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Charges Against Teacher Rejected

Court: Threat case had been based on man's statements at a hospital where he sought help.

November 17, 2001|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County judge dismissed all charges Friday against a San Clemente high school teacher who was arrested earlier this year after telling hospital workers he felt like killing his supervisors.

The decision came over the objections of prosecutors, who had charged Frank Gardner with making a terrorist threat as he talked to staff members at an Orange County hospital. The judge's ruling is in line with a decision last month by a state appellate court, which held that patients cannot be prosecuted for expressing threats in a medical setting.

Gardner, who spent two months in jail after his arrest, said he was glad the episode was behind him. "I'm relieved. I could have been [sent] to jail for having a nervous breakdown and going to my doctor. That's terrible," Gardner said.

Gardner had been prosecuted under a California law that makes it a crime to threaten others with violence. At one point, he was held on $500,000 bond before a judge lowered the bail.

Gardner's lawyer, Stephen Klarich, said the decision was significant because it underscores that people who feel like harming others can seek treatment--and express their honest feelings--without fear of prosecution.

"This applies to more than just Frank. What it means is, if you are having these bad thoughts, evil thoughts, thoughts of harming people . . . you can seek help," Klarich said.

Gardner was arrested in February after telling hospital staff members he felt like taking his gun and killing his supervisors. The teacher told hospital officials he was angry because the supervisors had unfairly disciplined him.

Before the case could go to trial, a Los Angeles appellate court overturned the conviction of a jail inmate who was prosecuted for telling a jail psychologist that he wanted to harm a girlfriend. The court held that people who feel like killing might not seek therapy if they knew they could be prosecuted.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Fell argued that the case did not apply because Gardner had expressed his threat to a nurse, not a therapist. But Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald disagreed.

"The case is on point. Mr. Gardner was at the hospital seeking help. . . . This defendant overreacted and needs some anger-management control," the judge said before releasing Gardner with a warning: "Get yourself under control."

For more than two decades therapists in California have been required to report threats of violence to the intended victims. But Orange County prosecutors argued that Gardner could also be charged with making the threats, even if he did not make the threat directly to the supervisors.

Gardner, 50, who agreed to give up his job after his arrest, said he was devastated by the arrest and prosecution. A 22-year resident of San Clemente, Gardner said many in the beach town are aware of his plight.

"It's embarrassing. I tend not to go out. . . . I was made out to be a crazy. I've never been in a psychiatric hospital in my life," he said. "I've been able to barely hold on with the help of a few friends."

School officials who were the subject of Gardner's threat declined to comment. Gardner said he's not sure of his plans, but said he may consider trying to resume his teaching career at a different school. "It's really sad," he said. "I was a good teacher. And I loved it."

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