $50 million — at least that’s what he told a county judge in Oregon when she issued a warrant for his arrest in January 2018 after he failed to appear in court.

Rees replied to the warrant with a fiercely worded letter. He threatened to sue the judge, claimed to have gold coins worth $250 million stashed in the trunk of the Jaguar and accused Oregon police officers of stealing them after his original arrest and involuntary commitment in June 2017.

Rees is single and lives alone. Until his recent troubles, he traveled, most recently to Germany. He’s a college graduate with a keen mind. One neighbor has seen the draft of a book Rees began to write about Gottfried Leibniz, a 17th-century German mathematician who devised ideas related to differential calculus.

He had a girlfriend a few years back, but the relationship dissolved amid mutual recriminations and civil court filings that accused him of being too controlling, according to court records. After splitting from Rees, the woman, a local chef, lived in hotel rooms and lapsed into addiction. She died in 2013, murdered by a roommate.

Rees’s parents are dead. He has a brother who lives nearby, but their relationship waxes and wanes. His closest friend might be an older Tacoma woman who met him through the deceased girlfriend.

The woman, who asked not to be named for fear of offending Rees, has spoken to him during his stay at Western State. During his prior involuntary commitments, she has helped him take care of of utility bills and other routine business. He always pays her back, she said. She’s still trying to help him.

“He’s very bright,” the woman said. “He’s brilliant. He wouldn’t hurt a flea. All the time I’ve known him, he is so restrained. It’s hard to find a one-word description. You could say he’s aloof, but he’s not. He just doesn’t talk much. He’s not shy, but he is withdrawn when he’s normal. He is to the core the most good person I’ve ever known. And I mean good to the core, pure, never would hurt anyone.”

Court records say Rees has received private treatment for mental illness for two decades. Throughout that period, he took a regimen of medications intended to keep him on an even keel. He stopped going to treatment in early 2017, records say. His doctor stopped seeing him because he refused to keep taking medications.

Since then, Rees has spent most of his time shuttling in and out of mental-health facilities in Washington and Oregon, according to court records: sometimes for weeks, other times for months. Those stints, all of which he called illegal and illegitimate, followed multiple encounters with law enforcement in both states. Court records and police reports say he has fled from cops, fought with them, harangued friends and threatened strangers with violence.

The cycle repeats

Until his arrest in April, Rees kept getting away with it, or so it seemed to neighbors who wondered why police couldn’t do more to stop him. Pierce County Superior Court records describe a Feb. 1 incident that provides a portrait of escalating aggression.

It started when Rees, driving his truck, spotted a neighbor walking a child to school. The neighbor happened to be a federal law enforcement officer.

“The defendant (Rees) drove by in a red truck and then stopped and began to yell, ‘Get the (expletive) out of the neighborhood!’ He also said, ‘If I had a gun, I would kill you.’ ...The defendant continued to scream at (the neighbor), telling him that he was going to kill him. ...(The neighbor) tried to display his badge and ask the defendant to stop. The truck drove directly at (the neighbor), not stopping for (the neighbor) or the stop sign. (The neighbor) had to leap out of the way to avoid being hit by the truck.”

That same day, Rees tried to run a woman off the road with his truck. She was driving her son to school and Rees rammed her car, court records say. He then tried to run down a retired high school principal walking in the neighborhood. The man had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.

When police officers caught up with him, Rees denied any mental-health issues, talked about his “Geiger counter” and accused the officers of breaking into his home and cracking his safe. Officers noted that a few weeks earlier, Rees had tried and failed to buy a gun.

He was arrested and briefly involuntarily committed to a local mental-health facility. Within a few weeks, he was released and came back home to Brown’s Point.

Neighbors were dismayed. The cycle was repeating itself. Rees, obsessed with electromagnetic fields, suggested to neighbors that Bill Gates and Paul Allen were monitoring his movements and pelting his house with radiation. He posted a sign on his roof that said LEPROSY, a neighbor said.

On April 1, he called 911 and threatened to kill police officers who came into his neighborhood, court records state. On April 2, he twice threatened to shoot a neighbor in the head. When police responded to the neighbor’s 911 call, Rees fled. Eventually, 30 police patrol cars surrounded him on Marine View Drive in the Tacoma Tideflats.

“The defendant refused to exit the vehicle,” court records state. “Stop sticks were put in front of one of his wheels. Traffic in the area began to back up as an hour passed. The defendant then started his car, went in reverse, revved his engine and then drove forward, striking the stop sticks as he did a U-turn and took off quickly, then weaved at a slow rate of speed between vehicles.

“Officers followed a short distance and a PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique) maneuver was conducted, causing the defendant’s car to land on its side. Officers state the defendant was uninjured. The defendant was extracted from the car after the window was broken and he was pulled out of the vehicle.”

In jail, charged with multiple counts of second-degree assault and felony harassment, Rees initially refused to eat or bathe, according to sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer. At a court arraignment, he ranted that the entire proceeding was illegal. A judge, prosecutor and defense attorney ignored him, quietly completing the standard charging paperwork.

Due to aggressive behavior, Rees had to be isolated in the jail. He was denied visitation. At one point he charged a corrections officer who opened the door to his cell, Troyer said.

‘A vicious loop’

Neighbors were relieved after Rees was arrested, but they wondered why it took so long. How could police respond to so many prior calls without taking action sooner?

The answer, according to police spokesman Loretta Cool, isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“It’s not that officers are afraid to write something,” she said. “It’s what do you do? If he thinks his house is being irradiated or his alarms are talking to him, if he’s not a harm to anyone, even if we were to involuntarily take him somewhere, they would not commit him.”

Indirectly, Cool was referring to the precarious balancing act triggered when mental illness and criminal behavior intersect. In itself, mental illness is not a crime or a precursor to criminal acts — but on occasion, people such as Rees blur the lines and the surrounding community suffers.

“It’s a vicious loop,” said Bob Winslow, past president of the Pierce County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People that are mentally ill ought not to be in jail. They ought to be getting treatment, but if they won’t accept their treatment and they won’t take their meds, they’re stuck in a treadmill.”

Rees’s case highlights another issue that has plagued state officials: What happens when a mentally ill criminal defendant is found incompetent to stand trial?

The short answer is that criminal charges have to be dismissed, removing the legal basis for incarceration. Involuntary commitment continues for a time. The defendant continues to receive treatment but eventually goes free, released from commitment by a mental-health system straining to let patients out so others can come in.

That hasn’t happened to Rees yet, but some of the charges against him, for assault and felony harassment, were dismissed in August. They’ve been rolled into the second criminal charge of felony harassment. Whether they stick depends on whether Rees can be restored to competency.

Deputy prosecutor Patrick Hammond is handling the case. He said he still hopes for competency restoration and a trial. The latest development is an order prohibiting Rees from possessing firearms.

Hammond has dealt with similar cases. For the most part, he said, defendants with mental problems don’t resort to violence, but there are exceptions.

“The reality is 99.9 percent of them aren’t going to take it to that level,” he said. “But they still scare the bejesus out of people.”

The ‘civil flip’

Court records of a Sept. 14 forensic psychological evaluation of Rees illustrate the obstacles. After initially resisting all treatment and accusing state hospital staffers of conspiring against him, he began to take medications intended to ease his symptoms.

The evaluation describes him as less aggressive and more willing to talk in recent weeks. It also states that he continues to deny any mental illness.

“I believe someone is doing research on me and that causes me problems,” he told a staff psychologist. “I call it harassment, not mental illness.”

He thinks the hospital is conducting experiments on him using electromagnetic fields. He thinks one of the hospital patients has tried to break into his home. He wants to know whether the victims of his crimes work for the CIA and the FBI.

As of two weeks ago, he’s still not competent, according to the evaluation.

“Mr. Rees appears to lack the present capacity to have a rational understanding of his charges and court procedures, and he appears to lack the present capacity to assist in his present defense with a reasonable degree of rational understanding due to active symptoms of a mental illness,” the evaluation states.

His next court hearing — a review of competency — is set for Dec. 18. If Rees can’t be restored, and the criminal charges are dismissed, he would move from the so-called forensic side of Western State, where patients charged with crimes receive treatment.

That would mean shifting to the hospital’s civil side. In state shorthand, the process is known as a “civil flip.”

The potential outcome runs smack into a plan devised by Gov. Jay Inslee and state lawmakers to phase out all civil wards at Western State, leaving treatment to smaller facilities scattered around the region, fulfilling the widely embraced ideal of community-based treatment.

Is that what Rees needs? Would it help him or simply return him, still consumed by delusion, back to the Brown’s Point home where neighbors live in increasing fear of his actions?

“We know if you come out and you don’t take your meds and you escalate, you’re gonna be a danger,” said Terri Card, president and CEO of Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, a local agency that operates a mental health evaluation and treatment center in Parkland. “The reality is, people run around and they make their neighbors miserable. They make the public miserable.”

In Pierce County, the unintended consequences of civil flips are too well known. One infamous case ended in horror when Jonathan Meline, a Western State patient found incompetent to stand trial, flipped to the civil side and was later released to his family.

In 2012, Meline murdered his father with a hatchet. A Pierce County jury later found the state had been negligent in its release decision, and awarded the surviving family members $2.9 million.

No bad guy

Mental health professionals shy away from publicly stating that community-based treatment isn’t always the answer. Privately, they say some patients benefit from longer involuntary commitment at Western State and similar facilities.

“We’re all supposed to hate it,” said a veteran professional who asked not to be named, citing political ramifications. “Some people just need long-term treatment. The state hospital is not the worst thing that can happen, and if they’re profoundly mentally ill, it might be the best place. That’s not a popular opinion to have right now.”

State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-Lakewood) has delved into mental health issues at the state level and also serves as senior counsel for behavioral health for Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.

Recent shifts in state law address examples such as the Rees case at least in part, he said.

“Now that he’s run afoul of the law, they’ve got some hooks,” he said. “Felony courts can now use treatment as a hook or a stick to force him into what he needs to get. I think there’s probably some leverage that the system has on him.”

O’Ban explained the state’s recent move toward assisted outpatient treatment, a concept used in other states that places more restrictions on patients released from involuntary commitment. The approach resembles a kind of parole: In theory, patients must comply with conditions set by a court, including attending regular treatment and taking prescribed medications.

Card, the mental-health CEO, agrees that such measures have added procedural teeth, but she notes that they’re not too sharp. Often, patients who fail to meet conditions aren’t returned to commitment, simply because inpatient mental-health beds are scarce.

“The court order expires, and they quit taking their meds, and all sorts of things go wrong,” she said. “It’s such a tough situation. There’s no bad guy. There’s just a system that’s grossly under-resourced and underfunded.”

Lost for good?

A recent visit to Rees’s home in Brown’s Point revealed a portrait of emptiness. A handwritten sign on the front door says NO SOLICITING. Beneath it are bureaucratic messages. One note, left Sept. 20, tells Rees his mailbox is too full, and says additional mail waits at the post office.

A tag from Tacoma Power surrounds the doorknob, telling Rees the power is off and providing instructions to restore it. A card stuffed into the door jamb on Aug. 27 urges Rees to call the state Department of Revenue.

The pre-foreclosure sale of his house is scheduled for Jan. 19. Rees has tried to catch up on the late mortgage payments, according to his friend in Tacoma. He has the money, but the lender won’t accept funds wired from a state hospital patient.

The house, looming over the bay, Rees’s pride and solitary fortress, might be lost for good.

His friend would cover the costs herself, but she’s not so rich. Rees is disappointed, she says, but seemingly resigned to the outcome.

“I thought he’d be really upset,” the friend said. “Maybe because he has so much time to think, he’s come to terms with it. That house meant everything to him.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT