Crime

Killer was improperly released before fatal attack, claim against Western State says

Western State Hospital was responsible for the improper release of a man who eight days later beat and strangled an acquaintance in Parkland, a claim filed this week alleges.

Douglas Reid Murray, 44, was sentenced earlier this year for the death of 41-year-old Thomas Fite in September 2016. Fite had said he was going to take care of Murray after he began acting strangely following a night of drinking.

The wrongful death claim against the inpatient psychiatric facility in Lakewood is one of two filed Monday on behalf of Fite's estate. The other is against South Sound 911 over its alleged delay in sending help.

The claims, which are precursors to potential lawsuits, each seek $2.5 million.

Court records show that attorney Jeanne Betzendorfer was recently appointed by the court as the personal representative of Fite's estate, for the purpose of bringing the claim.

The state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Western State, declined to comment on the claim. Spokeswoman Kelly Stowe said that was because the litigation is pending.

South Sound 911 attorney Peter Beckwith said the regional emergency dispatch agency was "looking into the matter, but does not have any comment at this time."

The claim against South Sound 911 alleges no one was dispatched to the scene of the attack until more than two hours after a friend of Fite called 911 on Sept. 15, 2016, to report that Fite had been beaten and needed an ambulance.

"To take over two hours, I think that was ridiculous," said attorney Jessica Holman Duthie, who's handling both claims.

A Pierce County sheriff's deputy sent to the scene in the 10600 block of Pacific Avenue South did not find Fite, she said. Hours later, someone called about a body at the same location.

By that time, Holman Duthie said, Murray had returned and strangled Fite.

Investigators found Fite dead, and Murray covered in blood at a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Witnesses said the men had been drinking beer together the night before, and that when Murray acted strangely, Fite took him away and said he'd take care of it.

Murray ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

Before the homicide, he had been arrested and charged with felony harassment in a different case, and was treated and evaluated by Western State psychologists. He was found competent to stand trial, and a judge released him eight days before Fite was killed, records show.

The estate's claim argues that Murray had a history of violent crimes, including trying to set a woman on fire, and that the Western State psychologist who evaluated him should have sought a "designated mental health professional referral."

That would have led to someone checking Murray's release plan and finding he had no mental health treatment provider in the community, the claim contends.

"And it would have been foreseeable that Mr. Murray would rapidly decompensate and become a risk to the community and himself," the claim reads.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell
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