Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

History of young man charged with Oldsmar killings shows mental health treatment's revolving door

OLDSMAR — On July 19, 2011, Imari Shibata called the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office about her son. Benjamin Bishop, 16, was wandering the family's home in Oldsmar, smashing holes through the walls with a hammer and proclaiming that he was Osama bin Laden. He was threatening Shibata and her boyfriend, swim coach Kelley Allen.

Bishop, who the Sheriff's Office said had stopped taking antipsychotic medication prescribed for his schizophrenia, was taken into custody under Florida's Baker Act, which allows forcible examination of those deemed mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others.

After a psychological assessment, Bishop was released. Within a week, he was arrested for trying to strangle his mother, authorities say.

Bishop was charged with first-degree murder Sunday in the killings of Shibata, a nursing assistant, and Allen, the Westchase coach for Tampa Bay Aquatics, at their house at 205 Cedar Key Court. Bishop told detectives he killed them early Sunday morning with a 12-gauge shotgun, firing eight rounds at the couple as they lay in bed, according to the Sheriff's Office. He then laid the weapon on the sofa and called authorities to report the crime.

Many details of the case have not emerged. But it is clear that the double killing was a gruesome coda to an extensive series of encounters between Bishop and law enforcement officials and mental health counselors, none of whom set the troubled young man on a better path.

Over less than three months in spring and summer 2011, Bishop was detained four times under the Baker Act.

On July 26, 2011, shortly after his fourth involuntary psychological assessment, he was arrested on charges of domestic battery by strangulation and tampering with a witness, following an assault on his mother, the Sheriff's Office said. As part of a plea deal, Bishop pleaded guilty to a lesser battery charge.

Bishop told investigators Sunday he had recently been discharged from a 10-month course of inpatient mental health treatment. But the details of his care, including which facilities he might have stayed in, could not be independently verified.

The red flags repeatedly raised by Bishop's behavior lead to questions about the effectiveness of social service agencies in handling mentally ill subjects who pose a serious risk to those around them.

Similar questions have arisen nationally after psychologically troubled killers in high-profile shootings were found, in hindsight, to have fallen through the social safety net.

"We call that the revolving door," Donald Turnbaugh, former president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Pinellas County, said of Bishop's involuntary detentions. "This is not a unique set of circumstances. I know individuals who have been 'Baker Acted' over 100 times."

On Monday, Pinellas Judge Robert Dittmer ordered Bishop held without bail. Bishop's father and Shabata's ex-husband, Joey Bishop of Palm Harbor, declined to comment Monday.

Under the Baker Act, health professionals have 72 hours to make a diagnosis, then either release the patient or seek a probate court order for extended involuntary treatment. The court orders require immediate indications that the person plans to hurt himself or others.

"If they haven't shown signs of suicidal ideation, or homicidal ideation, it's very hard to refer them on to longer-term treatment," said Tom Wedekind, executive director of Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS, a Pinellas nonprofit. "To really keep them in a structured program any further under the Baker Act is very difficult."

Of the roughly 1,000 juveniles who come to PEMHS annually under the Baker Act, he said, it often "takes problems in the criminal justice system for them to get the longer-term commitment they need."

Three of the four times he was committed under the Baker Act, Bishop was taken to PEMHS, the Sheriff's Office said. Citing federal law on patient privacy, Wedekind said he could not comment on the specifics of Bishop's diagnosis or treatment.

Records of hearings on petitions for extended commitment are not public, so it is unclear whether any of Bishop's doctors sought to force him into long-term treatment.

Sheriff's Office records indicate that on at least one occasion, Bishop was taken into custody under the Baker Act when he began acting out during a therapy session. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the call came from a counselor at Directions for Living, a Pinellas mental health agency.

"While I cannot confirm or deny the provision of services to this young man, this tragic situation highlights the fact that when someone is suffering from a severe or persistent mental illness, it is imperative that they get connected to the appropriate level of care necessary to protect themselves and others," Directions for Living president and CEO April Lott said in a statement.

Sheriff's detectives are still trying to determine where Bishop might have undergone the extended treatment he claims he had in 2012. Bishop said he had been through an inpatient program at the Pinellas County-based addiction-recovery agency Operation PAR.

Marvin Coleman, vice president of community and business relations at the organization, said Monday he could not confirm or deny that Bishop had received services. However, he said the 10-month length of treatment Bishop described did not match with the programs PAR offers. Coleman also said it is rare for the group to treat patients whose primary mental health issue is schizophrenia, not substance abuse. Bishop told detectives he was addicted to bath salts.

Gualtieri said Bishop is obviously suffering from serious mental problems. At one point after the shooting, Gualtieri said, he calmly told detectives he had just realized he would not get to see his mother again. But Gualtieri declined to speculate on whether any of the professionals who evaluated Bishop along the way should have done more.

"Is there something in there where there should have been dots connected? I don't know," Gualtieri said.

One thing, he added, is clear: "When he was released, the problems went right back to where they were."

Times staff writers Will Hobson, Curtis Krueger and Jimmy Geurts, and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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