Opinion

Mentally ill killer unfit for Lakewood group home

An accused killer with a history of mental illness could leave Western State Hospital for an adult group home in Lakewood, although not this week, as had been widely feared.
An accused killer with a history of mental illness could leave Western State Hospital for an adult group home in Lakewood, although not this week, as had been widely feared. AP file photo

Lakewood residents shouldn’t be jerked around with anxiety that a mentally ill killer may soon be living in their midst. But that’s what the Oakbrook neighborhood has faced this summer as Western State Hospital prepares to conditionally release Lawrence David Butterfield.

The schizophrenic man with a long history of violence could move to the Alpha Palace group home, although it won’t happen this week, as had been feared.

Evidence shows Butterfield stabbed his roommate to death seven years ago, but he was never convicted — and therein lies the problem. The Pierce County prosecutor’s office has filed murder charges three times since 2010, and each time the charges were dismissed after doctors determined he wasn’t competent to stand trial.

Meanwhile, the community is forced to ride an agonizing merry go round run by two operators going different directions. Concerns about a chronically violent offender raised by the forensic side of the hospital alternate with the real chance he will be released by the civil commitment side of the hospital.

Butterfield’s most recent evaluation says he hears voices he believes originate from a microphone placed in his brain. Forensic doctors say he’s at “moderate to high risk for future serious dangerous behavior,” assuming he takes his medications. The prospects are grimmer if he goes off his meds.

Prosecutor Mark Lindquist wrote a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee last week, seeking intervention in a case where Lindquist’s staff is powerless.

“The proposed release plan is setting Mr. Butterfield up for failure and placing the community at risk ...” Lindquist wrote. “The last time Mr. Butterfield was conditionally released he took a man's life.”

Prosecutors say Butterfield, now 61, used a hunting knife to kill his 53-year-old roommate, James Bradshaw, in November 2010 at their Puyallup apartment. Years earlier, Butterfield allegedly carried out armed assaults against his father on two occasions, but charges were dismissed, again for lack of competency.

He was held at Western State for more than two decades, then released to Pierce County in 2002 despite having no ties here — an insidious practice that helped perpetuate our long reputation as a “dumping ground” for mentally ill parolees.

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, is another elected official who’s leaning on the governor to stop the unconscionable release. Noting Butterfield’s roots are in Lewis County, O’Ban correctly observes that the state’s 2007 “fair share” law was intended to prevent Pierce County from being dumped on.

But that’s a secondary concern here. Butterfield is not fit for freedom regardless of which county inherits him, as O’Ban also points out.

We regret having to keep dredging up the tragic example of Tacoma’s Meline family, but you’d hope the state would have learned a lesson from it.

Jonathan Meline killed his father, Robert, with a hatchet in October 2012, driven by a long history of paranoid schizophrenia and delusions his parents were evil imposters. Nine months earlier, Jonathan had been released from civil commitment at Western State despite a previous robbery charge and doctors’ familiarity with his persistent problems. His parents brought him into their home rather than let him live on the streets, a Hobson’s choice of the worst kind.

Robert’s widow, Kim Meline, took the state to court. Earlier this year, a Pierce County jury awarded the family $2.9 million.

“You don’t stick someone who’s a ticking time bomb out there,” Kim Meline’s attorney, Jack Connelly, summed up in closing arguments.

Those words are equally applicable to Lawrence David Butterfield. This tormented man must continue to be kept in a secure facility. There he can receive the treatment he needs. And Lakewood can have the peace of mind it deserves.

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