Mental patient charged in woman's death lived in coed hall, despite violent history

El Soudani El-Wahhabi, 49, is charged after female inmate is found with a string tied around her neck

September 27, 2010|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

A state-run facility where one mental patient has been charged with killing another suffers from significant staffing shortages and has a history of patient-on-patient assaults — averaging about one assault every three days in 2009, according to the department that oversees the hospital.

El Soudani El-Wahhabi, 49, was charged Monday in the death of 45-year-old Susan Sachs after Sachs was found Sunday morning lying face down on her bed at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup with a shoelace tied around her neck. Both El-Wahhabi and Sachs were at the facility in connection with previous killings; according to court documents, they lived three rooms apart on the same hospital hall.

El-Wahhabi has a long history of sexual violence against women but was placed in a coed medium-security ward in July, state police said.

Robert Cure, a former Perkins Hospital security sergeant who worked there for 20 years, said he interacted with both El-Wahhabi — who previously went by the name of Saladin Ishmael Taylor — and Sachs. He said El-Wahhabi had no business being on the same hall with women.

"We knew that Saladin was a killer, and that at no time can you relax on Saladin," Cure said. "Saladin was absolutely a noted, documented killer of women."

Most of the hospital's facilities are maximum-security, and patients are moved to less restrictive wards based on a review by a hospital board. Men and women can commingle in medium- and minimum-security wards at the hospital, police said.

Only about 10 percent — 20 to 25 — of the hospital's approximately 210 patients are women. Perkins, the only maximum-security psychiatric hospital in the state, houses individuals found unfit to stand trial on serious charges such as assault and murder.

Fifteen years ago, in September 1995, El-Wahhabi was charged in the death of Mona Johnson, 26, after a piece of his tongue was found at the crime scene. El-Wahhabi, who was on parole at the time after serving two years of a five-year sentence, showed up at a meeting with his parole officer the day after Johnson's murder and claimed he had bitten off his own tongue, according to Baltimore Sun reports at the time.

State court records indicate that El-Wahhabi has a criminal record stretching back to the early 1980s, and this was not his first stint at the hospital. He had previously been sent to Perkins after a judge found him mentally unfit to stand trial on charges that he sexually assaulted his sister-in-law while he was wearing lingerie.

A current employee of the hospital, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the news media, said many people at the hospital had concerns about El-Wahhabi's placement.

The employee said El-Wahhabi had not threatened anyone in years, but "you're always going to have your speculations because of the crime that got the person there."

"People were second-guessing and questioning the move of putting him on a unit that had women, or even putting him in medium security," the employee said.

"There are so many places Saladin Taylor should have been, as opposed to around women," said Cure, the former hospital security officer.

He said he would deliver bras and panties to El-Wahhabi's room, which El-Wahhabi would wear. He was well-read and intelligent, Cure said, but quiet and kept to himself.

A focus on cutting costs had led administrators to let go of experienced staff who knew individual patient history, Cure said, adding that he was forced into early retirement in September 2009.

Sheilah A. Davenport has been the chief executive at Perkins Hospital for four years. She previously headed Crownsville Hospital Center in Anne Arundel County, which was closed in 2004. Hospital officials did not comment on the case, citing an open police investigation.

A 2010 report by the Office of Policy Analysis found that Perkins Hospital had a shortage of about 188 staff members.

And a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report found that in 2009, there were about 129 patient-on-patient assaults, around a third of which resulted in injuries to patients. The audit also found that the average admission in 2009 cost more than $342,000, an increase of more than 10 percent over 2008.

El-Wahhabi filed a writ of habeas corpus against the hospital in 1993, contending that he was being detained unlawfully.

In this weekend's incident, according to court records, hospital footage showed El-Wahhabi and Sachs speaking to each other between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, and police interviews revealed that the two were friends. El-Wahhabi told police that he entered Sachs' room, kissed her, placed the string around her neck and tightened it. A struggle ensued, until Sachs stopped breathing.

A preliminary report from the medical examiner's office indicates, police said, that Sachs died of asphyxiation through strangulation.

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