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D.C. man charged in day-care attack was released — then arrested again

1 month ago 21

For months, staff members at Petit Scholars day care worried that Russell Fred Dunkley III, arrested in October and charged with beating two of their teachers in front of toddlers on a stroll in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, would be freed ahead of his trial.

He had been arrested before and released before, never getting the psychiatric care he needed, according to his sister, who last year detailed how Dunkley’s schizophrenia had transformed a productive young man into an unsheltered and sometimes unwelcome fixture in the Northwest Washington community where they were raised.

Despite her efforts to help, she said then, Dunkley kept falling through the cracks of the city’s mental health system, charged with harassing and assaulting people and engaging in lewd acts without amassing a single conviction. Charged only with misdemeanors, he was again released last month in a familiar pattern — from handcuffs to treatment at a city-run or contracted mental health facility to release. This time, police say, he returned to the old neighborhood where he had been accused of the assault.

When a dog-walker spotted him in late May near the day care on Florida Avenue NW, everyone went “back in panic mode,” said La Shada Ham-Campbell, the founder Petit Scholars. Police picked up Dunkley on charges of violating an order to stay away from the area, but he was quickly ushered back into the same system that had just released him in a process partially shielded from public view.

His previous case drew scrutiny for how it illuminated the city’s struggle to handle a man with mental illness alleged to be repeatedly committing crimes, ultimately informing a proposal to change public mental health crisis care from a D.C. Council member. Some residents and others involved in the system say his latest arrest demonstrates how much work is still needed.

Dunkley could not be held pending trial because of the low level of the charges against him in the Oct. 23 attack, in which police allege he became enraged after a teacher would not give him money. Court records say he bloodied a teacher’s nose, hit another teacher in the head, exposed himself and committed a lewd act in front of two dozen toddlers who had paused their daily walk to sit on a small stone wall, sip water and sing songs. It all came as a city reeled from spikes in shootings, carjackings and robberies, and this case seemed to cross another threshold of violent acts that city residents were forced to endure.

His lawyer did not return an interview request. Neither did his sister, who at first struggled to gain access to information about Dunkley’s care before securing legal guardianship. For Ham-Campbell, who relied on a council member to keep apprised about Dunkley’s status as his case moved forward, his release and rearrest showed her the system has failed the people it is supposed to help and residents it is supposed to protect.

While she said Dunkley should be entitled to some privacy, she praised efforts to effect systems-level change, such as a bill from D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) to lengthen the time a person in a mental health crisis can be involuntarily held for emergency observation from seven to 15 days, to provide health workers more time to complete an evaluation.

“This is one individual in one neighborhood,” Ham-Campbell said. “Unfortunately, there are probably Dunkleys in a lot of neighborhoods. What do we do with them? That is the question.”

Simon Fuerstenberg, the executive director of the D.C.-based Consumer Advocate Network, which advocates for people with mental health issues, said striking a balance between patient rights and public safety can be difficult. He said the Department of Behavioral Health’s goal “should be preparing [patients] to be released,” with the help they need to remain free of confinement, but also not a threat to the citizenry.

“Ultimately, the system is underserving the people who need it the most,” Fuerstenberg said, adding that the system needs more staff, more transparency and more oversight.

In a statement, the Department of Behavioral Health said assistance is given “in the least restrictive environment.” The officials said agency psychiatrists can recommend to judges that a person be treated at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and if discharged, continue treatment though “high intensity services, supportive housing, and regular assessments to support the resident’s sustained recovery and the well-being of the entire community.”

Court records show that authorities held Dunkley for mental health observation for months after his Oct. 23 arrest, with periodic civil commitment hearings — one of which a reporter for The Washington Post attempted to observe on April 25.

The hearing was held under the auspices of the Commission on Mental Health, psychiatrists appointed by the chief judge, and chaired by a judge, tasked with determining treatment options for psychiatric patients under court-ordered care. Magistrate Judge Janet E. Albert of D.C. Superior Court oversaw the hearing, which included two psychiatrists.

Dunkley was represented by an attorney from the Public Defender Service. His sister was also present. A lawyer for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General represented the Department of Behavioral Health. Both attorneys objected to a reporter being present and requested the hearing be closed to the public.

Michael Vlcek of the attorney general’s office argued that “we are providing information regarding the discharge that is confidential.” He said he was concerned the public may learn the date for Dunkley’s discharge, and where he might be living, which could lead to problems for him because of the publicity generated by the case.

Albert ordered the hearing closed, and its outcome was not revealed until a May 3 entry in Dunkley’s criminal case noting his pending release on May 6. It’s not clear what Dunkley’s treatment plan was upon his discharge from Saint Elizabeths, or how the decision to release him was reached. Court records only indicate he was put into outpatient care.

Authorities said he could not be jailed while awaiting trial following his release from the hospital, because none of his charges reached a felony threshold. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing charging decisions. Prosecutors wrote in a court document that they would seek detention for Dunkley “if the government develops evidence sufficient to charge a violent or dangerous crime” specified by D.C. law.

Court papers show that prosecutors asked a judge last year to impose several restrictions in the event of his release — including barring Dunkley from a roughly 24-square-block area of Bloomingdale, placing him under pretrial supervision and assigning him a GPS tracking device.

The conditions were “necessary to reasonably assure the safety of the community if the defendant is released,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana M. Joseph, who noted that the random and repeated nature of the alleged offenses “are easily on the most serious end of the spectrum of misdemeanor-level conduct.”

A judge granted the stay-away order and the supervision, but not the GPS device.

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