The first time Paul Umland tried to have his brother Michael LaRosa involuntarily committed was several years ago in Florida. It was the Fourth of July. LaRosa was eating some pasta salad that Umland's girlfriend had made and suddenly became convinced the pasta was poisoned, so he took a sample of it to the neighbors with a note asking them to call the police. The police arrived, and Umland explained that his brother was schizophrenic and asked them to commit him. The police declined. LaRosa had to be a threat to himself or others first.
A few weeks later, LaRosa said that he had swallowed a watch battery and the poison was leaking out inside of him. Umland took him to a hospital and asked them to evaluate him in hopes that he could be involuntarily committed, but again he was denied. When the evaluating doctor told him that LaRosa was not a threat to himself or others, Umland asked: "How many times do you expect a person to imagine people coming after him and not defend himself?"
Shortly thereafter, LaRosa met a woman on the internet and decided to move to Seattle to live with her. "We didn't want him to up and leave to Seattle," Umland remembers, "but we couldn't tie him down. We would've been the ones arrested for that."
By the winter of 2008, the woman LaRosa had moved to Seattle to be with had filed a restraining order against him, saying LaRosa had threatened to kill her. A poem called "I Ruined Your Face" that turned up in documents relating to the restraining order reads in part:
I ruined your face, I ruined your face
I hit it with a bat and, blood went all over the place
I ruined your face, I ruined your face
I beat it with a bomb and, blew up your brains
In a separate incident, police charged LaRosa with misdemeanor assault, saying he'd bitten and attacked a security guard at Swedish Medical Center on Cherry Hill. Umland called LaRosa's probation officer in Seattle and, again, made a request for involuntary commitment. "She was like, 'Oh, he's in Mental Health Court and they're going to take care of all that,'" Umland recalls. "I said, 'If these things keep happening, why do they keep letting him go back into society?'" She told Umland that LaRosa would be put in jail if he reoffended.
"I said, 'Jail's not going to help him—that's not what he needs to go to.'"
On the morning of November 22, Joseph LaMagno left his friend's Capitol Hill home, where he was given a room in exchange for doing the housekeeping and taking care of the dogs, and headed for the grocery store. Snow was beginning to cover the city. He wanted to stock up.
The 1400 block of East Union Street, which LaMagno would soon return to with his groceries, is bisected by an alley notable for a structure called the "Gallery d'Alley"—a maroon garage covered with original oil paintings of various sizes, like a 19th-century salon turned inside out. Since he was a heavy smoker who always stepped outside to light up, LaMagno had become the guardian of this alley. "He'd go out the back gate and smoke in the alley several times a day," says Sean Carlson, who lives directly across the alley and operates the Gallery d'Alley. "We had a very cordial relationship, never an ill word. Not to suggest he was always cheery, but if not, he pretty much kept it to himself." Over time, Carlson says, "he became the sentinel of the alley, often chatting with passersby, of which there are a lot."
Part gallery tour guide, part neighborhood news source, and part urban watchman, LaMagno would tell owners of the houses abutting the alley what had happened while they were off at work. Once, when an alley Dumpster caught fire, endangering the gallery, he put out the flames himself using a bucket and hose.
"I think what he represented," Carlson says, "was an especially present connection in what makes a neighborhood a lovely place to live—the guy who hangs around just because for whatever reason he can, and he chooses to and is a reliably benevolent and auspicious force."
LaMagno had been diagnosed with schizophrenia earlier in his life, just like LaRosa had. It's a hard diagnosis to live with, characterized in the psychological literature by poorly functioning thought processes and frightening delusions. No one knows for sure what causes schizophrenia, and as evidenced by the cases of LaMagno and LaRosa, no two people manifest schizophrenia in the same manner or live with it the same way. Also evident from the cases of LaMagno and LaRosa: Not all people who suffer from severe mood disorders are violent, though some—a very small minority—do end up committing extremely violent crimes.
On a sidewalk near the corner of 15th Avenue and Union Street, around 10:30 a.m. that morning, the two men crossed paths. LaRosa had just gone to a grocery store as well, only to discover that he'd forgotten his food stamp card. Because he was homeless and it was freezing, he'd spent the previous night riding Metro buses and sitting in a Denny's to stay warm. According to what LaRosa would later tell police, he didn't remember whether he saw LaMagno at the store, but he remembered feeling physically ill upon leaving, and he remembered walking on the sidewalk next to LaMagno, who was carrying his groceries. He remembered hearing LaMagno say: "I gave your sister herpes, without having it!"
As LaRosa's brother would point out, this is not an unusual type of thing for LaRosa to hear. According to a detective's report, LaRosa "hears voices in his head and the voices state that people are giving him and his family diseases. He stated he hears the voices whether he is on medication or not."
LaRosa had an ax in his hand. He would later tell detectives he had it "because he was tired of staying at shelters and he was going to camp in the woods in the area." Instead, police and prosecutors say, he used it on LaMagno—in broad daylight, under falling snow, in front of kids from a nearby school and riders on a Metro bus—and LaMagno ended up dead on the ground, bleeding into the snow with at least 10 hatchet wounds to his head.
When police arrested LaRosa after a series of terrified 911 calls, he was in the alley that LaMagno used to guard. LaRosa's clothes were spattered with blood, and according to police, he later admitted to the crime, saying: "I don't know what came over me because I've never done murder, you know."
Seattle has relatively few murders—less than two dozen last year. Partly because of that, and partly because of the attention they draw, the murders committed by mentally unstable people who randomly attack others stand out. In 1997, retired Seattle Fire Department captain Stanley Stevenson was leaving a Mariner's game with his family when he was stabbed to death by a mentally unstable man who'd recently been released into the public after a Seattle municipal court found him incompetent to face misdemeanor theft charges. On New Year's Eve 2007, a 31-year-old Sierra Club worker named Shannon Harps was stabbed to death by a mentally ill offender as she was entering her apartment not far from the scene of LaMagno's murder. And in the summer of 2009, a man who'd been in and out of the mental health and criminal justice systems allegedly climbed into a South Park home through a bathroom window and raped the two women inside, slicing both of them repeatedly with a knife and killing one of them.
In 1999, in response to that unprovoked stabbing of Captain Stevenson, Seattle opened its Mental Health Court—one of the first courts in the nation created specifically to deal with mentally unstable offenders. The point of Mental Health Court is to connect the psychologically troubled with treatment, rather than send them off to jails that can't help them or directly back into a freedom that they're not ready to handle. It's become a critical part of the region's social safety net and has a clear record of success, with studies showing that people who participate increase their use of mental health services and commit fewer crimes after they're done.
For the most part.
"We are looking at community safety," says Jennifer Johnson Grant, an assistant city attorney who supervises the prosecutions at Mental Health Court. "We make the best decision we can with the information we have in front of us."
On a recent day at Mental Health Court, the kinds of challenging situations that judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys routinely face were on full display. One defendant who wanted to fire his lawyer—a common occurrence—announced that he takes eight pills a day and said he believed his upcoming mental health evaluation would be conducted by a nuclear physicist. In his defense, he offered: "Millions of quadrillions of years and I never rip off nobody!" Another man was pronounced by his probation officer to be doing well—"Leveling out," the officer said—and received words of praise from the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, and the judge. Collaboration and support are the key themes in this kind of courtroom, rather than argument, judgment, and punishment.
Judge Edsonya Charles was presiding, and showed a leniency toward contempt of court that one rarely sees in normal proceedings. She listened calmly as one man told her he couldn't wait for her to be off the bench (Charles recently lost her reelection effort but is serving out the remainder of her term), and she showed sympathy for a defendant who had been too depressed to make it to his required individual therapy ("Other than that, he's doing quite well," his probation officer said). She praised a man on finishing a year of sobriety and listened to an incoherent monologue from another man who, between nonsensical words, appeared to be saying that smokers in his building were subjecting him to humanitarian violations. There was a man who kept sticking out his tongue involuntarily, like a lizard, and another who contended that his doctors were making him take pills because "they want to keep me confused."
Some of them went free on probation, with appointments to come back and report on their progress soon. Some stayed in custody because they caused concerns. And others stayed in custody because—due to state budget constraints—no one had yet found time to evaluate their competency, and thus they had to sit in jail a few more days, another week, maybe several weeks, their troubled mental states making them far more vulnerable to harm and suffering than the average inmate, until a state psychiatrist became available.
The available records show that LaRosa was a challenging case for Mental Health Court. At times he had to be held in custody because he was creating fears about other people's safety, or not taking his medication, or causing people to believe he needed a new mental health evaluation, or failing to comply with the terms of his probation. Ultimately, he was "revoked"—or removed—from Mental Health Court for failing to comply with a requirement that he abstain from drugs and alcohol. He was known to self-medicate with marijuana, methamphetamine, and alcohol when he decided to go off his prescribed psychiatric medications, according to a person familiar with the case, and apparently he continued to do so. The court, while uniquely supportive, does not have limitless patience.
From there, LaRosa went back into the regular criminal justice system, which jailed him for 60 days, released him early for good behavior, then jailed him again, in early August, on a misdemeanor charge of violating his ex-girlfriend's restraining order. He stayed in jail for roughly another 60 days and was released in mid-October—under the supervision of a probation officer, and on strict conditions that included his continuing his mental health treatment.
Those who directly handled his case won't talk about it, either because of attorney-client privilege or medical privacy rules, and records related to his recent probation and monitoring are not being made available by authorities despite a public records request. But it's safe to assume that if LaRosa was free to wander the streets of Capitol Hill on November 22, it's because someone—or multiple people—connected to his supervision thought he was doing well enough to be allowed that kind of freedom.
If LaRosa is found guilty of the hatchet murder, or even if an examination that was ordered by a King County judge on December 7 ends up finding LaRosa incompetent to stand trial on murder charges, there will be pressing questions about why LaRosa was allowed to remain free before the killing and just how effective the social safety net was in this case.
Those questions will come at a time when that safety net, frequently portrayed by critics as an expensive sop to the sensitivities of bleeding-heart liberals, is already being slashed in order to deal with a state budget shortfall that now runs into the billions of dollars. But, even if critics don't say so, the fact is that this safety net represents far more than altruism. It's also defensive, intended to prevent someone like LaRosa from decompensating—to use psychiatric language—and turning from just an extremely troubled man with a record of three misdemeanor charges into an extremely troubled man who's going grocery shopping one minute and then, suddenly, allegedly, bludgeoning an innocent man's head with a hatchet.
"There needs to be more funding for these people," says Jennifer Johnson Grant, the city attorney who supervises Mental Health Court prosecutions. "They're very fragile; they're very needy."
Johnson Grant is one of the people who's prohibited from speaking directly about LaRosa's case, but she's a firm believer in the importance of Mental Health Court, is well aware of the additional cuts that may be coming to her corner of the safety net soon, and was willing to say this to those who are concerned about the killing of Joseph LaMagno and what it may say about our criminal justice and mental health systems: "I can't imagine what we're going to be dealing with next year."
The state's budget has been hit hard by the economy, and the Department of Social and Health Services is proposing to cut $84 million in mental health spending over the next two years. Included in those proposed cuts: $65.6 million taken away from community- based mental health treatment (of the kind that both LaRosa and LaMagno accessed), a cut that would have the effect of reducing or eliminating mental health services for up to 26,000 clients statewide. Also proposed: taking $8.3 million away from the budget of Washington's largest mental hospital, Western State, a cut that would cause the hospital to shut down an entire 30-bed ward next year. Over at the Corrections Department, which handles dangerously mentally ill offenders, the program to monitor such offenders after their release from prison—rapists, murderers, arsonists—is slated to be cut from five years of monitoring to two and a half. "I'm very concerned that we will not have the mental health services that people desperately need," says Democratic state representative Mary Lou Dickerson of Seattle, who has worked on mental health issues for some time in the state legislature.
She has concerns about the threat to public safety, too, of course, and wonders whether new information-sharing provisions that she helped add to the state's involuntary-commitment law might have prevented LaRosa's alleged crime. But she believes that in the end, the best way to prevent such crimes is a robust safety net. "No matter what laws you have on the books, you are going to have these terrible incidents," Dickerson says. "But the hope is that, through smart laws and adequate treatment, the number of instances will be small." Amnon Shoenfeld, the director of King County's mental health treatment programs, agrees. "No matter what we do in the law, we will never get to 100 percent, where there will never be a bad outcome."
Here in King County, which has been receiving about $40 million in state mental health funding each year, officials are preparing to lose about $8 million annually. "Over 20 percent of our state funding is being cut," says Shoenfeld. As a result, about 325 people a year will lose their outpatient mental health treatment. Set to be cut entirely: next-day crisis appointments for people who show up at emergency rooms with severe psychological disturbances and don't meet the high standards for involuntary commitment, but nevertheless need immediate follow-up. (Cutting these next-day appointments will leave people in crisis to either help themselves, which is unlikely, or to spiral further downward, which is more likely.) The county's involuntary-treatment facility will lose beds. Residential-treatment beds will be cut, too. And with fewer beds available, some people in severe psychological crises are just going to have to be strapped to beds in hospitals and held there until, at some point, a treatment or involuntary-commitment bed opens up somewhere.
The irony, Shoenfeld adds, is that a lot of the programs that will be cut actually end up saving money in the long run by diverting mentally ill people from jails and hospitals, where it's expensive to house them and where they can't be effectively treated and rehabilitated anyway, to community-based treatment programs that have the aim of reintegrating them back into the community (if such a reintegration is possible without jeopardizing public safety).
Nick Metz, a deputy chief of the Seattle Police Department, made a similar point back in January when he testified before the state legislature on behalf of preserving the part of the safety net that offers state-funded disability payments—the kind of payments that people suffering from schizophrenia often end up receiving, the kind of payments the legislature just cut by $12 million during a December 11 special session. "When we think of crime prevention, and when we hear that term 'crime prevention,' many times we envision in our mind, 'Well, we need better lighting, we need better locks, we need a better alarm system, we need more cops," Metz said. What a lot of people don't realize, he continued, is that the safety net—including regular, taxpayer-subsidized payments that help make unstable people a little less financially desperate—is "a form of crime prevention," and to the extent that it keeps them away from criminal behavior, it also keeps public money from having to further fund "jails and other correctional facilities."
One other example of state cuts that may not get a lot of attention but that end up gumming up the public safety apparatus: LaRosa is currently a suspect in a second murder, committed in the International District the night before the hatchet murder, but due to cuts in funding for the state crime lab, it likely will be many weeks before anyone can say whether LaRosa's hatchet was the weapon used in that attack.
The rules about involuntary commitment might seem backward to LaRosa's brother—during an interview, he asked: "Why don't you skip the part where someone gets killed, even if you have to lock him up?"—but 2,400 people are already detained each year in King County under the state's involuntary-commitment statute. Though dentention didn't happen in LaRosa's case, it does happen, quite frequently, when authorities investigate and deem citizens a threat to public safety (or themselves) under strict state guidelines.
That's why Shoenfeld and others see the looming budget cuts that will pull tens of millions of dollars in mental heath funding out of Washington's safety net as an imminent threat to public safety. For example, Shoenfeld reminds us that even at the rate that involuntary commitment happens now, he doesn't have enough beds for all of the involuntarily committed in King County—and he'll have even fewer if expected cuts go through.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents over 2,500 mental health workers in this state, recently issued a white paper calling crimes such as the hatchet murder "siren warnings of a state mental healthcare safety net in deepening crisis" and calling on state legislators to avoid further cuts. Few expect they'll be able to. "They don't have a lot of options," says Shoenfeld.
It's a problem that's being replicated, in one form or another, across almost all areas of public mental health services.
"I really don't know what's going to happen," Shoenfeld says. "We have to cut some really critical programs. This really is the limit."
Matt Luby and David Trujillo contributed research to this article.
This article has been updated since its original publication.