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Better Security Urged at Mental Hospital : Ventura: The police chief blames budget cuts for the number of escapees. He defends the decision of officers not to arrest the man who later allegedly stabbed a woman to death.

January 22, 1992|GARY GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying police have to round up escapees from the county mental hospital "a dozen or more times a week," Ventura Police Chief Richard Thomas on Tuesday called for better security at the facility.

"I would like to see more ability to hold people and tighter security," Thomas said. "I think the current ability has been eroded, mainly due to budget problems."

The comments came at a news conference in which Thomas defended the actions of two officers who decided not to arrest a patient who had walked away from the county medical center Friday.

Minutes after the police let him go, the man allegedly stabbed a 90-year-old woman to death.

Although the officers "exercised lawful discretion" in not making an arrest, Thomas said the department will review its policies "to see if we can develop future approaches that will avert this type of tragedy."

As part of that effort, he said, police will meet with mental health authorities and other county officials.

Although suspect Kevin Kolodziej, 25, walked away from the medical center and not the adjacent county mental hospital, the slaying has provoked an outcry from nearby residents who said they frequently see dazed mental patients in leg shackles shuffling along their streets.

Thomas said he, too, lives near the mental hospital and "occasionally I see some patients wandering around my neighborhood."

On his police radio, he hears police called to the mental hospital "on a frequent basis," he said.

Years ago, Thomas said, people suspected of being mentally ill "would have been in locked facilities like Camarillo State Hospital and getting the treatment that could help them."

The chief said he was not criticizing mental health officials, who he said are under budget restraints.

And in his 22 years with the department, Thomas said, there have been no violent incidents in the neighborhood that were attributed to mental patients.

The county's director of mental health, Randall Feltman, declined to comment on the chief's remarks.

He said Phillipp Wessels, director of the county's health care agency, which oversees both the medical center and the mental hospital, will hold a news conference today.

While Thomas was meeting with reporters Tuesday, relatives of slaying victim Velasta Johnson said they believed that they found the weapon that had eluded police officers for more than four days.

Steve Hildreth, Johnson's oldest grandson, said relatives were going through boxes of photographs when his aunt, Sharyn Flanigan, found a bloody kitchen knife on the floor of a bedroom closet.

They called police, who sent officers to pick up the knife, Hildreth said.

The officers told Hildreth that it would take a week for the blood tests needed to confirm whether the knife is the weapon used in the killing.

Immediately after Johnson's slaying, police "tore the living room apart" and lifted the carpeting in their effort to find the knife, Hildreth said, adding that they were careful to restore the room afterward.

He was not sure how extensively the other rooms were searched.

Police also used metal detectors in nearby yards and chopped down a bush in front of the Johnson home, thinking that the knife might be hidden in its branches.

After the officers took the knife Tuesday, Hildreth said he checked the closet one more time to make sure that police had not overlooked something that might later upset his grandfather, Clyde Johnson, the victim's husband.

"They still missed something," Hildreth said. "I found a dress that looked like the knife had touched it. The dress had an inch-long bloodstain."

Sgt. Roger Nustad, who is overseeing the investigation, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Thomas said the city and the Police Department are "truly saddened by the events that led to the death of Mrs. Johnson. . . . We regret this tragedy occurred."

But he said the two officers who decided not to arrest Kolodziej had acted in accordance with both state law and department policy.

The officers--Alex Marquez, 29, and John Snowling, 28--were told by a police dispatcher that there was no mental health hold on the patient, Thomas said.

Mental health officials had interviewed Kolodziej twice last week at the medical center, where he was being treated for stab wounds, and apparently decided that he was not a danger to himself or others, the chief said.

In talking to the officers, Kolodziej was "coherent, cooperative, nonviolent and non-threatening," the chief said. Thomas acknowledged that Kolodziej apparently had illegally entered a garage and taken a pair of painter's overalls when the officers found him.

However, he said, "it is typical to deal with such persons in a non-enforcement mode, even when a mentally ill person has committed misdemeanor crimes such as trespassing, minor thefts, etc."

The officers spoke with both the man who rents the garage and with David Brom, a nearby resident who called police to report that Kolodziej had entered his house.

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