Santa Barbara County
Originally published July 26, 2018 at 12:00a.m., updated August 10, 2018 at 10:27a.m.
The state’s psychiatric hospital system was ordered to hurry up and find space for a severely mentally ill Buellton man who got into a fight with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies this April under the delusional belief that he was the hero of the Terminator action films, John Connor. Judge Michael Duffy found that Brent Fox, charged with assault on law enforcement officers, had spiraled into a profound state of psychological deterioration since being jailed April 5.
Duffy — a retired judge on loan from San Luis Obispo County — ordered state hospital administrators to place Fox in a psychiatric unit by July 31, roughly a month sooner than the 90-day deadline imposed in May. That’s when Fox, diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, was determined incompetent to stand trial. Fox’s behavior only got worse. Just before a procedural hearing this June, Fox smeared himself with his own feces and was not allowed into the courtroom.
His parents contend he’s lost more than 40 pounds since being jailed. Fox — who has been placed on involuntary psychiatric holds three times for posing a threat to himself in recent years — has steadfastly refused any kind of medication or voluntary hospitalization, even though his parents have insurance to cover a hospital stay.
Judge Duffy’s ruling constituted a preemptive blow against any delays in placement by California state hospitals. With demand for bed spaces greatly exceeding supply, eight jurisdictions have sued the state to crowbar space for their mentally ill prisoners. In San Luis Obispo, one judge — Ginger Garrett — served notice on the state hospitals that she was inclined to fine the state $1,500 per violation on behalf of six criminal defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial. Housing was found for those defendants.
Fox was arrested April 5 at his family’s home. He increasingly believed people were trying to poison him with chemicals. A former football player, Fox could be disruptive and physically challenging. When Fox’s father called 9-1-1, he specifically requested mental-health crisis workers who could place Fox on what’s known as a 5150 hold, allowing Fox to be hospitalized involuntarily for up to three days. The parents — having dealt with their son’s mental illness for 13 years — had secured a special insurance policy that covered such treatment. But no mental-health workers were ever dispatched. Instead, Sheriff’s deputies were sent. One of them knew Fox from an incident two years prior, when Fox — having been pulled over for intoxication — pushed one of the officers and fled. Fox was on felony probation for that altercation.
When the deputies arrived, Fox stood on a table, briefly wielding an umbrella, and challenged the deputies to fight. At one point, one of the deputies responded, “Okay, I’ll fight you.” Fox leaped down from the table. John Connor or not, he was no match for them. They tased Fox four times, flipped him over, and handcuffed him. One deputy sustained ill-defined injuries from the exchange. Fox himself got banged up, suffering damage to his nose and a knee.
Had mental-health crisis workers been dispatched as requested, Fox’s parents and attorney insist, he could have been “5150’d” and taken to UCLA’s psychiatric hospital in April. Instead, he was placed in the county jail, where his health has dramatically declined.
The Brent Fox story is hardly unique, said his attorney, Erica Sutherland. “We see these cases all too frequently.” The problem, she said, is finding space in a state hospital. Last year, Santa Barbara County sent 55 prisoners deemed incompetent to stand trial to state psychiatric hospitals. The year before that, the number was 71.
While prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Fox — diagnosed with acute schizophrenia when he was charged with assaulting a peace officer — needed to be removed from County Jail and hospitalized, there was also strong disagreement by the two sides over the nature of the charges initially filed against Fox. Fox was initially charged with felony counts; defense attorney Erica Sutherland fought to have them reduced to misdemeanor charges. Ultimately, Judge Patricia Kelly ruled Fox should be charged with misdemeanors and not felonies.
According to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kelly Hoover, the deputies who responded to Brent Fox "showed great restraint and patience even after they were assaulted by Mr. Fox." He's been followed up by Lt. Eddie Hseuh, who oversees the Sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Team, in an attempt to find an alternative to jail.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on August 10, 2018, to clarify the degree of consensus between prosecutors and defense attorneys.