Politics & Government

Why did state psychiatric officials nearly release accused murderer near school, senator asks

Exterior of Western State Hospital in Lakewood on Sept. 13, 2017.
Exterior of Western State Hospital in Lakewood on Sept. 13, 2017. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

A state Senate panel grilled officials Tuesday over why Western State Hospital nearly released an accused murderer into a Lakewood group home in September.

The proposed release of Lawrence David Butterfield caused a stir among Lakewood and Pierce County leaders, who contended he was too dangerous to leave the state psychiatric hospital. Western State officials reversed course after his housing plans fell through.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, a Tacoma Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Human Services, Mental Health and Housing Committee, called Tuesday’s hearing to find out how Western State officials determine when and where they release potentially violent patients. O’Ban currently is working on legislation to reform how violent offenders are released.

“It gives me no comfort that (state officials) recanted on Butterfield,” O’Ban told The News Tribune and The Olympian in a Monday interview. “They clearly were preparing to place him in this residential area, but for the highly expected uproar that occurred. That should not be the basis for changing the decision.”

Officials with the state Department of Social and Health Services did not shed much light on Butterfield’s case during Tuesday’s meeting.

Carla Reyes, an assistant secretary at the state agency overseeing Western State, told the panel that laws against disclosure of health information kept her from specifically addressing Butterfield.

Western State’s interim CEO Marylouise Jones testified that patients similar to Butterfield go through an extensive process before they’re released that includes notification of law enforcement and prosecutors.

Prosecutors can petition a court to review a release plan, Reyes said, or refile criminal charges in hopes the patient can be found competent to stand trial.

A state panel also reviews releases for some violent patients in Butterfield’s situation. Whether the Public Safety Review Panel reviewed Butterfield’s release recommendation is unclear.

Largely, Reyes said, the Department of Social and Health Services is directed by state laws on how long they can keep patients in involuntary treatment. In some cases the housing situation of a released patient might not be ideal, but the only other option might be release without supervision because of legal limitations, Reyes said.

Butterfield, 62, was accused of killing his roommate in 2010. A judge sent him to the psychiatric facility after questions arose about his mental health.

He has been in Western State for long stretches of time since 1975, first on a series of assault charges.

In the 2010 case, Butterfield has been stuck in a cycle between the hospital and Superior Court. He has been charged with murder four times for the death of 53-year-old James Bradshaw, but the charges were dismissed each time when he was found not competent to stand trial.

In September, Western State officials planned to discharge him to an adult-family home near a school in the city’s residential Oakbrook neighborhood. That plan fell apart when his housing situation fell through following an outcry from some lawmakers and Pierce County officials.

O’Ban said Monday that Butterfield should not be leaving Western State or a similarly secure facility any time soon.

The senator went on to say he was concerned about the existing process and worried it might happen with another patient if there wasn’t a similar public backlash.

John Sheeran, the assistant chief criminal deputy for Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, testified Tuesday that prosecutors want more avenues aside from re-filing charges to keep patients such as Butterfield out of community settings.

Reyes testified the option to petition a court to review a release plan exists but is infrequently used.

Sheeran also advocated for a public-comment process for the release of certain violent patients.

Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield told the panel that violent offenders should not be in adult-family homes, where he said other residents might be at risk.

“That’s something we absolutely oppose and should not have occurred,” Caulfield said.

Jones said Western State works closely to make monitor patients released to other care settings and can recommit them to facilities with more intensive care if officials see signs of increasing symptoms.

O’Ban questioned if that was enough when Butterfield, a person he and others deemed a safety risk, is put in a group home near a school in a dense, residential neighborhood.

“I can’t believe the only option for this gentleman was to be placed in Oakbrook,” he said.

In the end, O’Ban and Reyes agreed changes could be made to the current system. Reyes said DSHS would provide more notification of impending releases or submit to more oversight of the release process if the state required it.

Reyes said the state needs to have a better grasp on “where are good places to be able to release folks to.”

Speaking generally to situations such as Butterfield’s, Reyes said she wanted a legal change that helps spell out what to do in situations where an offender’s “mental health is stabilized, but public safety is a concern.”

Currently, the law “leaves us in a bit of a gray area with, so what do we want to do with those individuals,” Reyes said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein