In March 2008, a tall, tough-looking man walked into a financial-services firm in King County and began taking notes. His name, according to court records: Isaiah M. Kalebu. He'd arrived with his pit bull, Indo, and during a break from the note-taking he informed a secretary that he was the rightful owner of the firm's building. He said he'd bought the property using proceeds from the sugar trade, but it had since been stolen from him. Then he wandered around, telling various people they were fired before making himself and Indo comfortable in the conference room.
Police were called. Kalebu, 22 years old at the time, was taken to the Psychiatric Emergency Services division at Harborview Medical Center for evaluation. In conversations with staff there, his mother, Denise Kalebu, said that for the past two months her son had been behaving unusually. He slept only three hours a night but appeared completely rested. He spoke so rapidly, it was hard to find space for interruption. Some things he said were wildly grandiose: "I'm the king," for example, or that he was the president of the United States but had recently resigned. He was irritable, unfocused, hostile to people he believed had done him wrong. He said he was going to steal his mother's grandchildren and take them to Africa.
Asked about all of this by Harborview staff, Kalebu denied it. Nothing was at all unusual about the last two months, he said, save for his becoming more enlightened and "being in the zone."
He made it perfectly clear: He was "not crazy."
The staff at Harborview noted Kalebu's pressured speech, intense mood, tangential thoughts, intrusiveness toward other patients, and an odd smile—it seemed disconnected from the realities of the moment, a sign of what psychiatrists call a "labile affect," or, in more evocative terms, emotional incontinence. Their diagnosis: bipolar disorder, manic.
It's a diagnosis that can suggest a heightened risk of violence, and after spending some time with Kalebu, Harborview staff came to believe that his impulsivity, combined with worrisome statements he was making, "placed him at imminent risk of hurting others." A mental-health professional, employed by King County and authorized to involuntarily commit Kalebu if necessary, was summoned. The mental-health professional decided to let Kalebu go free.
That episode was the first of a number of missed opportunities to detain and effectively treat Kalebu in the 16 months leading up to the July 19 attack inside the South Park home of Teresa Butz. Kalebu, linked to the crime by fingerprint and DNA evidence, is alleged to have climbed through the home's bathroom window at around 3:00 a.m., raped Butz and her partner at knifepoint, and stabbed them both as they began to fight back. Butz, 39, was a downtown Seattle property manager and a volunteer board member for a group devoted to helping the homeless. She died after running naked into the street in front of her house, screaming out what had been done to her and the woman she was planning to marry.
The brutality of the assault, its apparent randomness, the death of a woman who'd committed herself to helping others, and the arrest, five days later, of a man with a history of instability—it all recalled another crime, the murder of Shannon Harps as she walked into her Capitol Hill building on December 31, 2007. In that attack, Harps, 31, an organizer for Sierra Club, was stabbed repeatedly by a man wielding a butcher knife and commanding her to die. It turned out that Harps's killer, James Anthony Williams, had serious psychological issues and a long criminal history. He'd been released from prison the year previous after serving 11 years for randomly shooting a stranger at a bus stop. He'd been difficult to manage while he was locked up, and after prison he was kept under supervision as part of a state-funded program meant to prevent exactly the type of crime that ended up occurring. He had no connection to Harps other than finding her in his line of sight while he was off his medication.
Though disturbingly similar, the stories of Isaiah Kalebu and James Anthony Williams differ in at least one important respect. While Williams had a clear and lengthy record of criminal violence connected to his psychological instability, Kalebu had essentially no criminal record—other than a juvenile shoplifting violation—when police delivered him to Harborview in March 2008. Beyond that, though, is an achingly familiar series of institutional failures.
The case of Kalebu involves human error, incompatible computer systems, and one troubled and violent individual. It also involves a dangerous trajectory that was not recognized by those in the local mental-health and judicial systems who were in charge of deciding what to do with Kalebu—in part because of a previously unexamined vulnerability in the publicly financed system that struggles to control those among us with the most terrifyingly uncontrollable psyches.
It's a system with the frustrating distinction of being both widely criticized and chronically underfunded. It allowed Kalebu to continue living his normal life when he should have been contained, as is apparent in nearly 100 pages of court and police records that Kalebu generated over the 16 months following his examination at Harborview, as well as in videos of his numerous courtroom appearances during that period.
Viewed chronologically, the records make it clear that Kalebu gave plenty of people cause for concern over those 16 months leading up to the murder of Teresa Butz—and that, in the process, he racked up an alarming list of reports and criminal allegations. He threatened to kill his own mother. He verbally harassed a female staff member at Western State Hospital, where his mental competency was being evaluated. He got into a standoff with Pierce County police officers and had to be forcibly subdued. He frightened his 61-year-old aunt so much that she kicked him out of her apartment and filed for a restraining order against him. Shortly thereafter, the aunt's apartment went up in flames, killing her. Kalebu remains a "person of interest" in the arson investigation.
Twice during this period, a state psychologist warned in reports to King County Superior Court that Kalebu represented "an elevated risk for future danger to others and for committing future criminal acts." Nevertheless, six days before the murder of Butz, superior court judge Brian Gain allowed Kalebu to go free, essentially placing him in charge of his own psychological treatment.
Dr. David Lovell, a professor of psychosocial health at the University of Washington, was part of a panel of experts set up after the Harps murder to determine how to strengthen the state's limited system for supervising what it calls dangerously mentally ill offenders. That report, delivered last year, ran 162 pages and included 76 possible reforms—of which only a few minor reforms have been implemented. After hearing about Kalebu's record prior to the murder of Butz, Lovell said the case resembles the Harps murder in one major respect. "In retrospect, you see lots of signs of someone losing control of his executive function—not being able to make rational decisions, losing control of his impulses," Lovell said. "When there are multiple signs that a person is going off the rails, I think many people think that we need a system that is more responsive to that."
This year in the state legislature, some of the Harps panel's recommendations for patching the cracks that Williams slipped through were dropped into three proposed bills. Only two of those bills passed, neither representing a major improvement. For example, one of the bills changed the name of the state's Dangerously Mentally Ill Offender Program to something more anodyne: the Offender Reentry Community Safety Program. Meanwhile, the legislature, facing a severe budget shortfall due to the recession, slashed funding for the community supervision programs that had failed to halt Harps's murderer in the first place. King County's direct allocation for administering similar programs went from $400,000 last year to $0 for this year and next.
The Offender Reentry Community Safety Program keeps tabs on dangerously unstable offenders with a known criminal history (people like Williams). But the state has no organized program for keeping tabs on unstable people like Kalebu—people with no prior criminal convictions who have recently been diagnosed with serious psychological problems and charged with violent offenses but have been set free while they await trial.
In other words, even if all of the reforms proposed by the Harps panel had been enacted by the legislature this year, they wouldn't have had any impact on the alleged chain of events that led to Butz's murder. That's because in the case of Kalebu, there's no program to reform. The mechanism for monitoring people like him cannot be fixed because it does not exist.
After the mental-health professional at Harborview let Kalebu go free, the newly diagnosed 22-year-old went back to an apartment in Burien where he was living with his mother. It couldn't have been a comfortable situation. Kalebu thought he was in exceptionally fine mental form. His mother desperately wanted him to take his medication.
Kalebu had a long-strained relationship with his family and was coming off a difficult period in his life. Born in the Seattle area, he lived with both of his parents—his father, an immigrant from Uganda, and his mother—until he was about 14 years old. After that, he was sent to boarding school because, he later told caseworkers at Western State, he was having trouble getting along with his mother and father. When he was in high school, Kalebu's parents divorced. Court records say his childhood was rough "due to neglect and abuse," that he was beaten, witnessed fights between his parents, and "developed a lot of anger." His father's cultural upbringing "did not include acceptance of mental disorders," and according to court records, "Mr. Kalebu described his mother as a 'drug addict' who is addicted to pain killers." She told mental-health professionals at Harborview that two of her relatives have schizophrenia. (At a recent hearing, Kalebu's mother pressed her forehead against a glass barrier to get a closer view of her son. After he was led back to jail, she told The Stranger she did not want to be interviewed. The Stranger also requested an interview with Kalebu through his defense attorney, Ramona Brandes of the Northwest Defenders Association, but was denied.)
After graduating from high school, Kalebu lived with his aunt and attended several years of college and technical school. "Mr. Kalebu and his aunt both reported that he was in a professional pilot program through one of the schools he attended," court records filed this year say, "but was disqualified from being a pilot due to color blindness about one year ago. According to his aunt, he was devastated when he found out that he could not continue with his pilot training, and returned to live with his mother in Seattle." Around this time, a grandmother he'd been close to died. Her death, according to the records, "had a negative impact on him."
Many people suffer through difficult childhoods, disappointing life events, and psychological instability. Not many people go on to do what Kalebu is now accused of doing. Still, to read Kalebu's court record is to gain an appreciation for the bleakness of the perceptually warped life he was leading. "Mr. Kalebu stated that he has had about twenty different jobs," the records say, "with an average length of employment of about one month. He reported that sometimes he quit and sometimes he was fired. He described his frequent employment changes as resulting from him having higher standards than others because he does not lie, cheat, or steal. He denied being married and reported that he has no children 'that I know of.' He denied any history of significant relationships; three months being his longest reported relationship."
In March 2008, there he was, back at his mother's house: a young man with no significant relationships, no possibility of becoming a pilot, no beloved grandmother, no steady employment. On top of this, his new belief that he'd earned vast riches from the sugar trade and his sudden feeling of powerful enlightenment were both being challenged. On March 29, 2008, one day after Harborview released him, Kalebu's mother told him that he could either take his medication or move out. She was concerned for her safety and the safety of her two younger children.
Kalebu got angry.
"Just leave," he said, according to an account in a police report. "Enjoy your last day on earth."
His mother grabbed a pair of scissors to defend herself.
Kalebu told her: "You're gonna die. You're no match for me. Those scissors are no match for me or my dog."
She fled the apartment with her two other children. She told Kalebu to stay put. "Go fuck yourself," he replied and walked past her with his pit bull and his backpack. As he passed, he turned and showed her a knife he was holding.
The next day—after allegedly returning to smash the windows of his mother's Ford Freestyle with a rock—Kalebu tracked down his mother at a family member's house, where she was hiding from him. She heard the glass in the front door smash and saw that a rock had landed inside the house. She saw Kalebu in the street outside, standing with his pit bull and yelling, "You're all dead." She and others inside the house went out to confront him, hoping to keep Kalebu there until police could come. He unleashed his dog and told it to attack his mother. When it failed to do so, he began swinging the dog's leash so that the chain portion became a weapon. He struck his mother in the head with it and twice pushed her to the ground. With the help of family members, she was able to subdue Kalebu, but he bit her on the leg in the process.
Eventually, law enforcement arrived.
"She could see Isaiah in the patrol car after deputies arrested him," the report says. "She saw him say 'You're all gonna die' while he smiled."
The normal course of events for someone charged with felony domestic violence and malicious mischief—the charges leveled at Kalebu after the fight with his mother—involves a speedy arraignment hearing at which the defendant gets to hear the accusations against him and then enters a plea: guilty or not guilty. Things proceed differently, however, if the defendant is suspected of being mentally incompetent. This was the case when Kalebu, wearing an orange prisoner jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back, appeared at the King County Regional Justice Center, inside the courtroom of Judge Brian Gain, on April 14, 2008.
The first thing out of the prosecutor's mouth was a request that Kalebu be involuntarily committed to Western State Hospital so that his mental competency could be evaluated. His public defender, Mary Ellen Ramey, said she'd spoken with Kalebu before the hearing, told him that before he could enter a plea this was going to happen, and that Kalebu had replied he was fine with the idea.
"I did not say that," Kalebu interrupted. "I did not agree to that. I'm not crazy. I don't feel like I need an evaluation."
Ramey, standing a good distance from her client, looked down and fidgeted nervously as Kalebu, shaking his head in frustration, continued. He told Judge Gain that he didn't want Ramey as his attorney if she was going to say things like that. The judge asked to read the charging documents, which involved four typed pages of single-spaced text describing the multiday clash between Kalebu and his mother. As the judge flipped through the pages, Kalebu again turned to Ramey.
"Was I unclear?" he asked angrily.
"You said..." she began.
He cut her off: "I said I did not want an evaluation."
"You said that you did."
"I do not want an evaluation. I'm saying it now. Again."
She took another step away from him. Judge Gain was still silently reading the charging documents. There was a long, awkward pause in the proceedings and then the judge looked up and asked Kalebu if he had been prescribed medication.
"I have not," Kalebu replied.
More uncomfortable silence passed as Judge Gain went back to reading the charging documents. He looked up again.
"I'm going to send you down to Western State," he said.
Kalebu leaned forward and said, "I have a question." A security guard, who'd been standing a couple feet behind Kalebu the whole time, took a few steps closer.
"When this gets bumped up to a higher jurisdiction, who do you think they're going to rule in favor of?" He was smiling that odd smile. He continued, "What do you think's going to happen?"
"They're going to want to know what your mental-health issues are," Judge Gain replied, calmly. "You can appeal if you'd like."
"I will," Kalebu said.
And then he leaned in again, looking directly at the judge. "My best recommendation for you," he said, "is to start saving all of your money, liquidating all of your assets. Because when we're done, you won't be able to buy and sell shit." The security guard was right behind him now, wearing rubber gloves and gesturing to the judge that he could remove Kalebu if need be.
"You just confirmed for me that you need to have somebody tell me what your mental-health issues are," Judge Gain said.
"That's fine with me," Kalebu replied. "See you guys in a month. That's plenty of time to save up, right? Better sell your house. Better sell your car. Better sell all your stuff."
"We'll see you, Mr. Kalebu," Judge Gain said as the security guard grabbed Kalebu's arm and led him away.
"I ain't gonna lose," Kalebu promised, sounding like a man who truly believed he'd been dealt a winning hand.
Kalebu arrived at Western State Hospital, southwest of Tacoma, where a collegiate-looking main building of brown brick sits on a serene, leafy campus. His competency evaluation began, court records show, with staff asking about his previous mental-health examination at Harborview.
Kalebu denied ever having had any contact with any mental-health professionals of any kind. He was angry, demanding, threatening, "and as a result was placed in restraints," according to a Western State forensic psychological report that was sealed by Judge Gain but, due to an apparent clerical error, obtained by The Stranger. The report notes that when Kalebu wasn't in restraints, he could be seen jumping on and off a table, pacing, or rushing away from the hospital staff members who were trying to keep him under observation. Chart notes show he was "verbally harassing a female staff assigned to monitor him." He was released from restraints after two days, "when he was able to acknowledge the antecedents to his behavior."
Once, asked what day it was, Kalebu replied: March 29, 2008.
It was as if time had stopped for him on March 29, the day his mother told him to take his medication or move out.
In fact, it was now April 30, 2008.
"He reported that on most days he feels 'ecstatic,'" say records from his time at Western State. "And that sometimes, when he feels 'ecstatic,' he may do things that get him into trouble. He described himself as a risk taker." In addition, Kalebu "indicated that he sometimes becomes depressed and cries when he drinks too much."
State psychologist Gregory M. Kramer ended up writing a 10-page report on Kalebu to Judge Gain. He said in his report that Kalebu was "relatively intelligent" and "demonstrated a solid knowledge of the legal system in general" but was too focused on blaming others—specifically his family and the way they had treated him in the past—for his predicament. These "rigid beliefs" prevented Kalebu from being able to "rationally consider legal alternatives" that his defense attorney might suggest.
"He reported that he would listen to the advice of counsel," Kramer wrote, "if she says 'things that I want her to say.'" Kalebu also told the state psychologist that he would refuse to consider an insanity or diminished-capacity defense. That kind of plea just didn't track with Kalebu's perception of himself.
"He denied having a mental disorder," Kramer wrote.
Kalebu was deemed incompetent. In the section of the report dedicated to judging Kalebu's dangerousness, Kramer wrote: "It is my professional opinion that he is currently an elevated risk for future danger to others and for committing future criminal acts jeopardizing public safety."
This was all relayed to Judge Gain in advance of a May 15, 2008, hearing in which the judge, citing Kramer's report, found Kalebu incompetent to stand trial and sent him back to Western State for "competency treatment."
"May I speak?" Kalebu asked the judge. "May I please speak?"
His hair was longer and his affect much more calm and considered than during his last appearance.
Earlier in the hearing, Kalebu had asked Ramey, his defense attorney, to object to his being sent back to Western State, and she'd done so on his behalf—while also telling the judge that she had no evidence to support the idea that Kalebu was competent.
"I feel that I am competent for trial," Kalebu told Judge Gain. "I feel that I knowingly committed the crime, and I'm not trying to undermine the authority of the court, and I feel like it would be a waste of state resources for me to go back to Western State."
The judge listened but told Kalebu he was finding him incompetent.
"May I ask why it is that I'm found incompetent?" Kalebu asked.
"You need to talk to your attorney," Judge Gain said. "I have a multiple-page report from the people down at Western State as to why they think you are unable to assist your council, so you need to talk to her. I am signing the order."
The next day, while he was awaiting transfer back to Western State, Kalebu was found in his jail cell with a piece of his clothing tied around his neck in what jail records describe as an apparent suicide attempt.
Nearly three months passed. At first, Kalebu continued to deny any psychological trouble to the staff at Western State. He glared wordlessly at one of his treatment providers for several minutes. He said his defense attorney was "not on my side" and, despite the recent finding that he was incompetent, described his ability for rational thought as a "superpower, considering the world we live in where nobody thinks rationally and logically." He got in physical fights with peers and once had to be taken to another hospital for treatment of his injuries. He was put on Zyprexa, an antipsychotic. Later, he began to take lithium for his bipolar diagnosis.
It's not clear whether Kalebu initially took the Zyprexa and lithium voluntarily—Judge Gain had given Western State the authority to administer medications to Kalebu against his will—but eventually, Western State staff noticed that Kalebu was becoming more emotionally stable, more clear about dates, less impulsive, less rigid, less grandiose, and slightly more willing to discuss his psychological instability. "He understood that others thought that he had a mental disorder and he acknowledged it was a possibility," Kramer wrote in his report on the second stay. "However, he stated that he wanted another opinion."
Kalebu ultimately told Western State staff that he was willing to take his medication after release, provided an outside mental-health worker told him he needed to.
He now seemed better able to make judgments about hypothetical legal proceedings—"For example, he acknowledged that if three family members/witnesses all testified to the same thing, that a trier of fact might be willing to believe three people over [himself]"—and Kramer, the state psychologist, therefore found him competent to stand trial.
But the finding was conditioned on Kalebu's continued willingness to take his medication. "Should he stop taking his medication and decompensate," Kramer wrote, "further assessment of his competency to stand trial would be warranted."
In this second report, Kramer diagnosed Kalebu as having "bipolar disorder not otherwise specified." He added that while Kalebu demonstrated behavior consistent with mania, "the full extent of his current disturbance is largely unknown due to his pattern of denial and likely minimization of his symptoms." It was possible, Kramer wrote, that Kalebu also had narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, even after watching Kalebu for four months, Western State could not firmly determine the nature and boundaries of his psychological problems.
Kalebu's dangerousness, however, was clear: still high.
"He is currently an above-average long-term risk for future danger to others and for committing future criminal acts," Kramer wrote in his second report to Judge Gain.
On August 6, 2008, Kalebu returned to Judge Gain's courtroom. His affect this time was even more subdued than before. His shoulders drooped. His speech was slow. He looked to have gained weight.
"He is on medication," Ramey, his defense attorney, said. "I find that the difference is amazing from when I first met him... I think that there's been a total turnaround here. The conversations I had with Mr. Kalebu yesterday were that of a normal client. He was not belligerent, he was not angry, and he just wants to see this through and see that the matter is resolved... So I would urge the court to find him competent."
"Mr. Kalebu," said Judge Gain. "What's your feeling about your mental health at this point?"
"I'm calm," Kalebu replied. "Fine, competent." He was almost bowing to the judge as he said this, still dressed in an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, but no longer looking the least bit threatening.
"Is the medication helping you?"
Judge Gain ruled him competent, and Kalebu proceeded to plead not guilty to the charges of felony domestic violence and malicious mischief for allegedly threatening to kill his mother.
Now came the question of whether to release him pending trial.
Kalebu had been in jail or at Western State for almost four months. His aunt, Rachel Kalebu, a teaching aide at Highline Community College, had come to court that day to make sure the judge knew her nephew would have a home if he were released. She promised to look after him and make sure he took his medication.
The prosecutor was skeptical about releasing Kalebu on his own personal recognizance—or "P.R." in court speak. "To just simply P.R. the defendant would be to rely on him to maintain compliance with his mental-health treatment and to take his medication," she told Judge Gain. "And as the court is probably aware... the issue with this case was the fact that he wasn't taking his medication."
It was a good point. Here was a man who had allegedly threatened to kill his own mother when she told him to take his meds, who maintained that he was perfectly fine even after a state psychologist and a judge found him mentally incompetent, who required four months of forced mental-health intervention before agreeing that he might have a mood disorder, who was ultimately deemed competent with the caveat that he had to stay on his medication for his competency to last, and who, even while on his medication, was still considered "an above-average long-term risk for future danger to others."
While considering what to do, Judge Gain said, "I don't want to be back in a circumstance where he's not taking his medication."
Kalebu didn't get to go free on that particular day in August 2008.
But shortly thereafter, once his aunt showed Judge Gain that she had an appointment set up for Kalebu with a private mental-health professional, the judge released Kalebu on his own personal recognizance—with a number of conditions. He was to have no alcohol or illegal drugs, possess no dangerous weapons, have no contact with his mother, take his medication as instructed, and provide his medical records to the court so that Judge Gain could monitor his treatment if need be.
Eight months passed with no significant events noted in Kalebu's court or police records. Then in late April of this year, Kalebu, wearing a black leather jacket, gray polo shirt, and blue jeans, showed up in court to plead guilty on all charges related to the fight with his mother.
Then, when he realized he would have to provide a DNA sample as part of his plea agreement, he fired Ramey, his only defense attorney so far, and withdrew his guilty plea.
(Asked via e-mail if she was ever threatened, intimidated, or made to feel unsafe by Kalebu, Ramey replied: "I was never threatened by him." Does that mean Kalebu did intimidate her and make her feel unsafe? "Obviously at the first hearing, his actions speak for themselves," she wrote back, referring to the April 14, 2008, hearing at which Kalebu ranted against the judge as Ramey kept a considerable physical distance between herself and her client.)
A trial on charges of threatening to kill his mother now seemed inevitable. And as that trial approached, Kalebu allegedly began doing things that violated the conditions of his pretrial release.
On July 8, his aunt, Rachel Kalebu, filed for a restraining order against Kalebu in Pierce County Superior Court claiming he had threatened her with physical violence. "I am a single woman who is 61 years old and I would like to have peace in my house," she wrote. "Isaiah has threatened to hurt me, to also hit me. I have been a prisoner in my own house."
She asked authorities to tell her nephew to take his medication. She asked them to tell him to return her computer bag (he had, she said, already "destroyed" her computer). She asked that she be allowed to keep the pit bull. ("I need to keep the dog Indo," she wrote. "He is innocent.") And she begged the court to look at a recent incident in which Kalebu had been arrested in the city of University Place, south of Tacoma. She even provided the case number.
The restraining order Rachel Kalebu filed for was never served on Kalebu. There wasn't much point because, by the next day, Rachel Kalebu was dead, killed in a suspicious arson for which her nephew would almost immediately become a person of interest.
In the police report that Rachel Kalebu pointed authorities toward the day before she was killed, there's further reason to have revoked Kalebu's pretrial release.
On June 29, the report says, Kalebu was hanging out at a skate park in University Place with Indo. Dogs must be on leashes in this park, but Kalebu was flouting the rule in a rather ingenious manner: He'd attached a leash to Indo, but then he'd let go of the leash so the pit bull could wander about, dragging the leash behind him.
An animal-control officer told Kalebu he needed to hold on to his dog's leash. "The defendant flipped him off and then made sexual and derogatory remarks and started to approach him," the report says. "The defendant started to follow him around the parking lot and only stopped when police arrived."
When police officers confronted Kalebu, the reports says, he had "the large pit bull in one hand and a golf club in the other." They told him to put the golf club down. Kalebu did. They asked him why he was harassing the animal-control officer. Kalebu said it was an expression of free speech.
They asked him for identification. Kalebu refused and declined to give his name. They threatened Kalebu with arrest. Go ahead, he told them.
Place your hands behind your back and let go of the dog, the officers said. Kalebu refused. Comply or be tased, they said. Kalebu refused to comply.
"Tasers were deployed," the report states, "but not effectively. The defendant's dog became agitated and [Kalebu] picked up the golf club."
The officers then shot Kalebu with nonlethal bean-bag rounds, tased him again, took him into custody, and charged him with obstructing a law-enforcement officer and resisting arrest. The next day he was released, pending trial, by Judge Pat O'Malley of Pierce County District Court.
On July 13—two weeks after the dog-leash incident, four days after the death of Rachel Kalebu, and six days before the murder or Teresa Butz—Isaiah Kalebu was back in Judge Gain's courtroom. He wore a black sweater over a white collared shirt. His hair was neatly trimmed.
This was ostensibly a hearing to discuss Kalebu's upcoming trial for allegedly threatening to kill his mother, but a good portion of the time was devoted to the question of whether Kalebu should still be allowed to remain free.
"Your honor," said King County deputy prosecutor Zac Hostetter after dealing with some initial matters, "there's also pending charges that have come in Pierce County for obstruction and resisting arrest."
Hostetter knew about those charges because, sometime before the hearing, he'd logged on to an antiquated computer system used by the prosecutor's office, typed in Kalebu's name, and been delivered a very basic form that told him just two bits of information about the June 29 standoff Kalebu had with law enforcement: "obstruction" and "resisting arrest."
This computer system has been with the prosecutor's office since the late 1970s. The county has provided funds for its replacement, but the prosecutor's office is still in the process of figuring out which new system it wants to buy.
Someday, deputy prosecutors like Hostetter will be able to pull up complete police reports for recent incidents in other jurisdictions, like the dog-leash incident Kalebu was allegedly involved in. But absent a new computer system, they'll have to do what Hostetter did before the July 13 hearing: Call Pierce County and hope for an answer. As it turns out, when Hostetter called, he got voice mail. According to Ian Goodhew, spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's Office, Hostetter left a message—but it wasn't until days after the July 13 hearing that he received, via snail mail, the police report from Pierce County detailing the incident involving Kalebu, the pit bull, the leash, the golf club, and the Taser.
Hostetter also didn't know about the restraining order Rachel Kalebu had filed against her nephew. The computer system couldn't tell him anything about that.
According to Goodhew, Hostetter did know that Rachel Kalebu, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on her nephew and assuring he took his medication, was now dead. So did Judge Gain. It had come up at a hearing the previous week. But Hostetter didn't bring it up again.
Instead, what Hostetter presented at this July 13 hearing was relatively thin. He told the judge that, in addition to the new obstruction and resisting-arrest charges, Kalebu had recently been detained by police for "an investigation of an arson that he has since been released on." He didn't make it explicit that this was the arson that killed Kalebu's aunt, however—and, of course, he didn't have the restraining order.
Nevertheless, Hostetter tried to have Kalebu detained.
"The conditions of release that the court ordered back in August of 2008 included no law violations," Hostetter reminded Judge Gain. "There was some serious concern from the state at the outset of filing for mental-health issues, and the court released Mr. Kalebu on some strict instructions to follow the recommendations of his treatment provider and to take all his medications. I don't have any indications now that he has violated that in any way, but the concern to the state is, with the pending law violation, that he is, at the very least, unstable in the sense that he's not abiding by his conditions."
In other words: Hostetter couldn't prove Kalebu was off his medication, but was arguing that Kalebu's multiple recent interactions with law enforcement suggested instability. Hostetter asked for $50,000 bail, which would have resulted in Kalebu being taken into custody that day. Judge Gain immediately denied the request.
Hostetter could have made a much more powerful case for holding Kalebu had he explicitly reminded the judge about Rachel Kalebu's death by fire, told him of her attempt at a restraining order against her nephew just before the arson, and laid out the details of the confrontation Kalebu had with police in the Pierce County park. But because of the antiquated computer system, most of this information was unavailable when he needed it.
Still, it would also have been within Judge Gain's power to order Kalebu held based simply on what little Hostetter had told him about Kalebu's recent run-ins with the law. After all, Judge Gain knew of Kalebu's history of resistance to taking medication. He'd been warned twice of Kalebu's long-term danger and likelihood of committing future crimes, and he'd experienced Kalebu's anger and strange outbursts himself; he was the same judge whom Kalebu had threatened with financial ruin. Even with the relatively weak case that Hostetter was making, there was ample justification to preemptively hold Kalebu until the judge was certain Kalebu was, indeed, complying with his release conditions.
Rules laid down by the Washington State Supreme Court say a judge can revoke pretrial release "at any time" if circumstances change, and that among the reasons for detaining a criminal suspect pending trial are concerns about his mental condition, worries that the accused is likely to commit a future violent crime, and reasonable fear that he won't appear for future court dates. (Just three days earlier, Kalebu had missed a scheduled court appearance, probably because of the arson investigation, and Hostetter had asked for—and been denied by Judge Gain—a bench warrant for his arrest.)
But Judge Gain, who has declined all requests to talk about the case, decided to give Kalebu the benefit of the doubt. The judge asked that Kalebu return in about two weeks' time with an update from his treatment provider.
"I am concerned about all of this," Judge Gain said. But, looking ahead to the requested mental-health update, he added: "Assuming that he's complying with his medications and any other recommendations, then that will be the end of it."
Less than a week later, Teresa Butz was dead.
Isaiah Kalebu is now being held on $10 million bail. If he's ultimately found guilty of raping two women at knifepoint and stabbing one of them to death, the attacks will represent a leap in Kalebu's known level of violence, but not an unimaginable one.
Looking back over the 16 months that began with Kalebu's trip to Harborview, there appears to be a pattern of hostility toward women: his mother, his aunt, his first defense attorney, the female staff member at Western State. Others, both men and women, he'd threatened with overt or implied physical violence. He'd shown a cavalier attitude toward the law. And, evidenced by statements he made, he had a tendency toward feelings of omnipotence and infallibility that had little connection to reality—a belief, you could argue, that he was the sort of person who could get away with murder.
On July 21, two days after Butz was killed and three days before Kalebu was arrested and charged with the crime, he showed up at the King County Regional Justice Center. He had Indo with him, and he managed to talk the pit bull's way into Judge Gain's courtroom for another hearing on the question of when to hold his trial for allegedly threatening to kill his mother.
"Deputies inquired of Mr. Kalebu as to whether his dog was a service dog, and he answered affirmatively," said court administrator Paul Sherfey. "Per the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are required to allow an animal to accompany the person, and do not have a way of verifying whether the animal is in fact a service animal."
That day's discussion—with Indo standing next to Kalebu and then lying down in front of the judge's bench—was brief and basic. It was agreed they'd all meet two days later to reconsider when to hold the trial, and Kalebu left with Indo, wearing an extremely oversize blue T-shirt and looking like he might be homeless. (Given the fire at his aunt's, he may well have been.)
Somebody in the courtroom alerted the King County Sheriff's Office about the dog, and for the next hearing, on July 23, a large crew of deputies and animal-control officers were waiting. "We knew how volatile he is," said John Urquhart, spokesman for the sheriff's office. "We knew that we needed a lot of deputies around, because we knew that if he decided to fight, it was going to be a knock-down drag-out." This time they determined that Indo was not, in fact, a service animal. Kalebu was displeased, but saw he was outnumbered.
During the hearing, Kalebu demonstrated his pre–Western State levels of cockiness. He grew angry when the judge decided to slightly delay the date of Kalebu's trial for allegedly threatening his mother. He expressed dissatisfaction with his new public defender. (This was his third public defender. His second, a woman named Theresa Griffin, withdrew from the case on July 21. No explanation for Griffin's withdrawal has been given by her or the judge—the only two people who know why she made the decision—and none, legally, is required.)
Next, Kalebu lectured the judge: "It's not gonna go to trial," he said. "It's gonna be dismissed. My mother already indicated the fact that she wishes not to testify, so you guys are just wasting my time at this point. All we need to do is set the date, we have the date, she decides not to testify, and that's the end of it. So we're just going through the motions right now, and I don't really see the point in all this."
When Kalebu's new defense attorney asked to delay the mental-health update Judge Gain had requested, the judge was adamantly opposed. "I need to see [the mental-health update]," he said, interrupting the defense attorney. "I need to be assured that he is in mental-health treatment and is taking medication, or I can't take the risk of having him out of custody... I need to have that. I need to have that. There are some other problems, and when I did not [hold him in custody] last time I indicated I needed that."
It's not clear what "other problems" Judge Gain was talking about, but the killing and rapes in South Park were getting wide media coverage at that point, and an intense hunt for the suspect—vaguely described as a tall, muscular black man—was on. Perhaps the judge had suspicions. Or perhaps Theresa Griffin told him something when she withdrew that made him more concerned about Kalebu. Perhaps it was a misstatement. Only Judge Gain knows, and he's not saying.
That day in court, Kalebu was wearing a green jacket.
He would be arrested the next day wearing a green jacket, and on that green jacket, according to police, was blood. If it was the same green jacket that he was wearing in court on July 23, and if there was indeed blood on it, and if it turns out that the blood was from the murder of Teresa Butz, then there was an additional, chilling subtext to the July 23 hearing: a man, standing in the court of the judge who freed him, wearing the blood of a woman whom he used that freedom to kill.
Why are people like Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?
In part, it's a consequence of the same due-process protections and civil liberties that all citizens enjoy. After all, among the most basic of American rights is the idea that if an accused person is deemed competent to stand trial, and the presiding judge can't find good reason to detain this individual, then the accused should be released until he or she has an opportunity to face any accusers, present evidence, and be judged guilty or not guilty.
But in larger part, it's a consequence of the deinstitutionalization of America's psychologically unstable population in recent decades, a move that was itself a reaction to the horrors and abuses of the 1950s and '60s, when around 550,000 people were being confined at mental hospitals around the country. Today that number is closer to 70,000. "If you thought someone was crazy, and you could get a doctor to go along, they were in," said Dr. Lovell, the University of Washington professor who served on the Harps panel. "And if you got angry and desperate to prove that you were not crazy, that was further proof of your diagnosis. It was a catch-22 and no one wants to go back there." Hence, once Kalebu was deemed competent by Western State, the mental-health system, now geared toward reintegrating the psychologically unstable into society, didn't want to hold Kalebu anymore. It essentially turned two long psychological reports over to Judge Gain and then left the judge—who sees as many as 50 criminal defendants every day—to play the role of chief social worker and lead psychologist, supervising Kalebu's pretrial mental-health treatment from his courtroom.
There are no statistics on how often psychologically unstable people commit violent crimes while free pending trial. But experts believe the incidence is low—a major reason this porous part of the monitoring system gets such little attention. They believe it's low because they know that the overwhelming majority of people with psychological instability do not commit violent crimes, and that of those who do, most don't reoffend after serving time. When the Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently set out to study the state's monitoring of dangerously unstable felons, Dr. Lovell was part of the project. He found that between 1996 and 2003, there were 956 psychologically unstable people in Washington State who were released from prison after serving sentences for violent felonies. Of that group, 21 committed a rape or murder within three years of their release.
It's a number no one finds acceptable, of course, but it's a low percentage of the whole: only 2.2 percent. But, comparing those odds of reoffense with the odds of reoffense among felons who haven't been deemed psychologically unstable, one finds yet another reason to improve the monitoring system. Data from a study Dr. Lovell conducted in the late 1990s in Washington State showed that among violent felons with no diagnosed psychological problems, the percentage who commit new violent felonies after their release from prison was lower: just 1.2 percent.
But here's the thing: In places with better funded, more robust monitoring and treatment systems, that kind of comparison of felon populations can produce the opposite result. In Canada, for example, schizophrenic violent felons are less likely than psychologically stable violent felons to engage in another violent felony after their release from prison.
Dr. Murray Hart, of Western State Hospital, said there's an obvious reason judges continue, despite the failings of the current system, to let people like Kalebu go free pending trial.
"It must work," Hart said. "If it was a total failure all the time, courts wouldn't do it... An awful lot of people are put out on personal recognizance and don't get back into trouble."
But, Hart admitted, there are some total failures.
"I would imagine this is such a case," he said.
Judges, Hart said, have a responsibility to consider the entire case history before releasing a psychologically unstable defendant. "We would hope that the courts who put these people out on these conditions, that they would appreciate the data that they have at their disposal," Hart said. "I'm not sure they always do."
Once defendants like Kalebu are released, there's no organized program for monitoring them.
"It would be a good idea if there were interdisciplinary teams that would involve the mental-health professionals in an advisory capacity," Lovell said. It might also be a good idea, he suggested, to always have a mental-health professional in court with defendants like Kalebu. "If there had been someone right there in the court to do that checking, to hear perhaps a fuller explanation of the incident that the prosecution reported [on July 13], then perhaps quicker action could have been taken," Lovell said. He further suggested that once a mentally unstable defendant becomes homeless—which Kalebu probably was after his aunt was killed in her burning apartment—there should be heightened scrutiny. "Because, at that point, you don't have someone seeing to it that they're taking their medication," Lovell said. "And that itself should call for a more intense level of intervention."
How much would it cost to have a more robust monitoring system in Washington State? Millions of dollars at a time when the state is slashing funding for the limited programs that are already in place. "But," said Dr. Lovell, "assuming that it worked, and you actually had people being diverted, and people being referred for hospitalization who need to be hospitalized—compared to the cost of the crime itself, and the cost of prosecuting people and incarcerating people, it might pay for itself."
It also might spare more families the pain of horrific, random loss. Adam Butz, 28, the oldest nephew of Teresa Butz, said in an e-mail, writing on behalf of his family: "We are dismayed by the apparent failure of the criminal-justice system to detain a decidedly unstable individual given his severe manic diagnoses and history within the mental-health system. Hopefully, Teresa's brutal murder will highlight the current inadequacies of the mental-health and judicial institutions in handling mentally ill citizens, such as Mr. Kalebu, with a documented proclivity for erratic and violent behavior. While the presumption of innocence should remain the linchpin of our justice system, some urgency, increased public resources, and common sense can work to reduce the occurrence of these terrible atrocities in the future."
The day-to-day dangers and consequences of the current lack of monitoring are clear from an incident that occurred just hours before Kalebu was arrested for Butz's murder.
It was around 9:00 a.m. on July 24. According a King County Sheriff's report, Kalebu, riding a Metro bus running through the city of Des Moines, was in the type of mood that originally got him taken to Harborview in March 2008. "The driver didn't really know who he was dealing with until later," said Urquhart, the sheriff's spokesman. But the driver did remember that Kalebu had been on his route previously and failed to pay his fare, so he was keeping watch.
Kalebu was seated toward the back of the bus, making himself and Indo comfortable. "The pit bull was asleep and taking up three or four coach seats," the report states. "Other passengers had started to move up front."
Kalebu was unconcerned.
The driver asked Kalebu to take the dog off the seats. "Shut up and keep driving," he replied.
Passengers began yelling at Kalebu.
"Shut up," he told them.
Then he walked to the front of the bus with his pit bull and stood "directly over" the driver. Once again, Indo was on his leash but the leash was not being held. The pit bull was so close to the driver that the driver later described it as "basically in his lap."
The driver hit an alert button signaling Metro dispatch that he was in danger. "Kalebu then started using racial slurs, calling [the driver] a 'fucking wetback' while yelling at him," the report says. "He started saying things like 'If you don't learn how it works here, you should go back to Mexico. I am going to call Immigration and get you deported. You are a fucking servant and you drive from point A to point B to point C.'"
Police arrived. Once again—one last time—Kalebu was detained, investigated, and then freed.
Nine hours later, Kalebu was back on a Metro bus with his pit bull, riding near Magnuson Park. By this point, Seattle police were urgently searching for him. That afternoon, they'd connected evidence found at the crime scene in Butz's home to Kalebu's name and face (and an old surveillance video of him and Indo). They asked television stations and news websites to broadcast images of Kalebu and his dog in the hopes of tracking them down. They warned that Kalebu should be considered extremely dangerous.
Metro dispatch was asked to help, and it broadcast a description of Kalebu and his pit bull. The driver of the bus Kalebu was riding in North Seattle heard the broadcast, noticed Kalebu and Indo getting off the bus, and alerted police. They flooded the area with patrol cars and picked Kalebu up minutes later.
He now sits in a King County jail cell, awaiting a trial on charges of murder, attempted murder, rape, and burglary—charges to which he pleaded not guilty on August 12. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has indicated he will decide in six months whether to seek the death penalty.