Nowhere to go
Robert Valdez, 71 and mentally ill, was sentenced to more than four years in prison. Then the judge looked for an alternative.
NEW PORT RICHEY
The old man snuck out of his double-wide mobile home just before midnight while his wife slept. He wore slides, shorts, a Branson, Mo., T-shirt. He walked across the grass in the cool January air to his next-door neighbor’s place.
Clouds hid a sliver of moon as he used a screwdriver to wedge open the door of his neighbor’s shed.
Earlier that day, he’d played shuffleboard with his neighbors and hung out by the pool in the tidy 55-and-older mobile home community where they lived.
He picked up a can of WD-40 and sprayed it across stacks of boxes with linens, old photographs and Christmas decorations. He had never done something like this before, but he didn’t think anyone would be hurt. His mind didn’t work the way it used to.
He lit a wad of paper towels with his cigarette lighter and tossed it down. The boxes ignited, and soon flames climbed the walls. Robert turned around and hastened back, past his wife’s pink impatiens, to his porch next door.
He sat down and turned on the TV.
Eight months later, Robert Valdez left his cell block for his weekly visitation with his wife, Cheryl. It was August 2014. He had celebrated his 70th birthday at the Land O’Lakes Detention Center with a honey bun birthday cake. As he sat down, Cheryl Valdez watched from her computer monitor at home. She thought he looked skinnier, scruffier. And where were his glasses?
“You staying out of trouble?” Cheryl asked.
“I want to get out of here,” Robert said.
He looked directly at her, his brown eyes wide and credulous, like a child’s. She sighed.
Robert had gotten to old age without ever getting into trouble with the law. How had it come to this?
He’d grown up in a large Ybor City family so poor that he sometimes had to pick guava off the trees for dinner. He’d married, raised two sons, divorced, married again and worked faithfully for the city of Tampa for 38 years, often getting to his job early to make coffee for everyone else.
Officially, his IQ was 63. He had dropped out of school in the 10th grade and had the intelligence of a moderately smart kindergartner. But you didn’t need to know how to read or write to haul trash or work on the water meters. In annual job reviews, his bosses praised his work ethic.
“He’d do whatever you wanted him to do because he wanted to be accepted,” Cheryl said. “One time he even won a TV for employee of the month.”
After retirement, something changed. Robert couldn’t sleep. He picked the hair off his arms and head. Cheryl’s parents died, followed by one of his adult sons, and he fell into a severe depression that manifested itself in crying spells.
One day he asked Cheryl to take him to the hospital. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and put him on four psychiatric medications.
As the years passed, Cheryl — who drove a shiny red Cadillac named Princess and wore her hair short with a rat-tail — realized she’d become more like a mother to Robert than his wife. She made his meals, set out his medications on a tray, made all his doctor’s appointments. He gave up driving. She gave up asking him to shower and change his clothes. He slept on the beige couch in the living room.
In 2009, he picked up a blank Amscot check for $400 that someone had left behind and tried to cash it at his bank. The case was dismissed in a pretrial intervention deal.
Five years later, despite no one in his family ever having seen him set a fire, he ignited the shed.
Something was going on inside Robert’s head. Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric condition marked by extreme highs and lows, and poor impulse control. It had been years since Robert had seen a psychiatrist for his condition. Were his medications still working?
No one seemed to know, and Florida’s criminal justice system was not set up to figure out what was wrong. It was designed to get him to court, mete out his punishment, to bring his case to a close. If that meant prison, so be it.
Experts say incarcerating the mentally ill just makes them worse. And yet, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the state’s 100,000-plus inmates have a mental illness.
If someone didn’t intervene, Robert was sure to join them.
Eleven months after his arrest, Robert limped into the New Port Richey courtroom, his hands and ankles shackled. He glanced around as he took a seat among a handful of other inmates in the second-floor courtroom, waiting for his case to be called. He saw his family — wife, son, cousins, nephews — all there.
The process of convicting Robert had become excruciating, like a marathon with no end in sight. It had been a year since his arrest. A new judge, Pat Siracusa, now presided over the case.
Twice, Robert’s assistant public defender, Willie Pura, had ordered psychiatric evaluations. Twice, the judge had been forced to delay proceedings because the evaluations had not been completed. Twice, Robert was deemed competent or “able to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding,” the evaluations said.
The charge of arson carries a sentence of at least five years in prison. In a jail interview, Robert seemed to not quite get the gravity of his situation.
“I’m just hopin’ the judge and lawyer don’t send me to prison,” he said from behind a glass window, “ ’cause I don’t need to go to prison.”
Now, Pura called Cheryl into the hall outside the courtroom for a talk.
“His choices are limited,” Pura told her. “Either he takes a trial or he negotiates a deal, and the state is not willing. So we can approach the judge and enter an open plea.”
“Like a surprise?” Cheryl asked.
Pura nodded. “He has no prior record. He has a 63 IQ. It’s not like he burned down a 60-room mansion or an apartment complex. The damage is minimal. I can’t promise you, but I am confident (the judge) will give him a break based on his inability to appreciate the nature of his charges.”
“Where is he supposed to go?” Cheryl asked. “He’s been evicted. He can’t come back to me.”
“I’m an attorney,” Pura said. “I’m not a social worker.”
Back in the courtroom, Pura announced Robert’s plea. The judge asked him once again about Robert’s competency.
“It’s an ongoing close call,” Pura answered. “But I have met with him in jail. I’m confident he understands. We are ready to proceed.”
This meant it was up to Robert to decide his fate.
Judge Siracusa turned to him.
“A first-degree felony carries up to 30 years in prison,” the judge said. “I don’t know what sentence I’m going to give you because I haven’t heard all the facts of this case and it’s my first day on this case. So with those facts in mind, do you still want to enter a plea of guilty today?”
Robert looked to his lawyer.
In the audience, Robert’s family members looked at each other in shock. Up to 30 years? Tears rolled down a cousin’s cheeks.
“Are you sure you want to enter a guilty plea today?” the judge asked.
Robert looked around. He hesitated. He looked again at his attorney.
“This is what we talked about,” Pura whispered in his ear. “Remember?”
“What should I do?” Robert asked.
“He’s asking you what you want to do today,” Pura said. “Do you want to enter a plea?
“Yeah, this is what I want to do today,” Robert said.
A deputy led Robert to a table, where he inked up his fingers for the fingerprint card. Judge Siracusa would sentence him in a few weeks.
Out in the hallway, Robert’s brother, Tony Valdez, 69, paced back and forth angrily.
“He didn’t know what he was doing,” he said. “He just listened to that idiot. That’s what happened.”
For 431 days, the state of Florida’s case against Robert centered not on whether he did it but whether he understood what was happening to him.
The day Robert was sentenced in March 2015, though, the judge wanted to know why.
“How did it come to pass that you attempted to burn down this shed?” Siracusa asked after Robert had been fitted with headphones so he could hear.
“I went to the mailbox to get the mail, and she asked if I (would) burn down the shed,” Robert said. “She wanted to collect insurance.”
The shed, which was attached to an empty mobile home, had belonged to an 87-year-old man who had died a few months before Robert set the fire. Robert said the man’s daughter, Christine Chiles, had asked him to set the fire in exchange for a rocking chair, but there was no evidence of that.
Chiles, 54, did not testify in court. In a phone interview, she denied that she asked Robert to set the fire. Chiles said the fire destroyed her father’s collection of historic photos and darkroom equipment, and did substantial damage to the mobile home, reducing its value.
Robert admitted he took the rocking chair from the property and replaced it with a glider from his porch.
“If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have done it,” Robert told the judge.
“Are you aware that she inherited this home from her father and she didn’t have insurance on it?” prosecutor Patrick Moore asked Robert.
Robert looked confused. “No?” he answered.
“When you stated earlier … that you would do it differently, is that because of the penalties you are facing?” Moore asked.
“Yeah, I don’t want to go to prison,” Robert said. “I didn’t think I would go to prison if she told me to do this.”
Fire investigator Thomas Stubblefield told the judge he believed Robert had set the fire because he wanted the rocking chair. He liked it better than the one on his porch. He was mad that Chiles had refused to give it to him.
In her testimony, Cheryl told the judge, “Robert is not a vindictive person at all. If anything, he’s the opposite.”
Peter Bursten, a Tampa psychologist who examined Robert, testified it was clear Robert had some sort of “mental condition.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” Bursten said, “but how that affected him at the time of the fire, that takes more inquiry.”
Robert’s lawyer tried to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence; the law allows this when someone displays a mental impairment.
Judge Siracusa wanted to keep Robert out of prison. “I don’t think this is related to his intellectual disability,” Siracusa said. “I think this is related to age. This is a person who worked hard at a job and worked a long time.”
But Robert needed a place to stay that made Siracusa comfortable, someplace where he wouldn’t get into trouble again.
A staff member from the Public Defender’s Office had called mental health facilities and halfway houses as far away as Ocala to find Robert a bed, with no results.
The judge sighed. He had no other choice.
Fifty-five months in prison.
Another person with mental issues was headed to prison. It was no surprise.
“County jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health facilities,” said Mike Hansen, president and CEO of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.
It is a problem statewide.
Robert needed a bed in a mental health facility. But budget cuts in recent years and changes in the way mental health organizations are reimbursed have reduced the number of beds across the state, leaving judges like Siracusa with few options. The state spends a large part of its funds getting the mentally ill competent and into the courtroom. Often, the mentally ill cycle through the criminal justice and public health systems, ending up back on the streets.
Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman said Florida’s competency process is 50-plus years old and came into being at a much different time in this country, when our knowledge about mental illness was minimal. Today, experts say arresting the mentally ill and placing them in jail can cause even more damage to the brain, making recovery more difficult. Studies have shown that even short stays in jail can have drastic consequences, severing the mentally ill’s ties to the community and loved ones.
Treatment in jail and prison is spotty. Mostly, the mentally ill are provided medications — often the least expensive medications available.
Cheryl Valdez wondered if improper medication contributed to what was going on inside Robert’s head. For years, his primary doctor had prescribed his psychiatric medications. Robert had not been back for several years to see the psychiatrist who had diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.
Cheryl also started to wonder if Robert was suffering from dementia.
If he was, several psychologists said, Robert’s symptoms sound like a common but little-known form of dementia in which abnormal proteins accumulate in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes, eroding the “social brain.”
Frontotemporal dementia, also known as Pick’s disease, can show up in the form of inexplicable behavior, including inappropriate sexual acts or remarks and other impulsive decisions that violate conventional rules.
“The frontotemporal dementia patient will have a difficult time judging what is right to do or what is not right to do,” said Dr. Jean M. Fils, a geriatric psychiatrist and expert on frontotemporal dementia at the University of South Florida.
The disease is often misdiagnosed and mistaken for bipolar disorder, Fils said.
In Miami-Dade County, Judge Leifman has created a handful of diversion programs for the mentally ill, including one that might have helped Robert. It has kept almost 2,000 people who faced felony charges but were competent out of jail. Each person is assigned a peer specialist who helped them navigate the mental health system and participate in meaningful day activities and treatment. Since 2008, the program has saved Miami-Dade County 15,000 jail days — a combined 35 years.
Leifman had attempted — with the help of some supportive legislators — to expand the program to communities around the state in 2011, but the Legislature failed to fund it. The Legislature has considered it again every year since, including the 2016 session.
Without the program, Robert was headed to prison. Not only would his mental illness likely worsen there, but he was losing his wife, too.
Cheryl had met him at a bar on Hillsborough Avenue 26 years before. He was wearing a black fedora and an Italian gold horn necklace. He was not who she had envisioned for herself, but he made a good living. “He was like a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe,” she said.
Cheryl was sad for him now. She wanted to be there for him. But she did not see them living together ever again. She was done.
Still, she held out hope that Robert would catch a break. In July 2015, he did.
Robert walked out of the Land O’Lakes Detention Center. He had changed out of his orange scrubs into slides, basketball shorts, a T-shirt. Cheryl was waiting for him.
He had been incarcerated for 20 months. The Public Defender’s Office had found him a place, which the judge had visited.
“Can I have a hug?” he asked her.
They embraced awkwardly.
Cheryl drove to Northside Mental Health Center in Tampa. For more than an hour, she helped Robert fill out his paperwork and answer questions about his income, which amounted to a pension from the city of Tampa of $2,500 a month.
Then Cheryl drove Robert a mile to a nondescript two-story building on a dead-end street. It was a 16-bed residential program for men and women who had just gotten out of the state mental hospital. They had a bed for Robert. The couple climbed the stairs and found Robert’s room. They made up his bed and put away his clothes. They talked with his new roommate.
Then a staff member pulled them aside.
“You can’t stay here,” she told Robert. “You earn too much money.”
“Where am I going to go?” Robert asked.
“I don’t know,” the staff member said.
Cheryl and Robert packed up all his belongings and headed back to Northside’s central office. It started to rain. One hour passed. Then two.
The staff was working to find him another spot. It had taken months for the Public Defender’s Office to find this place. How would they find something in the next few hours?
Robert started to cry.
Three months later, Robert again sat in Judge Siracusa’s courtroom at the West Pasco Judicial Center with the other inmates in orange.
Cheryl, 71, found it painful to look at him. He had lost even more weight. He no longer shaved, so the whole bottom of his face was covered in long, white whiskers. He looked like an old man, she thought, like someone who had been in a concentration camp.
Robert had unraveled further in the past three months. After the Northside Mental Health Center had rejected him, the Public Defender’s Office had found him a spot at Suncoast Retreat, an assisted living facility for the elderly in New Port Richey. Robert had been assigned a counselor in Tampa, but Suncoast Retreat did not have one on staff.
At Suncoast, Robert took another resident’s TV and set it up in his room. He snatched another resident’s tablet and hid it. He found a AAA card in his wallet and had another resident’s car towed. His cousin Judy Wallowicz said he told her that one of the employees wanted to have sex with him, something completely out of character for him.
The woman whose tablet he took eventually found it in another resident’s room. “Robert was really a sweetheart, but something was going on with his brain,” said Patty Moore, 65. “He needed some help, and he wasn’t getting it.”
An assistant administrator at Suncoast Retreat said other residents found Robert “endearing,” despite his transgressions. “It didn’t seem true to his nature, the things he was doing,” said Cathy Koogan.
On Oct. 6, six weeks after Robert arrived, he tried to pry open the door of the kitchen. When he couldn’t get in, he threw paper towels in a Rubbermaid garbage can and set fire to them with a lighter.
Suncoast called the Sheriff’s Office.
“I did it,” Robert told the deputy who picked him up. “I started the fires. At least I told you the truth.”
Robert was charged again with arson and returned to the county jail.
There, he stole other inmates’ mail from a deputy’s desk and opened the letters, landing him in lockdown.
“This is such a tragedy,” Cheryl said, shaking her head.
Robert’s public defender, Willie Pura, and Cheryl spoke in the back of the courtroom. “Has someone evaluated him for what’s wrong with him up here?” Cheryl asked Pura, pointing a finger at her head.
“I’m getting him re-evaluated,” Pura replied.
Moments later, Pura and Robert stood before the judge. Robert faced serious prison time, possibly eight years or more.
Pura said he would get Robert evaluated by another psychologist. Judge Siracusa set another hearing date on the new arson charge.
Two years after his journey began, Robert was back where he started.
Times researcher Caryn Baird, Times staff writer Anthony Cormier and Sarasota Herald-Tribune Investigations Editor Michael Braga contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected], follow @WriterLeonora or phone 727-893-8640. Times reporter Anthony Cormier can be reached at [email protected]. Herald-Tribune reporter Michael Braga can be reached at [email protected].
About this series
The Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent more than a year chronicling life in Florida’s mental health system, interviewing dozens of current and former mental hospital employees and crisscrossing the state to talk to patients and their families. Previous installments look into: