Prevent crime by improving Florida’s mental health system | Editorial
Floridians pay more on the back end for holes in the safety net.
Michael Samdass, left, before he disappeared from his home in Canada in 2019, and right, after his arrest in Tampa in May.
Michael Samdass, left, before he disappeared from his home in Canada in 2019, and right, after his arrest in Tampa in May. [ Courtesy of Michael Samdass family/Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 16

A spasm of violence on a Tampa sidewalk this spring forever changed two lives whose paths weren’t seemingly destined to cross. Their story is a reminder of how mental health anywhere plays into public safety everywhere, especially in this connected, ever-growing state.

The 30-year-old woman didn’t think twice about the homeless man she passed on her walk that evening on a Hyde Park sidewalk in May. Suddenly, he grabbed her, slammed her down and punched her time and again, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Sue Carlton and Dan Sullivan chronicled recently. A lawyer walking nearby heard the woman’s cries and ran to help. Taylor, whom the Times is identifying by only her first name, suffered a broken nose, a concussion, bruises and abrasions. Charles McKeon, the lawyer, also suffered a concussion. Police arrested the homeless man on nearby Bayshore Boulevard. He gave the name Esja Beelzebub Nodopa — Beelzebub being a name for the devil.

The “devil,” investigators would learn, was really Michael Samdass. The 44-year-old had vanished from Canada more than three years earlier. He worked in real estate, had a close family and was the sort of person who matched his clothes so he looked put together when he went out. His family later sought his detention for psychological treatment after the former art student and real estate flipper had started “talking to the clouds.” Samdass was tested but released repeatedly. He vanished on Sept. 5, 2019. Despite a monthslong police investigation and a five-figure reward, he wasn’t found until a missing person’s group matched him to a jail mug shot in Florida.

This tragedy coming together is bizarre, and it leaves continuing anguish for the victims and Samdass’ family alike. Taylor is still processing the experience. The lawyer imagines what worse could have happened. And Samdass’ mother and sisters are left reconciling with the ache of losing a brother and the pain he caused to others.

It took a Hillsborough judge last month all of one minute to commit Samdass for evaluation at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, near Tallahassee, originally built in the 1830s as a U.S. Army depot during the Seminole Wars. He’ll return to Tampa to face charges of aggravated battery if found competent to stand trial.

It’s worth wondering: Was there one minute, one day or one experience that could have turned this all around? How can people fall through the cracks even within the best public safety nets? How prepared is Florida to provide the continuing care that mental health care programs require? And where does outreach fit in once clients and loved ones are no longer engaged?

It’s worth remembering, as the Times noted, that the homeless are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators. But nationally, at least 25% of homeless people are believed to be seriously mentally ill. And the homeless population in Tampa and Hillsborough County has grown to a recorded 2,040 in 2023, up more than 500 from the year before. That’s a lot of unpredictability on a lot of Tampa sidewalks.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.