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Robbery suspect released from mental hospital

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By Diana Hefley and Rikki King
Herald Writers
Published:
EVERETT -- Nearly two years after Joshua Rockwell was charged with robbing a couple at knifepoint outside the Alderwood mall, the Everett man, who is living with paranoid schizophrenia, this week walked out of a state mental health hospital with little more than two weeks of medication, $40 and orders to go to a shelter.
Snohomish County prosecutors say they were forced to drop a felony robbery charge late last month after doctors concluded that Rockwell was unable to assist in his own defense, despite months of treatment at Western State Hospital. At that same hearing, a judge concluded Rockwell was a potential candidate for civil commitment at a mental hospital.
The Everett man apparently didn't meet the criteria required by law to hold someone against their will. He left the hospital earlier this week without any planned supervision. That happened despite a doctor's conclusion in February that Rockwell has a "significantly higher than average risk of future dangerousness to others and for committing future criminal acts jeopardizing public safety and security," according to court papers.
Prosecutors were concerned enough about Rockwell's release that they notified Everett police he may return to the city. A detective has spoken with the man's family. The department also is issuing a bulletin to officers so if they encounter Rockwell they will know his background and mental health history.
"We're not going to treat him any differently than anybody else. We'll take any situation as it comes up and be as safe as possible," Everett police Sgt. Ryan Dalberg said.
Rockwell's family is aghast and confused about his release, said his mother, Suzanne Lankford.
For all the months that Rockwell's been in jail or at Western State Hospital, she's been hoping the system would find a way to keep him safe. She's worried he could hurt himself or others.
"I am truly and utterly flabbergasted," she said Wednesday. "I feel like, surely, I am going to wake up, and this is going to have been a really bad dream. It is like the very utterly broken mental health system uses and relies on the criminal system."
Rockwell, 26, has been living with paranoid schizophrenia for about six years. He suffers from hallucinations as part of his illness. He can be difficult to understand when he's in throes of a mental health crisis. When he stops taking his medication he can become hostile and urges people to kill him.
His mother believes Rockwell was off his medication when he approached an elderly couple at the Alderwood mall in August 2010. He is accused of holding a knife to the man's stomach and running off with the woman's pocketbook. The couple had gone to the mall to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. A surveillance camera caught Rockwell running from the area, carrying the pocketbook.
Rockwell was jailed, then sent to Western State Hospital when it became clear he might not understand the robbery charge. He was hospitalized for months as doctors attempted to restore his competency. In late February they concluded he wasn't able to assist in his own defense.
"We held onto him as long as we could under the statute to try to get his competency restored. There was no reasonable likelihood that holding him for additional time would restore his competency," said Joan Cavagnaro, the county's chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney.
"It is a case that points out the gaps in the law when addressing mentally ill persons who have acted violently," she added.
Dismissal of the robbery charge triggered a civil process for potentially holding Rockwell involuntarily. The threshold for hospitalizing someone against their will has a higher burden than proving they are competent to stand trial, lawyers said. A mental health professional must conclude that the person, because of a mental disorder, is an imminent threat to others or himself, or is gravely disabled.
If the patient is considered dangerous, the state does everything it can to keep person in, but the laws are clear, said Kris Flowers, a spokeswoman for Western State Hospital. They can't place someone in a mental hospital based on dangerousness alone.
"It's illegal for the hospital to keep somebody that isn't under a court order," Flowers said.
Prosecutors dismissed the robbery charge without prejudice, meaning they can refile. The legal review of Rockwell's civil commitment was handled by the state Attorney General's Office.
Prosecutors plan to speak with that lawyer. Cavagnaro said Thursday her office received a letter dated March 27 explaining that Rockwell hadn't met the standards to be held indefinitely at the mental hospital.
The letter said Rockwell at the time planned to stay at Western State voluntarily receiving treatment, Cavagnaro said.
Her office is researching whether there's any reason to believe that Rockwell's competency status has changed and whether the robbery charge can be refiled.
This isn't the first time prosecutors have dismissed a criminal charge against Rockwell. In 2007 he was facing a felony charge for failing to register as a sex offender. Doctors concluded Rockwell's mental illness prevented him from assisting his lawyers. They also warned that without medication, stable housing and intensive community mental health services, he could be an imminent risk to others and himself. He was evaluated for civil commitment and released from Western State Hospital less than a month later -- as happened this time.
As early as 2008, state Department of Corrections officials warned that Rockwell's behavior can become unpredictable without medication and supervision.
"I believe that Mr. Rockwell needs to be in a confined facility equipped to administer medications and monitor his behavior," community corrections officer Andrea Holmes wrote at the time.
This week, Rockwell's family was told that he'd been set free with just enough medication for two weeks and $40. Rockwell is supposed to show up for a mental health appointment in Everett on Friday morning.
Once again his family fears what could happen next.
Still, they are thankful for everyone who has tried to help, including a social worker at Western State, Rockwell's attorney Steven Baklund, and Everett police, Lankford said. They are reassured that others care.
"It is time for the woeful mental health system to be dragged out into the light, and for people to see that they do not help the sick, who cannot speak for themselves," Lankford said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EverettRobberyMental health

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