LARGO — Benjamin Sanchez once was a trusted physician, an anesthesiologist who practiced at Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital.
But over the years, Sanchez descended into a pattern of abusive, bizarre and frightening behavior toward his colleagues, which included acts of vandalism and threats on their lives. Those actions, which were fueled by Sanchez's mental illness, eventually led to criminal charges.
The question became: Should Sanchez be put away in prison for a long time? Or should a judge simply order him into mental health treatment?
A judge on Monday did a bit of both, sentencing Sanchez to nearly two years in prison, which will be followed by seven and a half years of probation that will require mental health treatment.
Judge Timothy Peters handed down the sentence after Sanchez pleaded no contest to charges of aggravated stalking, criminal mischief and twice violating injunctions.
"My actions were horrible," Sanchez said in court Monday while wearing navy jail scrubs, which were not unlike the hospital scrubs he once wore. "I realize how much pain and suffering and fear I caused."
His contrite words were a contrast to the escalating threats he has made in the past. In November, Sanchez called one of his former colleagues at Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital, Dr. Scott Mantell, telling him "you're going down, I'm going to kill you, you f------ Jew," according to court records. Next he called Mantell's wife at her home saying: "Your life as you know it is about to change."
This was after an injunction had been filed against Sanchez prohibiting him from having any contact with Mantell or his family.
In January, Sanchez entered Morton Plant Hospital without permission and approached a nurse he knew, saying, "I didn't find who I was looking for, but when I do I'm going to disembowel him in front of his children," according to previous court testimony. He also has made threats against other former colleagues and committed acts of vandalism, such as spray-painting their cars, according to testimony.
And in January, a surveillance video captured him swinging a length of pipe and smashing seven windows of Anesthesiology Associates of Pinellas County, where he used to work.
Previous testimony indicated Sanchez, 46, who also practiced in Hillsborough County, was suffering from the symptoms of mental illness, and that left Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Timothy Peters with a difficult decision.
"The essential information I need to get is: What's the basic nature of this man right here? Is that Ted Bundy with a medical degree? Or is that just some wayward soul who stepped out of line a little bit?" Peters noted in a previous hearing.
On Monday, Peters concluded that no matter how much prison time he gave Sanchez, "he at some point gets out." He said Sanchez has serious and undeniable mental health issues, but has not proved amenable to treatment in the past and "that is the fundamental difficulty that this court has to deal with."
In fact, attorney Jim Martin, representing Morton Plant Hospital, said Sanchez already was under treatment at the time he made the threats at Morton Plant.
But Peters came down on the side of trying to find a mental health solution for Sanchez. At the start of his probation, he must get a mental evaluation and he must abide by his doctor's recommendations, including taking whatever medication they prescribe. If he doesn't, his probation could be revoked.
Peters could have sentenced Sanchez to up to 12 years for the two felonies and two misdemeanors, to which he pleaded no contest without making any kind of deal with prosecutors. He will receive credit for the 181 days he already has spent in the Pinellas County Jail since his arrest.
Sanchez's attorney, John Trevena, said his client might want to transfer his probation to New York state to be closer to family members, and Peters said that might be good for everyone.
Sanchez formally agreed on April 30 to "withdraw from his practice in the state of Florida," according to the state Department of Health.
Martin said after Monday's hearing that the sentence was appropriate because the judge was clearly trying to find a way to make Sanchez realize he needs to accept mental treatment.
"Let's all hope it sets in," he said.
Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.