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Tragedy follows landmark court win

After success in a long fight against forced medication, a schizophrenic man gained freedom. But now he is accused of killing his roommate.

March 16, 2007|Lee Romney and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

Alameda — ON a crisp afternoon last fall, a police officer responding to a 911 call pulled onto an abandoned military base on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. Six dreary naval housing blocks, converted into apartments for down-on-their-luck veterans, had been painted with labels meant to inspire: Hope, Resolve.

The door to Apartment B, in the building called Courage, was open. The man who had summoned police, Kanuri Qawi, was waiting casually in the doorway, a glass of soda in his hand.

Qawi invited the officer inside and began spinning a wild tale. Intruders, he insisted, had entered his apartment. They had robbed him of $300, then stripped him naked, strapped him to a flatbed truck and paraded him through the streets. As Qawi talked, incense burned, but it could not hide the smell. It was the smell, the officer knew, of decaying flesh.

The officer asked if he could have a look around, then pushed open the door of an empty bedroom. Qawi's roommate, John Laird Milton Sr., was lying on his back, his body stiff, his face blue. His blood was splattered three feet up the wall. Next to the body were his glasses and one white sock. An autopsy would reveal that he had been stabbed seven times, once in the heart. He had been dead about a week.

Interviewed by investigators, Qawi was consumed by what he described as an elaborate conspiracy: how staffers at the apartment complex had called him a homosexual; how they wanted to kick him out because he had been "contaminated" by radiation during the Chernobyl meltdown.

Police quickly realized that Qawi, 46, was suffering from delusions. What they didn't know that day was how long and hard he had fought for the right to have them.

Qawi was a notorious figure in California mental hospitals. His nine-year legal battle had taken him all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he had won the right -- for himself and hundreds of other mental patients -- to refuse to take the psychiatric drugs prescribed by doctors.

His case was a seminal chapter in the campaign to modernize mental health treatment and give patients more control over their bodies. And in key ways, it helped transform California's mental hospitals, with a growing number of patients rejecting their drugs, suffering psychotic breaks and lashing out in violence.

At the police station that evening, investigators struggled to get Qawi focused on their case: When was the last time he had seen Milton? Had they quarreled? Finally, Qawi offered his theory: Probably, he said, the people who were out to get him had attacked Milton by mistake.

"Damn, man," he said under his breath. "They hurt John."

A solid student

KANURI Qawi started life as Kenny Washington, an average kid from an unusual family.

As if their 14 children weren't enough, Kenny's parents, Alma and Calvin Washington, also took in a host of foster children at their home in Arcadia, Fla.

Calvin Washington was a railroad man who laid track across the South. He was known in the community as "Granddaddy" and served as a church deacon. The family lived rent-free in road master houses and station houses owned by the railroad; Calvin Washington felt so indebted to government-sponsored New Deal work programs that he named one of his oldest sons Franklin Delano, as in Roosevelt.

"We didn't hardly want for anything," said Franklin, now 67 and a retired sheriff's deputy.

Kenny didn't have many friends but seemed like a normal kid. He developed into a powerful athlete, running track and playing high school football. A solid student, he read books about religion and listened to gospel music and rapper MC Hammer.

Kenny's family began to notice that something was amiss in 1987, toward the end of his six-year career in the Coast Guard and Air Force.

Summoned to Florida, where Calvin Washington was dying of prostate cancer, the siblings were devastated -- except for Kenny, who was inappropriately joyful. Later, at the funeral, he was withdrawn, disconnected from reality, Franklin said.

Back at his military base in Turkey, Kenny changed his name to Kanuri Qawi. He told his siblings that he had turned to Islam because he was unfulfilled by Christianity.

Soon, Qawi was out of the military for good. Court records show that he began drinking heavily. Then, on a chilly night in the fall of 1990, his life took a sharp turn.

Robert Lakeman and Mary Miller were strolling home in downtown Oakland after a late meal at a deli. Miller felt dizzy and leaned on a wall to catch her breath.

Suddenly, there was Qawi, striding toward them across the street -- 29 years old, 6 feet tall, muscular, shirtless. According to court records, he said something about how blond women had caused the Vietnam War. He kicked Miller in the face, then turned on Lakeman. By the time bystanders could intervene, Lakeman was nearly unconscious. Miller's nose was broken, her front teeth loose.

Qawi was taken into custody half a block away, his jeans and tennis shoes spattered in blood.

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