YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Shutting door to treatment

When those descending into mental illness commit a crime, their chances of getting needed help can dissolve when law enforcement arrives.

December 07, 2007|Lee Romney and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

ORLAND, CALIF. — Torrie Gonzales stood at the stove, laughing with her boyfriend as she fried him some eggs on his 23rd birthday. Then she felt him press a flimsy blade against her neck.

Struggling on the floor, she pried a paring knife from Reny Cabral's hand, leaving him curled up in a ball, sobbing and seemingly horrified.

"He said, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I'm so sorry,' " recalled Gonzales, now 25.

Twice more he attacked her, choking her until she passed out, then performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive her. Finally, he raised his arms with a look of panic and walked into the orchard adjacent to his parents' modest rural home.

A neighbor, hearing Gonzales' screams, dialed 911.

In the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, Cabral had been exhibiting symptoms of an emerging psychotic illness. He was held, briefly, in a psychiatric facility. But once Glenn County sheriff's deputies responded to the 911 call, he lost any chance of being treated in the mental health system. He would now be dealt with as a criminal, with catastrophic consequences.

As the availability of acute inpatient services has diminished, rising numbers of the mentally ill are ending up behind bars. About 350,000 of the country's 2.1 million inmates have been diagnosed with severe mental illness, said Dr. H. Richard Lamb, director of research for the Institute of Mental Health, Law, and Public Policy at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

Some mentally ill people find themselves diagnosed and treated for the first time after being incarcerated. But jails and prisons -- never designed for therapeutic care -- often trigger deeper crises, Lamb said.

What happened to Cabral provides a stark illustration of just how wrong things can go. Today, Cabral is not only facing criminal charges and struggling with mental illness; he is also paralyzed from the mid-chest down, unable to walk, to dial a phone or hold a pen.

Arturo and Rosa Cabral immigrated to Orland in the late 1970s from the hills of Zacatecas in central Mexico. On the flat expanse of the northern Sacramento Valley, hard work was plentiful in orchards of almonds, olives and plums.

In time, they forged their own business as landscapers and had three sons, who helped from the time they were young.

None pitched in with as little complaint as Reny. "Conscientious," "always respectful," and "a cut above the outstanding" an array of elementary and high school teachers wrote of him in letters last spring to the Glenn County Superior Court.

He ran track and played basketball, baseball and football, all while making the honor roll. Photographs show him beaming as prom king.

At Butte College, he developed a passion for politics, trolling fraternity parties at Cal State Chico in 2004 to register new voters. At one such party, Cabral met Gonzales, a women's studies major with laser-sharp wit. The following summer they moved in together.

"He was something different from everyone else who I met," Gonzales said. "He wasn't some drunk guy. That was refreshing."

But by the fall of 2006, she recalled, he'd changed. "He would sit on the couch and just stare at nothing."

He told her bizarre tales: that he worked for the FBI, that he'd been kidnapped and molested. He began using marijuana and alcohol in increasing quantities, Gonzales said, a common occurrence among people with emerging mental illness.

On landscaping jobs, the old Reny would lift his mother in the air and twirl her around until both were breathless with laughter. The new Reny was removed.

"His face was different. He talked to us differently," said Rosa Cabral. "But we didn't know what it was."

ON Jan. 3, Gonzales walked through the open door of the Chico apartment she shared with Cabral to find tufts of body hair on the living room floor.

Meanwhile, in the city's expansive Bidwell Park, police watched as Cabral bolted naked through traffic, dragging a roll of saran wrap behind him. Nearby, officers found 5 gallons of kerosene and his oil-drenched clothes.

A detached Cabral spoke of suicide to police and social workers and said he shaved his eyebrows for a "fresh start," records show. Police had him transported to a local emergency room, and from there he was sent to Butte County's 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility on a 72-hour hold, police and county records show.

There, he was tentatively diagnosed with psychotic and depressive disorders, records show, and prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug most commonly used to treat schizophrenia.

Early chart entries described him as "suspicious" and "guarded." Entries at 2:45 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. found him restless.

But by 7:30 a.m., the tone of the entries had changed: Cabral promised he would not hurt himself. "I do need some help though," he said. "I cannot do it on my own." When, at 9:30 a.m., he said he needed "to spend time with my family," the facility obliged.

Los Angeles Times Articles