After a high-profile incident last month, officials insisted that escapes were rare. An Associated Press review found otherwise: 185 instances of patients escaping or walking away since 2013.
LAKEWOOD, Pierce County — When a man accused of torturing a woman to death broke out of Washington state’s largest mental hospital with another patient in early April, officials called it a rare occurrence and cited only two other escapes in the past seven years.
But a review of police reports and interviews by The Associated Press reveal 185 instances in which Western State Hospital patients escaped or walked away over the past 3 ½ years or so.
Patients have bolted out unsecured doors, jumped over fences, crawled out windows, run away from staff during off-campus appointments and wandered off after being allowed outside the building.
Some returned on their own within hours, but many disappeared for weeks or longer. Police captured them down the street, in nearby cities, in faraway counties and in other states. Others were never found.
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At least five patients committed assaults or other offenses while they were out, authorities said.
Lakewood police reports obtained by the AP through a public-records request list the incidents differently depending on the circumstances of the disappearance or who wrote the report, but the files show 71 “AWOL” patients, 43 escapes, 70 missing persons and one unauthorized leave between the start of 2013 and late April of this year.
Dennis Brockschmidt, a nurse at the institution for 18 years, said it is easy for patients to get out.
“It has happened many times,” he said, recalling one patient who kicked out windows and others who picked locks with paper clips. One patient tossed his mattress out a third-story window and jumped, Brockschmidt said. He broke his leg but made it to a city 25 miles away before getting caught. He tried again six more times, the nurse said.
Kathy Spears, spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services, said escapes from inside the hospital are “extremely rare.”
She said most reports to local police involve patients who don’t return after being allowed to leave hospital grounds for a short time — a practice intended to help them ease their way back into the community.
“We continue to make adjustments to our policies on grounds privileges so they meet the recovery needs of the patients, while keeping them, staff and the community safe,” Spears said in a statement.
Most of the missing patients were held under Washington’s involuntary commitment law, which says people can be locked up if a mental disorder makes them a danger to themselves or others. Some of the missing had been hospitalized after being charged with such crimes as murder, rape, kidnapping, assault and robbery.
Yet in most cases, the staffer who reported the escape wrote “no” in the box that said “Dangerous.”
“For God’s sake, many of these people are seriously dangerous,” said Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic psychiatrist in Seattle who has worked on civil-commitment cases for years. He said patients flee without medications or a treatment plan.
In the April 6 escape that exposed security weaknesses at the 800-bed psychiatric hospital, Anthony Garver and another man broke out of their locked unit by crawling out of a window of their ground-floor room. Garver, 28, had been institutionalized after being found incompetent to stand trial on charges of murdering a woman by tying her up with electrical cords, stabbing her 24 times and slashing her throat.
His fellow patient, Mark Alexander Adams, was caught the morning after the escape 27 miles away. Garver rode a bus 300 miles to Spokane and hid in the woods near his parents’ house for two days before he was found by a search dog. Both men were captured without incident.
Gov. Jay Inslee reacted by firing the hospital’s CEO, and the Corrections Department was brought in to inspect the building for security improvements. The department closed the ward where the escapees had been living and moved similar patients to a more secure area.
Even before the breakout, federal regulators had threatened to cut millions in funding for the hospital because of patient attacks on staff members and other patients.
When Garver was captured, the sheriff in Spokane criticized the state for not keeping a violent criminal locked up. Lakewood Assistant Police Chief John Unfred responded: “Welcome to our world.”
The institution is “right in the middle of our community,” said Unfred, whose city of 58,000 people is about 40 miles from Seattle and 10 miles from Tacoma. Most of the patients haven’t been charged with a crime so they can’t be treated like jail inmates, he said, “but there has got to be a way to keep them secure and safe.”
The sprawling multistory brick building is surrounded by a waist-high stone fence but has no barbed wire or guard towers. Patients are kept in locked wards with varying levels of security.
Depending on how well they have responded to treatment, some patients are allowed out on the grounds. Others can venture beyond the property, some with an escort, some without.
Across the street are a soccer and baseball field, playground and park. Steilacoom High School sits on one corner of the hospital grounds, and runaway patients sometimes head in that direction, forcing the school into lockdown.
Thomas Shaw, who lives in a nearby apartment, said he sees patients around town. He said they don’t bother him as long as they’re quiet, but he steps in or calls the police if they get aggressive.
Shaw and others said they generally feel safe because they believe patients who have permission to be outside are harmless and the ones who escape flee the area.
But that’s not always the case. A patient who was at the hospital in 2002 for a competency evaluation after being arrested on burglary and animal-cruelty charges climbed a security fence and escaped. He tried to get into one nearby home and ran in and out of another before being caught.
Of the 185 escapes or walk-offs, the public was never notified at the time about 180 of them, even though many of them had violent histories, were felons or registered sex offenders, or were the subject of protection orders.
Henry Richards, a forensic psychologist who was chairman of the state’s Public Safety Review Panel until 2014, said the hospital “has not done a good job of knowing which patients were missing or where they were.”
In some cases, hospital officials gave police incorrect information on the status of escaped patients, such as whether their commitment periods were up, according to the police files.
A staffer told police that a patient who disappeared in 2014 returned the same day, but a later report said the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office picked him up five days after he skipped out. After Garver broke out, someone at the hospital filed paperwork wrongly releasing him from his state commitment.
Spears, the social-services spokeswoman, said letting patients out is part of treatment because it helps them become more comfortable around other people.
But Richards said the hospital needs to “tighten up those privileges.”
“The perceived needs of the patients took priority over public safety concerns,” he said.