SALISBURY - The mother of an Eastern Shore man who has pleaded an insanity defense in the killings of two law enforcement officers last year told jurors here yesterday that she became aware of her son's mental illness when powerful antipsychotic drugs were prescribed for him as early as the first or second grade.
In the first day of testimony in the defense of Francis Mario Zito, who could receive the death sentence, Betty Zito said her son was admitted to mental hospitals perhaps a dozen times or more as a teen-ager.
Mrs. Zito said she has signed papers committing her son to mental institutions at least 10 times since 1993, when the family moved to the trailer park she owns in Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat.
The two officers, Centreville police Officer Michael S. Nickerson and county Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz, were killed when hit by shotgun fire as they attempted to enter Frank Zito's trailer home on Feb. 13, 2001. The officers were responding to a noise complaint and intended to charge Zito with disorderly conduct, according to court testimony.
Half a dozen of Frank Zito's neighbors related numerous incidents in which he has talked about perceived conspiracies against him or has spoken to inanimate objects in recent years.
Chris Kelbaugh, who owns a tavern near the trailer park, said Zito's bizarre behavior had led the previous owner to ban Zito from the bar, a rule Kelbaugh has continued.
"There are times when I think Frank is competent; at times I've had literate conversations," Kelbaugh testified in the courtroom in Wicomico County, where the trial was moved because of publicity. "But there are times when he's outside talking to my Dumpster."
Carolyn Ickes, a District Court commissioner in Queen Anne's, testified that Zito had once told her that someone was stealing royalty checks from his mailbox that were for songs he had written for Barbra Streisand and other performers.
The trial is expected to continue today with testimony from psychiatrists who have evaluated Zito.
For more details about the events that led up to the shootings in Centreville, published in The Sun in June, log on to www.sunspot.net/zito.