Mental Illness Drove Capitol Hill’s Hatchet Killer
Mid-morning Monday, as snow was falling, Michael LaRosa walked up to a man he didn’t know and repeatedly struck the 58-year-old’s head with a hatchet, killing him, say Seattle police. The murder, on the 1400 block of East Union Street, occurred in view of students in a nearby school. (“I don’t know what came over me, because I’ve never done murder, you know,” LaRosa later told detectives.)
The Seattle Times contacted LaRosa’s half-brother, in Florida, who said LaRosa has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but occasionally believes he’s well enough to quit taking medication. “Since moving to Seattle nearly three years ago, LaRosa had become a patient at Sound Mental Health on Capitol Hill and enrolled in Seattle Mental Health Court as part of a 2009 municipal-court case involving an assault on a security guard,” reports the Times.
For Capitol Hill residents, those circumstances bring back all-too-vivid memories of the 2007 New Year’s Eve murder of Shannon Harps by a Sound Mental Health patient with paranoid schizophrenia. (CHS: “In 2009, James Williams, who was receiving treatment and medication from Sound Mental Health prior to his crime, pleaded guilty to the stabbing murder of 31-year-old Shannon Harps….”)
About a year ago, I wrote a piece called “King County’s Mental Health is Deteriorating,” based on an interview with Amnon Shoenfeld, director of the King County Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division. Schoenfeld mentioned the stress his department was under to deal with people whose mental illnesses made them unsafe for society, as funding was being cut for programs that paid for medications, and kept the dangerously unstable under constant supervision.
And unplanned pharmaceutical “vacations” can have serious side effects beyond the reappearance of the symptoms of mental illness. “For psychotropic medications in particular, there can be some real risks to just stopping medication without it being tapered down,” said Shoenfeld. “We know what happens when people who need it are unmedicated–they’re much more at risk for big problems, whether that’s violence toward themselves or violence toward others.”
Nothing has improved in the year since; more cuts have been made, and more are being planned. “Accessing mental health care in Washington State is difficult for most and impossible for many,” notes the Washington State Budget & Policy Center in their Progress Index. Now, we are considering the elimination of Washington Basic Health.
It’s symptomatic of the funding crisis that Sound Mental Health, a non-profit that successfully deals with thousands of patients each year, is also being asked to manage the care of people whose mental illnesses drive them to threaten actual staff–or, in this case, someone who was prone to “fits of rage” and who had taken a knife to a former girlfriend’s couch. LaRosa had been booked into jail three times this year, but, unsurprisingly, the jail time had no curative effect on his schizophrenia.
In better times, there might have been other alternatives, but with “no money” for around-the-clock psychiatric care, the default course, as it was in 2007, is to wait until someone is killed before taking on the burden of around-the-clock incarceration, instead.