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Mental illness and the police: Was a deadly Pasco shooting avoidable?

People with mental illnesses often have deadly encounters with law enforcement. That's what happened to Bonnie Jo Figueroa-Ortiz, who spent the last hours of her life armed and experiencing a mental health crisis.

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PORT RICHEY — Bonnie Jo Figueroa-Ortiz spent the last hours of her life close to home, hiding in the woods.

A neighbor, Pat Haskins, was sitting on her back patio with family when she saw Figueroa-Ortiz there. It was June 27, about 9:30 a.m., and Figueroa-Ortiz had been on the run for nearly 11 hours.

She had gotten into a fight with Misael De La Cruz, the father of her 2-year-old daughter. He called 911. She had a gun and threatened to hurt herself. Soon, dozens of Pasco sheriff’s deputies arrived at their home, but she disappeared.

Now, Figueroa-Ortiz asked to hide in Haskins’ house. Haskins declined but offered to call for help. Figueroa-Ortiz said no. Every call for help, she said, ended with her arrest.

It was going to happen again, Figueroa-Ortiz told her neighbor, crying. But this time would be different, she told Haskins, because she had a gun.

“And she told us … if she pulled it out, she knew they’d shoot her,” Haskins said. “I’m presuming she expected to die that day.”

Four hours later, deputies shot and killed the 40-year-old mother of three.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has said she fired at deputies, and they fired back. But witnesses told the Tampa Bay Times they didn’t see her shoot at deputies.

They also said Figueroa-Ortiz, who had bipolar disorder, was in mental distress. Her loved ones can’t understand why, instead of getting help, she wound up dying in an apparent “suicide by cop” — when someone ends their life by provoking officers to use lethal force.

Related: Previously unreleased video shows Pasco County deputies shooting unarmed man

The Sheriff’s Office has declined to answer questions about the shooting or release body-camera footage taken by deputies. Policing experts who reviewed a description of the events, based on witness accounts and bystander footage, said the shooting may have been justified, but her death could have been avoided.

What happened illustrates how society lacks the resources to help someone undergoing a mental health crisis, said Dennis Kenney, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Nearly a quarter of people killed by officers in the past five years suffered from mental illness, the Washington Post has reported.

“Everybody apparently involved with her knew that she had a problem,” Kenney said. “This was a train wreck that you could see coming down the track.”

• • •

Figueroa-Ortiz grew up in Maryland, where she rooted for Washington’s pro football team, played softball and helped her mother, Darlene Scaggs, build flower beds for the front yard.

In her early 20s, she married and had her first daughter, now 16. In 2006, Scaggs said, Figueroa-Ortiz’s husband died, and she and her daughter moved to Florida, where Scaggs had moved a few years earlier. She had another daughter in 2009. Both girls live with their grandmother.

As an adult, Figueroa-Ortiz was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She sometimes threatened or attempted to harm herself. Scaggs said she once had her daughter hospitalized under the Baker Act, the Florida law that allows someone to be involuntarily committed for a mental health examination.

De La Cruz said he had her hospitalized under that law twice. He also said Figueroa-Ortiz survived at least one suicide attempt.

He and Figueroa-Ortiz met a few years ago, when he was at the tail end of a crumbling marriage. He said Figueroa-Ortiz struggled with drugs and alcohol. In 2016, she pleaded no contest to charges that included selling heroin, and was sentenced to six months in the county jail. When she was sober, “she was a beautiful person,” De La Cruz said. They had a child together, Julianna.

Misael De La Cruz, left, and Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, during a trip to Cuba.
Misael De La Cruz, left, and Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, during a trip to Cuba. [ COURTESY OF MISAEL DE LA CRUZ | Courtesy of Misael De La Cruz ]

The couple’s relationship was volatile. Figueroa-Ortiz was charged several times with battery and with violating no-contact orders related to those charges. Court records often listed De La Cruz as the victim.

Last year, the couple moved into a home on Carmen Lane, in a neighborhood just northeast of the Port Richey city limits.

De La Cruz, a 50-year-old handyman, planned to gut and remodel the single-story house. In front was a courtyard, where they put Julianna’s kiddie pool. Out back was a big fenced-in yard and a deep swimming pool. Beyond that, between them and the road that connected their neighborhood to U.S. 19, were the woods.

• • •

Three days before the shooting, on June 24, Figueroa-Ortiz and De La Cruz got into another fight. She was booked into jail late that night and released early the morning of June 26.

She spent the day with her mother. Scaggs could tell her daughter wasn’t taking her bipolar medication. Eventually, Scaggs said, De La Cruz called, looking for her, and they went to the house on Carmen Lane. Figueroa-Ortiz and De La Cruz fought again, Scaggs said, with Figueroa-Ortiz locking him out of the house at one point. He found his way back in, told Figueroa-Ortiz she had to move out and started moving her belongings outside.

At one point, Scaggs said, she glimpsed the two arguing through a window. Minutes later, Figueroa-Ortiz disappeared, possibly through a gap in the fence leading to the woods. It was the last time Scaggs saw her daughter.

Figueroa-Ortiz returned around 10 p.m., De La Cruz said. She had the gun, the two argued, and she threatened to hurt herself, he said. When he called 911, he expected police to send someone who could take Figueroa-Ortiz to a hospital.

Instead, he said, a swarm of deputies showed up. De La Cruz said Figueroa-Ortiz opened the door with the gun to her head.

He tried to calm her down, he said, but the deputies yelled at him to “get out of the house” and told her that “if you don’t follow our instructions, we will kill you.”

De La Cruz and Julianna exited the house. Later, he said, deputies went inside to look for Figueroa-Ortiz but couldn’t find her. She’d slipped out again. Haskins said she saw Figueroa-Ortiz moving through the woods around 12:30 or 1 a.m.

Misael De La Cruz, left, Julianna and Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz seen on Easter Sunday in 2019.
Misael De La Cruz, left, Julianna and Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz seen on Easter Sunday in 2019. [ COURTESY OF MISAEL DE LA CRUZ | Courtesy of Misael De La Cruz ]

A dispatch report for the 911 call, which the Times obtained through a public records request, includes notes detailing how deputies responded. It says the caller, De La Cruz, was arguing with someone, telling them to “get out of my house.” He told dispatchers that the mother of his child had broken into his house, according to the report.

Deputies arrived at the house at 10:23 p.m., six minutes after the call. Within minutes, the report said they saw a woman holding a revolver to her head. The report notes there were “no long guns only (handguns) in the house,” including one pistol, though it’s unclear where that information came from. De La Cruz later told the Times that there were no guns in the house. Scaggs said she believed there were guns there. The Sheriff’s Office has not addressed how she obtained a firearm.

The woman in the house was identified as Figueroa-Ortiz about 20 minutes after deputies arrived, according to the report. It notes both her criminal history and the fact that she had been previously taken into custody under the Baker Act after a suicide attempt.

Deputies had begun to “secure (the) outside of (the) house” five minutes after they arrived, the report said. Yet Figueroa-Ortiz eluded them. It’s unclear exactly when she fled, but at 10:47 p.m., deputies requested a helicopter to help the search and by 11 p.m. they were listing places she may have gone. At least 26 sheriff’s units ultimately responded to the scene, according to the report, including a hostage negotiator.

Deputies spent the next few hours searching for Figueroa-Ortiz. They left at 1:48 a.m.

De La Cruz said he couldn’t understand how she had managed to leave the house with so many deputies there. He blames them for the outcome hours later.

“I called the police to avoid a tragedy,” he said, “not cause a tragedy.”

• • •

Deputies showed up at Scaggs’ home late that night. Her memory is fuzzy, she said, but she believes they told her that her daughter had a gun and might hurt herself.

At 1:38 a.m., the Sheriff’s Office posted to Facebook, saying it was looking for Figueroa-Ortiz in the Port Richey area. The post did not mention she was armed.

Eight hours later, Figueroa-Ortiz had her conversation with Haskins. She told Haskins about the gun, though as the neighbor recalled, she said it was a toy (neither the Sheriff’s Office nor other witnesses have suggested the gun was fake). Figueroa-Ortiz also asked for a pen and paper, and wrote a note to her daughters and De La Cruz.

Later that morning, neighbor Danny Carroll noticed deputies and a social worker at De La Cruz’s house. Then, at about 1:40 p.m., Carroll was driving on Stone Road near U.S. 19 when someone darted across the street. He slammed on the brakes.

Deputies were on the north side of the street. Figueroa-Ortiz was running from them, headed south, back toward the woods and her home. And she had a gun in her hand.

Related: Pasco woman killed after firing on deputies, says Sheriff’s Office
Pasco County Sheriff's Office vehicles at the scene of the June 27 shooting.
Pasco County Sheriff's Office vehicles at the scene of the June 27 shooting. [ Bryan Farrow ]

She raised it toward the deputies, Carroll said. Then she pointed the gun down, he said, and shot into the grass beside her. That’s when Carroll started recording.

When the video began, Figueroa-Ortiz had the gun pointed to her head. For 10 seconds, she and the deputies across the street stared each other down. At least one deputy had a gun trained on her but did not shoot. Then she backed into the trees and disappeared.

“To be honest with you, those cops could have shot at any moment,” Carroll told the Times. “They had plenty of time to take her down, and they didn’t.”

De La Cruz said he was in the kitchen, getting milk for his daughter, when he heard 2-year-old Julianna exclaim: “Mommy!”

The girl was standing on the back patio. He followed her outside in time to see Figueroa-Ortiz running across the yard, then noticed a deputy standing a few feet away on the patio and heard a deputy’s gunshots.

De La Cruz said the deputy fired at least three times; Haskins, the neighbor, said she heard seven to nine shots. He did not see Figueroa-Ortiz point the gun at deputies, he said.

Their 2-year-old saw the whole thing.

De La Cruz said Figueroa-Ortiz lifted her head once, weakly, after she hit the ground. Then she lay her head back down and did not move again.

• • •

When the Sheriff’s Office first addressed the shooting on June 27, a spokeswoman told the Times that Figueroa-Ortiz faced arrest when she ran, then fired on deputies.

Later that day, the Sheriff’s Office said deputies were investigating an unrelated call when they encountered Figueroa-Ortiz, who had been reported missing. She ran and fired on deputies, the agency said, and they fired back.

The Sheriff’s Office has not explained why its account of the shooting changed. A spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the agency’s response to De La Cruz’s June 26 call. The spokeswoman would not confirm that deputies were fired on or address what witnesses told the Times.

Beyond the body-camera footage, the agency has not released other records involving the case, saying the investigation is still active.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the deputy’s actions in the shooting. A spokeswoman for the agency said it was still processing a records request from the Times.

Arthur Lurigio, a professor at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the intersection of psychology and criminal justice for more than 35 years, said the shooting didn’t surprise him: A 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed in an encounter with police.

Officers must act when someone has a gun, Lurigio said, and sometimes, they have to act swiftly.

“But here’s what tells me that she wasn’t so much a danger to the police: that she’s going into the woods, and if she wanted to shoot the police, she could have shot at the police immediately.”

That Figueroa-Ortiz didn’t shoot herself, and that she reportedly ran from deputies, suggests that she was unsure if she wanted to die, Lurigio said. If De La Cruz’s account is accurate, Lurigio said, the deputy standing on the back patio was likely following procedure by shooting a woman running toward them with a gun.

“I think that’s going to be ruled justifiable,” he said. “But all of what played out before then was what I would call a missed opportunity to intervene — to possibly de-escalate.”

He said deputies’ best option, when Figueroa-Ortiz had the gun to her head, would have been distracting her with conversation until a mental health expert could arrive.

Most law enforcement officers aren’t extensively trained to intervene in mental health crises; a central point of the movement to defund the police has been that experts, not armed officers, should be the first to respond in these scenarios and could be hired with funds diverted from police agencies.

Related: How ‘defund the police’ went mainstream, and what that means

Lurigio is a proponent of crisis intervention teams, specialized units of officers educated in mental health services. The Sheriff’s Office established such a team last year but would not say if it responded to Figueroa-Ortiz’s house on June 26 or 27.

John McGuire, an attorney representing Figueroa-Ortiz’s mother and children, said he hasn’t been able to see the body-cam footage to determine if there’s a legal case. But he said seeing exactly what happened may be the only way for her family to get closure.

Misael De La Cruz said his daughter has been confused since the shooting. She understands something happened to her mom, he said, but she doesn’t grasp that it’s permanent. She keeps expecting her to come home.

Related: UPDATE: Pasco deputy who killed armed, suicidal woman will not face charges

Times staff writers Juan Carlos Chavez and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

Julianna De La Cruz, 2, plays in the yard of her Port Richey home. Her mother, 40-year-old Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, was shot and killed by a Pasco County sheriff's deputy June 27. The mother was armed and experiencing a mental health crisis when she was fatally shot.
Julianna De La Cruz, 2, plays in the yard of her Port Richey home. Her mother, 40-year-old Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, was shot and killed by a Pasco County sheriff's deputy June 27. The mother was armed and experiencing a mental health crisis when she was fatally shot. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]