“To gently hug Maria, a frail 52-year-old, is to comfort a woman police say was raped while she was in the care of mental health experts. Like many low-functioning people, Maria is sweet and trusting. She gives me a quick kiss on the cheek after an afternoon filled with her tale of horror and tears. As we say our good-byes, Maria’s sister, niece and nephew express surprise at her gesture.
It’s been more than two years since Santa Ana police concluded Maria was assaulted by a man housed directly across the hall from her. Perhaps Maria’s peck is a positive sign, a signal of some healing after what police and court documents say she went through while in a private facility the county assigned her. But days later, I discover that a disconnect between the District Attorney’s Office and police may mean the suspect is on the streets. Some would argue there are only victims in this story. They would point out our mental health system is financially strapped and overburdened. They would say that the 5-foot-10, 225-pound paranoid schizophrenic man who police believe lured Maria into his room and assaulted her in his bathroom also is a victim.
In some respects, those points are true. But no one should compare Maria’s ordeal to the suspect’s challenges nor should they excuse a system that fails to protect or allows predators to slip free. An official at the facility where the suspect was housed told police the suspect was a ward of the state. Before the incident with Maria, he was transferred from one mental health facility to the next. The reasons for the transfer remain murky. A month before the alleged rape in February 2010, court records state the examining physician described the suspect as “psychotic, disorganized, delusional.” The doctor added that the suspect was known to inappropriately touch peers and was considered “dangerous to others.”
Along with interviewing Maria and family members, I also talked to officials at the District Attorney’s office, staffers at the facility where the suspect was believed to have been transferred (Citing privacy laws, they declined comment.), lawyers, the facility where Maria was housed (They avoided comment.) and police. Additionally, I reviewed legal briefs, physician reports, Department of Health Care Services documents, conservator papers, the forensic rape report and a recording of the police interview with the suspect.
Here’s a slice of what I heard listening to the nearly hour-long police interview: “I do have visionary accountings of voices and visions. OK, that’s something that’s a gift I think…But before I strike out at other people, in fact, I take it out on myself.”Of Maria’s injuries, court documents describe them as “multiple bruises, abrasions on knees, shins, genital area.” The suspect told police that sex with Maria was consensual.
Maria’s family attributes some of Maria’s challenges to a brain tumor, others congenital. They took care of her until six months before the alleged rape. Maria’s mother took charge until it was time for her to go to work selling ice cream from a cart. Then her sister took care until it was time for her to go work at a fast food franchise. Then her niece and nephew traded off. But as Maria grew older, the medicine for her seizures grew more expensive. Finally, the family could no longer afford the meds. They had a discussion and cried over the decision they already knew was necessary. They needed to turn Maria over to the county. Conservator proceedings concluded and in August 2009, Maria entered Royale Health Care Center in Santa Ana.
In documents, Maria’s physician describes her as “easily confused” and needing “help with basic tasks such as obtaining meals and taking her medication.” Police also noted that Maria has difficulty opening her hand and grasping things because of webbing between her left thumb and pinky. They wrote she has “limited vocabulary, (and is) easily confused by simple questions.” The investigating officer adds that it “almost seemed like she felt she was in trouble for what had occurred.” Still – as with the suspect – police say Maria understands right from wrong. Maria reported she told the suspect “No, no, no.”
According to police documents, the suspect told officers he “had several other sexual encounters with other patients at other mental health facilities.” Questions remain two years after the attack. One question is why would mental health experts place such a man in a room across a hallway from such a woman? Answers to Royale’s decisions about the proximity of the suspect’s room and Maria’s room are difficult to come by. Royale Administrator Michael Pierson didn’t return a series of phone calls over several days. I was not allowed to meet him on a visit to the office. Royale’s attorney didn’t return my messages left on voicemail and with a receptionist.
Guldjian represents the family in a civil case against the facility. Damages are unspecified and the case is scheduled to go to trial in two weeks. The attorney calls the mental health system broken. In court documents to have the lawsuit thrown out (it wasn’t), Royale noted that Maria was checked every 15 minutes and was “appropriately monitored.” Royale, the motion states, “complied with the applicable standard of care in the care and treatment of plaintiff.”
The police investigation states that Royale’s program director identified the incident as a rape. The motion doesn’t dispute that. Rather, Royale notes the facility took an active role in reporting the incident to police within an hour after Maria was seen leaving the suspect’s room.
After being arrested, the suspect was jailed briefly and then sent to another mental health facility. Apparently, he was later released. Guldjian says his firm spent thousands of dollars trying to track down the suspect. They hired a private investigator and contacted every mental health facility in the area. Nothing. But something else may be broken beside the mental health system. Somewhere, the wheels of justice came to a grinding halt. Santa Ana police forwarded their report to the District Attorney’s Office. They recommended two formal charges: “oral copulation without consent: state hospital” and “rape when victim (is) incapable of giving consent.”
Spokeswoman Farrah Emami says the District Attorney’s Office declined to file the charges “pending further investigation.” She explained that the case was sent back to the Santa Ana Police Department. But Sgt. Gerry Serrano tells me police didn’t receive the bounce-back. It wasn’t until after my call that Serrano learned the D.A. asked officers to re-interview Maria and the suspect. The department is now trying to do that.
Maria’s family took her home immediately after she was discharged from the hospital after the alleged rape. She’s lived there ever since. The family says they’re not comfortable placing her elsewhere. With Maria’s nephew translating, I talk to Maria’s sister. During a long and difficult conversation, the sister breaks down, sobbing at what Maria has gone through. “I feel really bad,” she says in Spanish, wiping away tears. “I feel responsible for her being (at the facility) in the first place.” As her sister cries, Maria looks down. When her mother is working, Maria often paces up and down the sidewalk directly in front of her home. No one is concerned Maria will wander off. She’s too afraid.”
David Whiting: OC Register