Courts, doctors failed to spot tragedy in making

July 07, 1991|By Suzanne Wooton, Ginger Thompson and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Suzanne Wooton, Ginger Thompson and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SOURCES: Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Division of Parole and Probation; Baltimore District and Circuit Court records.

He had become a fixture along the streets of West Baltimore, pushing a broken grocery cart piled high with junk. He directed traffic in the nude, talked to himself and proclaimed he was God.

To those who knew him, Arnold Bates was crazy and unpredictable. Released on strict conditions from a state mental hospital, he had been judged harmless enough, though, to remain in society.

But during the past year and a half, Bates was arrested repeatedly for thefts and assaults. He used cocaine. He vowed to stop taking his medication. He was described by a judge as a potential danger. By this past spring, mental health officials were threatening to send him back to an institution.

They didn't take him off the streets, though. Two weeks ago, Bates walked into a West Baltimore Social Services office where he allegedly killed a 29-year-old caseworker with an eight-inch butcher knife after arguing about food stamps.

Until then, Bates' increasingly troubled behavior was tolerated by those charged with protecting both the mentally ill and society. Time and again, the 34-year-old schizophrenic got breaks.

Prosecutors dropped misdemeanor charges against him. Probation and parole officials missed opportunities to return him to jail. Mental health officials saw his crimes as relatively trivial.

And while they ordered him to stay away from drugs and alcohol and follow other strict rules, they relied mostly on Bates to tell them if he got into trouble.

To the criminal justice system, Bates apparently was just another petty criminal, a chronic nuisance like so many others.

To his doctors and counselors, he was a patient whose privacy was to be respected.

Almost nobody saw Arnold Bates as a serious threat. To the family and friends of the slain social worker, that was a tragic miscalculation.

"We stand in solidarity against the system that allows sick and mental patients to be released," said Mildred Bradshaw, a co-worker, at Tanja Brown-O'Neal's funeral.

Indeed, while predicting such a crime may be virtually impossible, the case of Arnold Bates raises the same troubling questions that have been asked for 20 years, ever since some of society's most unpredictable people have been released for treatment in the community, rather than kept in locked institutions.

How well do the criminal justice and mental health systems work together to monitor a man like Arnold Bates? How can they balance the desire to treat, though not confine such people -- and protect society at the same time?

"You run into clashing consider ations," said Judge Alan M. Wilner, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals who served on two gubernatorial task forces that examined the issue. "You don't punish people who are sick. But that theory runs into reality."

"Never been right since"

On a summer night more than a decade ago, state troopers found Arnold Bates wandering naked outside the gates at the Capital Centre in Largo. Dazed and incoherent, he apparently had taken the drug known as PCP, or angel dust.

"They took him to Crownsville [state hospital]," recalled his sister, Harriet Penney. "When we saw him, he was in a straitjacket and foaming around his mouth. At first, we could only look into a little room to see him."

That was the beginning of Bates' troubles.

"He's never been right since," said Hattie Bates, Arnold's mother. "That angel dust really messed up his mind.

Bates was the youngest of six children raised by Hattie and Herbert Bates. Mr. Bates, who died six years ago, was a city school bus driver and supervisor. His wife, now 71, worked as an elevator operator. They owned a home in the 1900 block of West Fayette Street, an integrated, working-class neighborhood when Arnold was growing up.

He was a friendly and considerate child, his mother recalled. "When he'd hear about somebody in the hospital, he'd walk right up there and see them," Mrs. Bates said. "If you needed something at the store, or your steps scrubbed, Arnold was there."

In the early '70s, he dropped out of Edmondson High School and did odd jobs. Eventually the Job Corps trained him as a welder and got him work at Bethlehem Steel Corp. He stayed three years, making good money, even buying a car.

Then came the PCP incident. "After that, it was all downhill," said Mrs. Bates.

In December 1978, Bates was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. Within a year, he was arrested for destroying property. He was sent to Springfield State Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him as an acute schizophrenic.

After two months, he was released. He was told to get a job, undergo therapy at the Walter P. Carter Center, in the 600 block of West Fayette street, and take anti-psychotic medication.

"When he took his medicine, he was as calm as a cucumber," said Mrs. Bates.

"But when he was off, he was nervous, extremely nervous. He just couldn't swallow those pills . . . Pretty soon, though, they started giving him shots at Carter."

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