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A missing man is found, but questions remain

Law EnforcementLos Angeles County-USC Medical CenterAmtrak

He was hungry, exhausted and confused. Mike Farrell, 73, couldn't grasp exactly how he had gotten into the predicament he was in or how to get out of it.

The former carpenter and schoolteacher — described by family as sweet-natured, well-educated and politically engaged — recalled being arrested and handcuffed after a traffic accident. He recalled being taken to Los Angeles County jail, and perhaps a hospital. But how had he ended up on the street with no money, phone or ID, no belt to hold up his pants, and without his anti-seizure medication? He found a place that he thought would be safe for the night, scrounged an empty container in case he needed to relieve himself and slept under some bushes near Union Station.

“How I could get down that low, that slumped, I don't know,” Farrell later told me.

Farrell's family has an explanation. He has begun to struggle with serious cognitive loss, they say. That's why they asked to be notified as to when he would be released from jail.

But let's go back to the afternoon of Oct. 31, when Farrell was driving to the Burbank airport from his home in Frazier Park to pick up a friend. As he recalls, traffic slowed abruptly. He swerved to avoid hitting the car in front of him and rammed his pickup truck into the center divider.

The CHP, finding Farrell confused, arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence. He and his family say that he has been a teetotaler for more than 30 years, and the results of an alcohol test were negative, according to his publicly appointed attorney, although drug results aren't in yet. Farrell was taken to Los Angeles County jail later that day, a Thursday, and appeared in court the following Monday.

Farrell and his wife, P.J., live separately, but remain in contact. She learned that he was expected to be released on his own recognizance later that day, and she called the jail to see when that might happen. Probably not until the next morning, she was told. Farrell's brother Tim drove to the jail that evening and was told the same thing — come back tomorrow at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.

“They assured me it would be seven or eight more hours,” Tim Farrell told me. “I said I needed to know for sure, because I know they release guys in the middle of the night…. I was adamant.”

Tim Farrell worried that his brother would have no idea how to get home, so he asked if someone could call him with a release time or at least leave his contact information with his brother's belongings. He wasn't sure Mike would remember a family phone number. But the jailer said it wasn't possible, according to Tim.

Before dawn the next morning, Tim Farrell went back to jail to get his brother and was told he was too late. Mike had been released several hours earlier, just after midnight.

Angry and worried, Tim Farrell searched downtown while his sister, Maureen, emailed me to ask for help. Several hours later, about mid-afternoon, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore had an update: Mike Farrell hadn't been released to the streets after all. He had been taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center by ambulance just after midnight and then “wandered off.”

The family was upset about having been misled. And they were upset too about the fact that when they called the hospital earlier that day — covering all the bases — they were told Mike had not been a patient.

I ran a short story and photo of Mike on latimes.com that day asking if anyone had seen him. The next morning, just as a reader emailed to tell me she thought she had spotted him at Union Station, an Amtrak security officer saw him too and alerted the Sheriff's Department, which by then had put out a bulletin.

When I got to Union Station, where Mike was being picked up by his sister, he was still fuzzy and appeared traumatized. He was feeling a little better when I met with him a few days later at his sister's house, and he's now under his wife's care and scheduled for a doctor's visit.

His family was still furious, though, about how the Sheriff's Department and county hospital could treat an elderly, confused man so shabbily. It took several days for them to track down his belongings, which were still at the jail.

Jail chief Teri McDonald told me that the matter is under investigation, but she apologized to Mike Farrell and his family and said that although it's difficult to handle thousands of releases weekly, the jail needs to do a better job.

“Much like the sheriff,” said Sean Henderson, head of emergency room at County-USC, “we didn't handle this as well as we should have.”

Henderson said that Farrell arrived after midnight and appeared to be “a little slow” in answering questions, so he was taken “to an area where we were going to put him in the next available bed.” At 2:30 a.m., the staff realized that he was gone, but it took four hours before they notified the Sheriff's Department.

“I apologize to the man and his family,” Henderson said, “and we're doing things we can to make this more efficient.”

“What the county could tell us is how they're changing procedures so this doesn't happen to someone else,” said Mike's sister, Maureen Doherty. “How could they let” such a disoriented “patient walk out the door?”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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