EVERETT — Just weeks before a Lake Stevens police detective killed him in January, a judge released James Blancocotto from jail amid delays getting a mental health evaluation.
Blancocotto spent weeks waiting in solitary confinement in the Snohomish County Jail for an evaluation. In late December, his public defender successfully lobbied for his release, citing due process concerns.
Two weeks later, on Jan. 13, investigators believe Blancocotto stole a van, fled on Highway 9 and tried to hijack a patrol car before a Lake Stevens police detective shot and killed him.
He was 30.
The legal stasis leading to Blancocotto’s death is not unique.
Snohomish County defendants often wait weeks, months or even years to get help for mental illness, despite state law requiring they get evaluations or treatment within 14 days. The stagnation has snarled the criminal justice system across Washington. More and more people need state help, but beds and staffers have remained sparse.
In the past 10 years, court referrals for inpatient competency evaluation or restoration in Washington more than doubled, according to state data. From 2021 to 2022 alone, referrals leaped from about 1,750 to nearly 2,300.
At the end of January, 660 people were on the waitlist for Western State Hospital, state Department of Social and Health Services data show. Almost 400 were in custody.
Across Washington, there were nearly 200 others in jail awaiting competency services.
In September, a judge dismissed murder charges against an Edmonds man accused of killing his father after waiting months for him to get treatment at Western State Hospital.
Rachel Forde has been a public defender here for 17 years. She said she’s never seen it as bad as it has been the past three years.
In Blancocotto’s case, Forde called the delays in treatment “disastrous.”
“It’s only a matter of time, when a government entity ignores their obligation,” she said.
Department of Social and Health Services spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet cited a combination of the uptick in court orders, lingering effects of COVID-19 restrictions and a national staffing crisis in explaining the lengthy wait times for competency services.
In an email, Hemstreet said the department is taking “numerous steps to admit as many patients as possible” as the state tries to expand bed capacity. Last month, Western State added a new 29-bed wing dedicated to competency services, the spokesperson noted. Another 29 beds are expected in a couple weeks.
In Olympia, state lawmakers are trying to fix the problem.
Last week, a measure aimed at expanding treatment options passed the state Senate with the support of Gov. Jay Inslee. The bill would look to divert misdemeanor defendants and people with development disabilities away from inpatient competency treatment, potentially opening up beds for others.
“This exponential growth in court orders and referrals is not manageable or sustainable,” Inslee said in his State of the State address in January. “Nor is our criminal justice system an effective way to connect people to the treatment they need. We should be prioritizing diversion and community-based treatment options rather than using the criminal justice system as an avenue to mental health care, particularly because competency services only treat people to be well enough for prosecution.”
However, both the Snohomish County prosecutor and the director of the Office of Public Defense here, among others, have cast doubts on the legislation’s potential to help.
‘Might’ve been avoided’
James Blancocotto had been held in the Snohomish County Jail for six months on allegations he head-butted a custody officer while awaiting trial for second-degree robbery. Prosecutors had accused him of fighting a man at a Snohomish gas station and stealing his car in June.
For much of that time, he was in solitary confinement due to mental health concerns, court records show.
In October, jail staff had to rush Blancocotto to the emergency room after he’d injured himself, according to court papers. Instead of staying at the hospital, he was brought back to jail, where he returned to solitary confinement.
In court documents, a social worker with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association noted human rights organizations consider such confinement lasting more than 15 consecutive days to be a form of torture.
“In my estimation, solitary confinement has either triggered or exacerbated symptoms of mental illness in James Blancocotto,” wrote the social worker, Eric Johnsen. “Every additional day he spends under these conditions can contribute to potentially irreparable damage.”
On Oct. 25, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris ordered Blancocotto be admitted to Western State Hospital in Pierce County for a mental health evaluation.
“But Western State Hospital did not follow that order,” Forde, the public defender, said in an interview.
She added: “If Western State Hospital would have followed the court’s order to admit Mr. Blancocotto, this tragic outcome might’ve been avoided.”
If found incompetent to stand trial, a judge likely would have ordered he get inpatient restoration treatment for 90 days.
Almost two weeks after the evaluation order, the state Department of Social and Health Services reported all of Western State’s inpatient beds were occupied, so Blancocotto couldn’t be admitted. The department estimated Blancocotto could be admitted by the end of February.
State law sets requirements for transporting criminal defendants held in jail to state hospitals, like Western State. The limit for someone like Blancocotto was 14 days.
Noting the 14th day had passed, Forde pushed Superior Court Judge Miguel Duran in late November to dismiss the assault allegations or release her client from jail.
“Mr. Blancocotto has not been transported and sits in jail further decompensating,” Forde wrote in court filings. “This is an unconstitutional delay that violates substantive due process. Accordingly, it is hereby respectfully requested that this Court dismiss the instant charges without prejudice. Alternatively, the defendant seeks release at this time.”
On Dec. 6, Duran denied Forde’s motion because there was no adequate plan for him to safely return to the community.
By Dec. 23, Blancocotto had been in custody waiting for the evaluation for over 50 days.
The public defender noted her client now had a release plan. He would stay at housing run by the local nonprofit The Hand Up Project, where new tenants could only leave to go to court hearings, medical appointments and business at government offices in their first 30 days of residency. Blancocotto had six months of rental assistance through a housing voucher to stay at the Everett home.
Judge Duran agreed to release Blancocotto with several conditions, including that he get a mental health screening and treatment.
In an email Tuesday, Duran wrote this was a “very difficult decision, but one which the law required me to make.”
He defended that decision, despite Blancocotto’s killing. He noted there is no short-term solution to the issues leading to Blancocotto’s death, but “obviously, DSHS having more hospital beds and more medical staff would be a valuable start.”
“When tragedies like these arise, I think it is our responsibility to question ourselves and what we can do to attempt to prevent them in the future,” Duran wrote. “We may not always find acceptable answers, but we need to challenge ourselves to try.”
Forde believes Duran did “the right thing.”
“The responsibility is with Western State Hospital,” she said.
The deputy prosecutor on the case, Isaac Wells, declined to comment.
On Jan. 12, The Hand Up Project discharged Blancocotto “unexpectedly,” Judge Duran noted. This led another judge, Patrick Moriarty, to issue a warrant for his arrest the next day.
The nonprofit’s housing director didn’t return a call seeking comment Tuesday. The Hand Up Project has recently been in turmoil with the ousting of its outspoken founder, Robert Smiley.
The day the judge issued the warrant, Blancocotto threw a woman to the ground in a Lake Stevens shopping center parking lot and stole her van, according to a detective’s search warrant. He fled south on Highway 9, then abandoned the van and ran from Lake Stevens police, the detective wrote.
A detective reportedly used a taser on Blancocotto twice, but it appeared to have no effect.
Blancocotto ran toward the detective’s patrol car, got in the driver’s seat and closed the door, according to investigators. An AR-15-style rifle was mounted inside, in a vertical gun rack behind the center console.
The detective got back to her patrol car, where she shot and killed Blancocotto, the search warrant states. As is standard procedure, the detective was put on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, the group of local law enforcement tasked with investigating police use of force, continued its inquiry this week.
Last week, Duran formally dismissed the robbery and assault charges, 46 days after his death.
“Mr. Blancocotto was extremely mentally ill,” Forde said, “but his life still had value.”
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
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