Suspect's incomplete file blamed in escape from Crownsville State health officials review procedures

November 21, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

State health officials reviewing the escape from Crownsville Hospital Center last week of a suspect in a carjacking say he would have been sent to a more secure facility for an evaluation had they known of allegations of recent violent crimes.

Doctors at Crownsville, where Shawn A. Chowanetz, 30, was sent for a psychiatric evaluation, thought they were dealing with a man charged with felony theft and traffic violations, according to Oscar Morgan, interim director of the state Mental Hygiene Administration. They didn't know that he was wanted in Howard County in connection with a carjacking, robbery and assault on Nov. 1, he said.

Had the psychologist who screened Chowanetz known of the Howard County incident, Chowanetz "probably would have been sent to [Clifton T.] Perkins," the maximum-security mental HTC hospital, said W. Lawrence Fitch, director of the office of forensics screening for the state health department.

Instead, he was sent to Crownsville state mental health facility, from which he escaped Nov. 12. Two days later, he was shot and wounded by a police officer on the parking lot of North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie, and was charged with robbery, stealing a car and trying to take an elderly man's car by force.

Chowanetz is in good condition at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Officials at Crownsville say they are reviewing their procedures for securing patients when they leave the locked housing ward because of last week's escape.

Richard Baker, administrator of Anne Arundel Detention Center, said health department officials were notified of all Chowanetz's convictions and charges. The Howard County warrant was filed Nov. 17, five days after Chowanetz's escape.

Baker said when the psychologist from the state health department went to the jail to screen Chowanetz for competency, she was given a packet of information that included his criminal history -- a conviction in 1992 for assault with intent to maim, and theft, for which he was given parole; charges in 1995 of assault with intent to maim, battery, theft and unauthorized use of a vehicle; and a November violation of probation stemming from the 1992 incident.

The 1995 assault charge was dropped, but Chowanetz is scheduled to be tried in February on other charges arising from that incident.

"Our information was put in a summary and given to the screener," Baker said. "It's the screener's decision as to what type of setting is appropriate."

Fitch said that nothing the screener had seen would have suggested that Chowanetz might be a security risk. Knowing about the carjacking charges might have led to a different result, he added. People accused of murder, arson, rape and armed robbery are routinely sent to Perkins, he said.

According to police and court records, Chowanetz hijacked an elderly Howard County man's 1992 Buick at gunpoint at Elkridge Corners Shopping Center Nov. 1.

The next day, Anne Arundel Officer Anthony Tortorici spotted the Buick, allegedly doing 61 mph in a 45-mph zone on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park.

Tortorici stopped the car on a store parking lot and a passenger got out and ran, police said. The driver sped away and led Tortorici on a chase through Severna Park and Pasadena until the car crashed into a traffic sign on the northbound Route 2 ramp to Route 100, police said.

The driver got out and tried to run, but Tortorici stopped him, according to court records.

Chowanetz was charged with theft because, police say, he was driving a stolen car and 12 traffic violations, including fleeing police and driving while intoxicated.

He was held on $125,000 bond until his bail review hearing on Nov. 3, when District Judge Vincent Mulieri ordered an evaluation and set no bond. Within days, Dr. Lorraine McDermott, a psychologist, did an initial screening of Chowanetz at the detention center and referred him to Crownsville for further screening.

"It seemed to be extremely appropriate that we were assigned the case," said Crownsville Superintendent Ronald Hendler. "Most of the charges where we do the evaluation are misdemeanor charges or not serious or violent crimes. When the patient came to us, we did not know about him possibly being charged in another jurisdiction."

Chowanetz was admitted to the secured ward of the hospital Nov. 10, Hendler said. His file included only Mulieri's request for a competency evaluation and a report from McDermott, but no criminal history. Fitch said that is not unusual.

"It's not information that's key to the assessment we're asked to do," Fitch said. "The screener's job is to find out if the person is competent to stand trial. It's not so much addressing issues of risk of violence."

Chowanetz, who was injured in the crash at Route 100, remained in the secured ward Nov. 11 and was taken to the unsecured medical building the morning of Nov. 12 for X-rays. He asked to use the bathroom, kicked out a screen in the window, and fled, according to court documents.

Two days later, police said, he robbed a man at a Glen Burnie shopping center of $100 and used an acquaintance's Mercury Topaz to flee to Baltimore, where he left the Topaz running and stole a black 1991 Chevrolet Camaro.

Soon after 3 p.m. on Nov. 14, an officer spotted Chowanetz in the Camaro, which had crashed on a traffic island near Oakwood Road and Hospital Drive, according to court records. Police said Officer Bryan Malar ordered Chowanetz out of the car, and Chowanetz ran to the North Arundel Hospital parking lot, where he tried to take a car from an elderly man. Malar ordered Chowanetz to lie on the ground and shot him in his side when he reached toward his pocket, police said.

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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