The chief executive and the police chief in Anaconda say citizens are rightfully concerned that a man accused of fatally stabbing his grandmother in 2017 is back in the community, and they’re frustrated because there’s nothing they can do.
“The community is absolutely in an uproar about it,” Bill Everett, chief executive in Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, said Monday.
State officials say they can’t lawfully comment on anyone who has been civilly committed to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, or even confirm they were there. But they only release people when doctors have determined they are not a danger to themselves or others, and when that conclusion has been reached, they are bound by law to discharge them.
Everett says many residents have called and others have stopped by his office since it became publicly known last week that Tyler Daniel Smith had been released and is living in Anaconda again.
Vicki Smith, 64, was stabbed to death at her residence in Anaconda on May 22, 2017. Tyler Smith, who was 21 at the time, was arrested soon after the stabbing and charged with deliberate homicide.
But defense attorneys for Smith sought a mental health evaluation of their client and one was completed in November 2017. Its findings were not made public but pursuant to a judge’s order, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Attorney Ben Krakowka had to drop the criminal complaint and pursue commitment through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, or DPHHS.
Once the case was turned over to the state health agency, he said in a written statement last Wednesday, it “was the only entity that had any control over the continued placement of the defendant to ensure the safety of the community.”
“Apparently, they have made the decision to release him,” Krakowka said in the statement. “I strongly disagree with their assessment of his dangerousness and their decision to allow him back in the community."
Everett and Police Chief Tim Barkell said Monday that Smith is now living in a house two blocks from an elementary school and a middle school. Barkell said his department has not received any recent criminal complaints about Smith but added that city residents are very concerned.
Everett and Barkell also say another man who has been committed to the Montana State Hospital in nearby Warm Springs at least a dozen times was just released on Friday and was back in the community.
Everett, on advice from a county attorney, said he could not identify the man but said he had a violent criminal past. Barkell said the man led police on a high-speed chase exceeding 100 miles per hour sometime in the 1990s and he was later accused of assaulting staff members at the state hospital.
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In the first case, Barkell said, “they found him not competent and they ended up dropping the charges and he went to the state hospital and then was released within several months.”
He wasn’t sure what happened in the other case but knows he is now back in Anaconda.
“He is a big man and there are a lot of people who are afraid of him,” Barkell said.
DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt said last week that due to confidentiality, the agency “can’t provide information about MSH patients — past or current.” MHS stands for Montana State Hospital.
He sent a follow-up email saying MSH designs treatment planning around the individual needs of each patient, including medical and mental health treatment and personal life skills training. Once a patient is discharged from MSH, treatment plans continue to the next level of care specific to each patient, the email said.
“Once MSH medical staff determine it is safe for a civilly committed patient to be released — meaning they are no longer a danger to themselves or others through extensive mental health treatment, then they are released,” the email said.
Jorge Quintana, an attorney for DPHHS, reiterated those points during a conference call with The Montana Standard on Monday, as did Zoe Barnard, the agency’s addictive and mental disorders administrator.
She said the agency “walks a tightrope” because on one hand, the Montana State Hospital is obligated by law to provide the “least restrictive care” allowable in regards to a person’s mental condition.
On the other hand, once doctors determine someone is not a danger to himself or others, officials are required by law to discharge him, Barnard said. It’s a matter of civil liberties then, she said.
In some cases where people have been in and out of MSH repeatedly, they are discharged because medications make them not a danger, Barnard said. But former patients don’t always stick to medications and treatment plans, so they end up at MSH again.
Everett said the bottom line for Anaconda is that “there are people here who do not have the mental capacity to be in the community,” and something must be changed to address that.