By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — A Mountlake Terrace officer came face to face with Toby Sauceda in February as the young man held a gun in his outstretched hands after threatening to kill himself.
That encounter, coupled with Sauceda’s strange behavior March 28, prompted the officer to plead with medical staff at Swedish/ Edmonds hospital to have Sauceda evaluated for a possible involuntary commitment, according to police reports.
Later the officer wrote that the hospital’s on-duty mental health professional said Sauceda wouldn’t be taken in for “unspecified reasons” and he’d probably be fine once the drugs wore off.
About an hour later, Mountlake Terrace police were called to an apartment where a man had been attacked. Sauceda allegedly called 911 and reported that he had “just killed his best friend.”
Forest Jackson, 20, was repeatedly stabbed during a confrontation. He died at the scene.
Sauceda reportedly told detectives that he was angry at Jackson for keeping his stash of Xanax, a prescription drug primarily used to treat anxiety. Police later learned that Jackson told a friend he was concerned for Sauceda’s safety and didn’t believe he should have unfettered access to Xanax. Sauceda didn’t have a prescription.
He’s now charged with second-degree murder. Sauceda made a brief appearance Friday in Snohomish County Superior Court so lawyers could set a status hearing for next month. His trial is scheduled for Nov. 7.
Mountlake Terrace police say they are frustrated that their concerns about Sauceda’s behavior seemed to go unheard at the hospital. Officers requested that hospital staff call a county designated mental health professional to evaluate whether Sauceda should be held for up to three days against his will if he was uncooperative.
The officer reported telling the hospital’s mental health professional and an emergency room doctor about Sauceda’s “escalating violent history.” They also filled them in on his strange behavior that night. Sauceda had called 911 to report that he had sexually assaulted someone and later told police he didn’t know who he was or where he lived, the officers reported.
“I was told that Sauceda usually comes down from the drugs he ingests and is fine. I was told he just needs to ‘sleep it off,’ ” the officer wrote.
The officer said his partner pressed the hospital staff to call a county mental health professional. “He was told it was not possible,” according to the police report.
The officers arrived at the hospital with Sauceda at 12:25 a.m. They were called to the homicide scene at 1:48 a.m. It’s unclear from records exactly how long Sauceda was in the hospital.
“We don’t want to just dump people at the hospital,” Mountlake Terrace police Cmdr. Doug Hansen said. “However, if staff is able to spend a couple of hours with someone, they may see what we see and why we’re bringing them there.”
Officers often come into frequent contact with people and know if they are in crisis, despite what the person tells hospital staff, he said.
“There are people who know the game and say all the right things to get out,” Hansen said. “But they’ve said and done things leading us to believe that they are not safe.”
Sauceda reportedly told a nurse he was not crazy, and he only acted as if he didn’t know where he was so that he wouldn’t be taken to jail, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Bob Langbehn wrote in court papers.
“As the defendant did not seem to be exhibiting any signs of mental illness, he was released,” Langbehn wrote.
A spokesman for Swedish/ Edmonds on Friday said he wasn’t able to discuss the specific case under federal privacy laws. However, he said there is a protocol to evaluate patients brought in by police. They are screened for emergency medical needs as well as mental health conditions.
“In order to meet requirements to also be screened by a county designated mental health professional, our evaluation must determine the intention to cause harm and/or severe impairment that would put the patient’s or other’s health and safety at risk. If a patient does not meet these criteria, we have no legal basis to hold the patient,” hospital spokesman Clay Holtzman wrote in a statement.
The officers who took Sauceda to the hospital were familiar with him from previous encounters.
In February, Sauceda had barricaded himself inside an apartment after threatening to slit his throat and overdose on pills, court papers said. Police forced the door open and found Sauceda sitting in an office chair with a gun. He pointed the pistol at an officer.
Sauceda eventually dropped the weapon, which turned out to be a BB-gun made to appear like a Beretta semiautomatic pistol. Sauceda is charged with assault in connection with that incident.
The same officers encountered Sauceda again on March 28. Sauceda called 911 to report that he had “sex with a female without her consent” earlier that day. Police met with the woman, who refused to cooperate. Officers didn’t see any signs of injuries and the woman declined to go to the hospital for a sexual assault exam. She also refused to provide a written statement. She told police she was comfortable with Sauceda staying with her.
The officers were concerned with woman’s welfare. They “knew Sauceda to have a history of suicidal tendencies, assaults and domestic violence,” court papers said.
The officers didn’t have probable cause to arrest Sauceda without a cooperative victim, Hansen said. However, they didn’t want to leave him at the apartment and offered him a ride home.
Once they arrived at his building Sauceda “appeared to be having psychological problems.” Police didn’t believe Sauceda could care for himself so they drove him to Swedish/Edmonds hospital.
One officer wrote in his report “I pleaded with (hospital staff) that I felt the need for them to contact the on-duty county mental health professional and request a 72-hour involuntary hold. This was due to his history of mental illness and violence.”
The hospital staff declined to make the call, he said.
The officer radioed dispatchers that he was clear of that incident at 1:20 a.m. About 28 minutes later he was called back to the apartment where he’d encountered Sauceda earlier. This time the call was for the fatal stabbing.
County mental health professionals say the law is strict about who can be held against their will. The patient must be deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others, or be so gravely disabled that he is unable to care for himself.
A person also has a right to voluntary treatment first. If the patient says he is willing to talk to someone, such as a social worker, and appears to be honest about his condition, a designated mental health provider isn’t going to move to have him held against his will, said Carola Schmid, who supervises involuntary treatment and community mental health services for the county’s human services department.
Additionally a person can’t be evaluated if they are too drunk or high. The providers will need to wait until the person is sober.
Schmid said that the county’s designated mental health providers cannot go into a hospital to do an evaluation unless they’ve been invited by staff.
Police officers can summon a county mental health worker out to the field to evaluate someone.
“There’s always a discrepancy between how police and mental health see involuntary commitment,” Schmid said.
Both groups approach it from a different perspective, she said. Police may expect that someone should be committed against his will if he initially refused to go to the hospital. There is a greater threshold to initiate an involuntary commitment, Schmid said.
Schmid said better direct communication between mental health professionals and law enforcement may help find the best course of action. A hospital emergency room or jail may not be the best place for someone suffering a mental health crisis.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever resolve the frustration we have between police and mental health providers but we can do better,” she said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.