Sunday, July 13, 2003

Some suspects allowed to roam

Escaped patient had freedoms

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - A man who fled a psychiatric facility during a holiday fireworks display is one of 20 patients accused of serious crimes who have freedoms ranging from walking its grounds with an escort to leaving the hospital unescorted.

Seven of the 20, including James E. Johnson Jr., are accused of murder. Fourteen are allowed to leave the hospital.

Johnson, 38, charged with killing his grandfather and wounding an uncle in 1996, ran away from the Twin Valley Behavioral Health Care center while watching fireworks July 3. He was captured Wednesday in suburban Westerville.

He had been at the hospital since 1997, after being ruled incompetent to stand trial. By court order, he is allowed to walk the hospital's unfenced grounds, escorted by unarmed nurses and aides.

"I just needed to get away for a little bit," he told the Columbus Dispatch in a story published Saturday. He escaped from Twin Valley in 1992 and again in 1993 after he was committed by his parents.

He said he had planned for eight months to run away during the fireworks and assumed he would be captured eventually. He also said he posed no threat to the public.

Four patients accused of serious crimes, including two charged with murder, are able to leave with permission as long as they return by a designated time.

Ten others can leave if they have a nurse or aide with them and three can walk the hospital grounds unsupervised. Three others have no freedoms and are required to be kept in locked areas.

Those charged with the mental health care of the patients say they're not concerned that others may try to escape.

"If you have someone that is getting good treatment for their mental illness and they are responding to that, their risk for criminal behavior goes way down," said Jim Ignelzi, the hospital's chief executive.

Indiana and Michigan also have facilities where patients can gain privileges allowing them to walk the unsecured grounds unescorted.

Ignelzi said Johnson was allowed to watch the fireworks because hospital officials believed there was a low risk of his leaving.

"We are not reducing this to, 'Hey, it's just one of those quirks,' " Ignelzi said. "We are studying the chart, we are interviewing staff, and we are finding out what exactly caused it."

"Anything that we can do to further reduce the risk that this will happen again, we are certainly going to do," said Sam Hibbs, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Mental Health, which operates the hospital and eight similar facilities in the state.

Ignelzi said Twin Valley will weigh the recommendation of Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Dale Crawford to erect a fence around the hospital. Crawford is the judge who ruled Johnson incompetent to stand trial.

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