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Woman, 91, released from jail

The court arranges for Mary Ryan Stankus' care until her granddaughter can find a facility for her in Pennsylvania.

A 91-year-old St. Pete Beach woman who spent two nights in the Pinellas County Jail for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor was released Friday.

Mary Ryan Stankus, who suffers from short-term memory loss, didn't understand that she had been jailed, her new court-appointed guardian said.

"She's pleasantly confused," said Patti Johnson, whose company was appointed the woman's guardian. "She doesn't understand what just happened. That's good. The rest of us are aghast."

What happened to Stankus has outraged her family and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office represents the woman.

On Wednesday, a St. Pete Beach police officer arrested Stankus at her small apartment on a warrant that she failed to appear in court on a misdemeanor trespassing charge.

St. Pete Beach police Chief Ray Kaminskas defended the arrest, noting that police are not free to ignore a judge's order that a person be arrested.

"We know we have an elderly population that we deal with," Kaminskas said. "We try to work with our population as best we can. But we have to comply with a warrant. We did our best to make her as comfortable as we could."

Nonetheless, he said that his office will review its procedures for dealing with elderly residents.

Dillinger said police should have used better judgment. He said that they could have called the judge who issued the warrant and notified her about the woman's age.

Or, he said that they should have used another option to get Stankus care for her apparent senility, such as civil commitment to a hospital under the Baker Act.

"Do they have to bring her to jail?" Dillinger said. "It's almost like elderly citizens being treated like second-class citizens. A 91-year-old confused lady is not supposed to go to jail on a misdemeanor."

In fact, Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams, who signed the warrant, said she didn't realize the woman's age and wished police had called her before making the arrest.

She said she would have withdrawn the warrant.

Stankus, who lived alone, has been placed in a local assisted living facility until her Pennsylvania granddaughter can find a similar facility for her in Bethlehem, Pa.

"I didn't get much sleep last night," said the granddaughter, Joann Mulea. "I can't understand why they arrested her."

Stankus' neighbors said they tried to look out for the frail, 100-pound woman.

But five times in the past year, Stankus has been caught shoplifting at a Publix supermarket on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach, the store said.

Each time, Publix refused to prosecute.

But Publix asked St. Pete Beach police to issue a trespass warning. After the warning, Stankus was caught shoplifting at the Publix again on Sept. 18.

This time, Publix insisted that she be charged with trespassing "as they do not want her in the store and want to make it clear to her," a police report said.

At that time, police did not book her at the jail, instead issuing her a notice to appear in court on Oct. 16.

Stankus didn't show up, more than likely because she forgot, Dillinger said.

St. Pete Beach later arrested her for failing to appear but worked to get her released on her own recognizance after a judge set a second court date.

On that occasion, St. Pete Beach officers drove her from the jail, where she had been booked but held less than an hour, and took her back to her front door, the chief said.

Stankus failed to appear on the second date, too. So Judge Williams issued the arrest warrant and police took Stankus into custody on Wednesday.

But this time, the police chief said, the warrant had a condition by the judge that Stankus could not be released on her own recognizance.

And a bail amount of $1,013 could not be lowered.

It's unclear if Stankus had the money to bail herself out of jail on Wednesday. It is possible that she was too confused, Dillinger said.

Stankus is unlikely ever to face prosecution on the trespassing or failure to appear charges. A doctor examined her this week and ruled her incompetent to stand trial.

Johnson, Stankus' new guardian, said the arrest has a bright side. Stankus shouldn't have been living alone in her mental state.

Now she's going to get help, she said.

Said Dillinger, "At least this has a good ending."