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Her world frustrates the courts

(ran SE edition of LT)

In court, speaking to a judge, 70-year-old Ottilie Barrett seemed alert, intelligent, even charming.

But unlike most of the elderly people who pass through the court system, Barrett was not a crime victim. She was the defendant _ in fact, one with a record of shoplifting arrests dating to 1979.

And when Circuit Judge Joseph Donahey reviewed her case file, he learned Barrett had some other problems as well.

"This very articulate, pleasant lady didn't seem to have a grasp on the way the rest of the world operates," Donahey said Thursday.

Three months ago Fire Marshal David Kessinger declared Barrett's Kenneth City condominium a fire hazard and led a team of workers in cleaning up the place. In five hours, they filled two 2{-ton trucks and a 5-ton truck.

"It was sickening," Kessinger said. In 17 years as a fire marshal, he said, he had never seen anything like it.

The condo was stacked floor-to-ceiling with garbage, some hauled in from other people's homes. When the workers plowed their way to the refrigerator, they found it full of rotten food. When they dug their way to the stove, they discovered the back burner was turned on high.

"It had probably been on for months," Kessinger said.

The standing water in the sink looked like it had been used as a toilet, he said. Kessinger said Barrett also had been depositing her waste in buckets and dumping it into a nearby canal.

After Kessinger's team left, neighbors say, Barrett returned to her pack-rat ways, and the stench is as bad as ever.

"Most people can't even stand to walk past her door," neighbor Daniel Dicosimo said Thursday. "They go all the way over to the other stairway."

But speaking to Barrett would do no good. "She's very antagonistic, very belligerent," Dicosimo said.

And according to neighbor Jackie Johnson, Barrett would retaliate: "She would put garbage on their doorstep or garbage on their car." Sometimes, Johnson said, Barrett would even put garbage on top of someone's car and then tape it down.

The neighbors' complaints prompted the condo's management to sue Barrett to force her to clean her apartment. Barrett represented herself in court. Although she lost, she persuaded a judge to give her 45 days to clean house _ a deadline she then ignored, according to Kessinger.

Kessinger has been so upset by Barrett's case that he called the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. But HRS spokeswoman Elaine Fulton Jones said the department's hands are tied.

Although smelly, Barrett's garbage collection does not constitute a hazard to the general public because it is confined to her apartment, Jones said. So HRS can't force Barrett to move out, she explained.

As for the suggestion that HRS take Barrett into custody, Jones said she could not comment specifically but said, "When you're dealing with someone who is robust and healthy and not incompetent, then we have no jurisdiction."

Only when people have been declared a danger to themselves or others can HRS force them to undergo mental health treatment, Jones said.

For the past month, though, Barrett has had no chance to collect more garbage. She has been sitting in the Pinellas County Jail, charged with swiping a shirt from a Beall's store on 49th Street N in St. Petersburg.

Although more elderly people are showing up as defendants in criminal cases, Barrett's case is somewhat rare, said Dr. Georgia Brandstadter-Palmer, a psychologist who works with the court system. Usually elderly defendants are men, not women,

Wednesday, Barrett was scheduled to enter a guilty or no-contest plea, but instead Donahey ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The public defender's office did not object.

"Obviously there's something wrong there that's got to be addressed," said Chief Assistant Public Defender David Parry, "or she's just going to keep coming back into the system over and over."