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Courts, doctors failed to spot tragedy in making

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He had become a fixture along the streets of West Baltimore, pushing a broken grocery cart piled high with junk. He directed traffic in the nude, talked to himself and proclaimed he was God.

To those who knew him, Arnold Bates was crazy and unpredictable. Released on strict conditions from a state mental hospital, he had been judged harmless enough, though, to remain in society.

But during the past year and a half, Bates was arrested repeatedly for thefts and assaults. He used cocaine. He vowed to stop taking his medication. He was described by a judge as a potential danger. By this past spring, mental health officials were threatening to send him back to an institution.

They didn't take him off the streets, though. Two weeks ago, Bates walked into a West Baltimore Social Services office where he allegedly killed a 29-year-old caseworker with an eight-inch butcher knife after arguing about food stamps.

Until then, Bates' increasingly troubled behavior was tolerated by those charged with protecting both the mentally ill and society. Time and again, the 34-year-old schizophrenic got breaks.

Prosecutors dropped misdemeanor charges against him. Probation and parole officials missed opportunities to return him to jail. Mental health officials saw his crimes as relatively trivial.

And while they ordered him to stay away from drugs and alcohol and follow other strict rules, they relied mostly on Bates to tell them if he got into trouble.

To the criminal justice system, Bates apparently was just another petty criminal, a chronic nuisance like so many others.

To his doctors and counselors, he was a patient whose privacy was to be respected.

Almost nobody saw Arnold Bates as a serious threat. To the family and friends of the slain social worker, that was a tragic miscalculation.

"We stand in solidarity against the system that allows sick and mental patients to be released," said Mildred Bradshaw, a co-worker, at Tanja Brown-O'Neal's funeral.

Indeed, while predicting such a crime may be virtually impossible, the case of Arnold Bates raises the same troubling questions that have been asked for 20 years, ever since some of society's most unpredictable people have been released for treatment in the community, rather than kept in locked institutions.

How well do the criminal justice and mental health systems work together to monitor a man like Arnold Bates? How can they balance the desire to treat, though not confine such people -- and protect society at the same time?

"You run into clashing consider ations," said Judge Alan M. Wilner, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals who served on two gubernatorial task forces that examined the issue. "You don't punish people who are sick. But that theory runs into reality."

"Never been right since"

On a summer night more than a decade ago, state troopers found Arnold Bates wandering naked outside the gates at the Capital Centre in Largo. Dazed and incoherent, he apparently had taken the drug known as PCP, or angel dust.

"They took him to Crownsville [state hospital]," recalled his sister, Harriet Penney. "When we saw him, he was in a straitjacket and foaming around his mouth. At first, we could only look into a little room to see him."

That was the beginning of Bates' troubles.

"He's never been right since," said Hattie Bates, Arnold's mother. "That angel dust really messed up his mind.

Bates was the youngest of six children raised by Hattie and Herbert Bates. Mr. Bates, who died six years ago, was a city school bus driver and supervisor. His wife, now 71, worked as an elevator operator. They owned a home in the 1900 block of West Fayette Street, an integrated, working-class neighborhood when Arnold was growing up.

He was a friendly and considerate child, his mother recalled. "When he'd hear about somebody in the hospital, he'd walk right up there and see them," Mrs. Bates said. "If you needed something at the store, or your steps scrubbed, Arnold was there."

In the early '70s, he dropped out of Edmondson High School and did odd jobs. Eventually the Job Corps trained him as a welder and got him work at Bethlehem Steel Corp. He stayed three years, making good money, even buying a car.

Then came the PCP incident. "After that, it was all downhill," said Mrs. Bates.

In December 1978, Bates was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. Within a year, he was arrested for destroying property. He was sent to Springfield State Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him as an acute schizophrenic.

After two months, he was released. He was told to get a job, undergo therapy at the Walter P. Carter Center, in the 600 block of West Fayette street, and take anti-psychotic medication.

"When he took his medicine, he was as calm as a cucumber," said Mrs. Bates.

"But when he was off, he was nervous, extremely nervous. He just couldn't swallow those pills . . . Pretty soon, though, they started giving him shots at Carter."

For more than a year, Bates worked at a nearby laundromat. But in the spring of 1983, he was charged with hitting a woman with a board. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent 18 months in mental hospitals. Within a year of being released, he was returned to Carter after a drug conviction.

In December 1986, Bates was freed once again. Placed on conditional release for five years, he was ordered to undergo therapy, take his medication, abstain from drugs and alcohol and advise his counselors of any arrests.

He was warned that violating any of the conditions could send him back to the hospital.

For more than two years, Bates worked at Goodwill Industries and the laundromat, his mother said. And he showed up for shots at Carter, although he rarely kept scheduled appointments.

"He definitely was here and had contact with his therapist," said Dr. Patricia Kendall, chief executive officer at Carter, about Bates' record at the clinic.

"He came on his own terms. But that's the only way we could have seen him."

In September 1989, Bates was arrested for assaulting a 72-year-old handicapped woman and snatching her purse. Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in prison, with all but 15 months suspended, and four years of probation.

During the sentencing, Bates was hostile and incoherent, yelling at his sister and threatening not to take his medication. His actions prompted the judge to note on his probation order that Bates "has a mental illness that if not monitored could present a public danger" and that he had "virtually announced his intention to violate his probation."

Judge Byrnes, in a recent interview, said he didn't know Bates was on conditional release at that time. The information apparently was never recorded in the state criminal justice computer system, as required by law.

"I think it would've been an additional red flag -- a very large one -- because I would have been aware of the danger that he potentially posed," said Judge Byrnes, adding that he would have notified mental health officials in hopes they would seek to revoke Bates' conditional release.

That would have been unusual. Last year, for example, while about 350 people were on conditional release from Maryland's mental hospitals, fewer than 10 percent were ordered to return, according to the state health department.

Dr. Kendall, the Carter director, says the mental health system overall performs well in determining when patients can remain free. "One shouldn't sacrifice a good system," she said.

"It seems to be working for lots and lots of people."

Dr. Stuart B. Silver, director of the Mental Hygiene Administration, described Bates' crimes as "relatively trivial," not serious enough to put him back in confinement. It's not even clear how much authorities knew about Bates' extensive record, since they apparently didn't check it. His string of arrests might not have been alarming, however. Minor criminal activity "characterizes an awful lot of patients that come to our clinic," Dr. Silver said.

"People are arrested for a lot of things," he said. "And it may not be relevant to their mental illness or it may not be relevant as to public safety."

After eight months in jail, Bates was paroled. In the next year, he was arrested three more times -- charged with assaulting a woman and taking her purse, stealing appliances, clothing, food and tools from his mother's house, and breaking into a car and snatching a radio, speakers and antenna.

Prosecutors dropped two of the charges. Even so, the arrests could have landed Bates in jail for violating parole and probation. But probation agents never sought to revoke his probation.

And the Maryland Parole Commission didn't think the charges were serious enough to act immediately, said commission Chairman Paul J. Davis, though parole agents twice asked the panel to do so. By the time it considered Bates' case in January, his parole had expired.

Within two months, state health department officials sent Bates a warning letter, threatening to revoke his release. Citing confidentiality, Dr. Kendall and other health officials won't disclose what prompted the letter or what, if anything, happened after Bates got it.

By May, Bates was wrangling with his probation agent, arguing that he didn't have to continue therapy at Carter, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Division of Parole and Probation. On June 5, not quite two weeks before Ms. Brown-O'Neal was stabbed, Bates failed to show up for a probation meeting.

Over the last six months, Harriet Penney saw her brother high on cocaine and other drugs -- his eyes were "wild," she recalled; sometimes he just seemed "out of it."

He talked about hearing voices. He announced he was his own God. He stripped and went outside.

He slept in an old chair in the back yard or wandered off to a shelter.

He piled his collection of junk -- ranging from discarded television sets to toys and tires -- in the vacant yard next door, occasionally selling some items.

People who knew the family seemed sympathetic about Bates. "The poor little thing was just scuffling along, trying to survive," said John W. Abraham, 70, a neighbor.

But strangers were scared or even hostile. "Some people in the neighborhood beat him," Ms. Penney said.

Nearly every time he was arrested, Ms. Penney went to court and told the judges about her brother's mental problems.

Sometimes, he was belligerent even with her, she said.

"We were scared he would hurt himself," she said. "He just needed to get some help. We tried to tell them. It used to be you could put peopleaway when they needed help. But it's harder now."

"Nothing you can do"

Four or five times during the past two months, Bates walked the 1 1/2 miles to the Rosemont Social Services office, seeking food stamps, Mrs. Bates said. He was told he needed proof that he was eligible. Even though he never provided the documentation, he believed his food stamps were coming.

By early June, his mother recalled, he was obsessed, frustrated and increasingly agitated when he returned from collecting junk.

"He'd come inside and say 'Did the mail come? Did my food stamps come?' That was the first thing he'd ask every day," said Mrs. Bates. "He was depending on them food stamps." "I said, 'If they don't want to give them to you, Arnold, there's nothing you can do.' "

On June 17, Bates showed up at the Rosemont office, in the 700 block of Ashburton Street, pushing his grocery cart. Then he went home, his mother said; he called a lawyer and 911.

Police officers came to the house and told him to contact Social Services after hearing his complaints about the food stamps.

That afternoon, he walked to the Carter Center to see his counselor. She wasn't there, so he left a message. When she called the next day, he had already left.

He had gotten up about 7 o'clock. He fixed himself three hard-boiled eggs, left them on the stove and ate a sandwich instead.

In a warm rain, he walked to the Rosemont office. He stood in line outside for about 20 minutes, then went upstairs to a reception area.

He took off his soaking wet, pile-lined raincoat and waited for half an hour.

At last, it was his turn. He complained to a caseworker about his food stamps, growing dissatisfied and angry. He argued, but couldn't get his way.

Then he was sent to Tanja Brown-O'Neal. He walked into a small office. She was waiting.

Arnold Bates and the system

When Arnold Bates was charged with the murder of a social worker two weeks ago, he was well-known to mental health and law enforcement officials. His legal entanglements span 13 years:

1978 Nov. 18 Arrested and charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest. Found guilty, received a six-month suspended sentence and 18 months probation.

1980 Feb. 9 Arrested for disorderly conduct in a public place. Charges later dropped.

May 1 Arrested for disorderly conduct. Disposition of case unknown.

Nov. 17 Arrested for malicious destruction of property and sent to Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville for evaluation, where he is diagnosed as an acute schizophrenic.

1981 Jan. 19 Released from Springfield, referred on an outpatient basis to Walter P. Carter Center in Baltimore.

May 5 Arrested for possession of marijuana and for urinating on the street. Disposition of case unknown.

May 24 Arrested for assault. Charges dropped.

June 13 Arrested for possession of marijuana. Disposition of case unknown.

1982 Aug. 17 Charged with threatening to stab someone. Charges dropped.

Nov. 1 Arrested for assault. Charges dropped.

1983 May 25 Arrested on two counts of assault. Found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Springfield in July. Two months later, he was transferred to Carter Center.

1985 Jan. 25 Granted conditional release from Carter Center. Ordered to return on outpatient basis.

Dec. 10 Arrested for possession of marijuana. Found guilty a month later and given a one-year suspended sentence, fined $140 and put on three years' probation.

1986 Jan. 20 Judge orders Bates back to Carter Center because marijuana conviction showed he didn't comply with conditions of his 1985 release.

Dec. 23 Judge orders conditional release from Carter, requiring five years' of supervision by state mental health workers.

1987 Dec. 7 Arrested for possession of marijuana. Charges dropped a month later.

1989 Sept. 8 Arrested for assault and theft in a purse-snatching. Found guilty five months later and sentenced to six years in prison, with all but 15 months suspended. Also put on four years' probation upon release from prison.

1990 May 5 Paroled from prison on intensive supervision.

Sept. 10 Arrested for assaulting a woman as she tried to get into a taxi and snatching her purse. Found guilty a month later in District Court in the purse-snatching incident and sentenced to four months in City Jail.

Sept. 26 While free on bail on assault charge, Bates is arrested for theft and malicious destruction of property after throwing a brick through his mother's window and stealing food and appliances from her house. Charges later dropped.

1991 Jan. 21 Maryland Parole Commission, at revocation hearing, learns that Bates' parole expired a month earlier. Bates is released on probation.

March 30 Arrested for breaking into a car and stealing the radio, speakers and antenna.

April 1 Enters City Jail pending trial on theft charge.

April 29 Charges from March 30 arrest are dropped in District Court. Bates is released.

June 18 Social worker is stabbed to death. Bates is arrested and charged with murder.

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