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Two multiple murder cases have been tied to men who were brought by police to the state hospital here because of their threatening behaviors but were released several days later after hospital officials deemed them no danger to themselves or others.
The ensuing tragedies have left many wondering what went wrong and whether the state’s mental health system and the way it works with law enforcement is adequate.
Prosecutors said the two cases — which left families sundered and emotions raw in the small towns where they happened — were unusual only because of the levels of violence involved and their proximities in time and place.
“You can go just about anywhere in the state and find cases that involve people who’ve been in one of the state hospitals and (subsequently) committed violent crimes,” said Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson, who also is president of the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association. “I’m not saying they’re all homicides, but, yes, they are violent crimes.”
Wilkerson, a veteran prosecutor, said laws and policies that allow some patients to leave the hospital too soon or without proper local follow-up have long troubled him.
‘Stablize them and turn them loose’
“The mental health system we have in Kansas is underfunded,” he said. “There aren’t enough in-patient places for people to go anymore. So, now, instead of taking the time and committing the resources to really treat people, we stabilize them and turn them loose. It just doesn’t make any sense. If someone’s been declared a danger to themselves or others, and then all we do is stabilize them, I wouldn’t say that’s enough.”
The man first brought to the hospital was 35-year-old Kevin Welsh of Eureka. Police brought him to Osawatomie in late August 2013 after he was charged with kidnapping 26-year-old Catherine Scheff and her two young children. Scheff was a former girlfriend of Welsh’s.
Welsh spent 11 days at the hospital and then was briefly returned to jail. There, he posted bail and was released on Sept. 10. Three weeks later, he shot Scheff and her parents at the parents’ home in Eureka.
Scheff survived multiple wounds, but her father, 54-year-old Keith Kriesel, and mother, 52-year-old Sheila Kriesel, were killed.
Welsh died two weeks later in a shootout with agents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The second man was 22-year-old David Cornell Bennett Jr. who was taken to the hospital after being picked up by Parsons police on Oct. 30, 2013 for what they described as murder-suicide threats posted on Facebook.
Bennett now is charged with the first-degree murders of 29-year-old Cami Jo Umbarger of Parsons and her three children, ages 9, 6, and 4.
‘We don’t go a day without talking about her’
Their bodies were found the Monday before Thanksgiving after Umbarger — who was known as a reliable employee at Good Samaritan Center, a Parsons nursing home — failed to show for work.
“She’d talked about how he’d been stalking her,” said Joanna Wilson, the nursing home administrator. “It was like he’d become obsessed with her.”
The murders were hard on the close-knit staff and still are, Wilson said.
“We don’t go a day without talking about her,” she said. “I haven’t gone an hour without thinking about her, day and night. Many of the staff are the same way.
“When Cami started working here seven years ago, her first child was a baby,” Wilson said. “She had two babies while she was working here, so in a lot of ways those kids were raised here. Everybody knew them. What we’re going through now is horrible.
“I know that the rights for mentally ill patients are very strong and that those rights stem from years and years of them not having any rights and being put away when they didn’t need to be,” Wilson said. “But when things like this happen, I wish, of course, that they’d found some way to keep him.”
According to recent news reports, Bennett is now in the Labette County Jail on $5 million bond, awaiting trial for the murders and related charges including rape and the threats that got him sent to Osawatomie State Hospital.
Details about the treatments and evaluations that Bennett and Welsh likely received at Osawatomie remain sealed from public view because of patient confidentiality rules and gag orders placed by prosecutors and courts.
State mental health officials and others involved declined to comment on any specific aspect of either case.
How the process works
But state officials and others agreed to describe the system, its rules and processes, as they apply in general.
John Worley, director of clinical services at Osawatomie, said evaluations of patients being considered for release, as a matter of routine, would take into consideration any dealings the patient had with law enforcement.
“They look at the major issues to be addressed for stabilization to allow discharge from the hospital,” Worley said, referring to teams comprised of nurses, psychologists, therapists and social workers.
Like many Kansans, Rick Cagan spent much of last weekend reading and listening to news reports about the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cagan had a professional reason for learning what he could about the tragedy. He runs the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas Chapter office in Topeka.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
According to initial news reports, the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a personality disorder or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. However, there is no indication that he had the kind of severe mental illness suffered by others responsible for mass shootings.
Jared Loughner, the man convicted of shooting former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, for instance, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes disordered thinking and delusions.
And James Holmes, the man accused of shooting 12 people to death and wounding 58 others last summer at a movie theater in a Denver sought mental health treatment before the attack, according to multiple news reports.
Mass shootings nearly always rekindle debates about gun control and the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system. Commenting on the later, Cagan said many Kansans with mental illness are not getting the early treatment they need to avoid crises.
“More than 60 percent of the adults who have a serious mental illness are untreated,” he said, noting that in Kansas half the admissions to the state hospitals for the mentally ill involve people who’ve had no previous contact with their community’s mental health center.
In Kansas, state-hospital admissions are reserved for adults who are seriously mentally ill and have been deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“NAMI is always reluctant to jump in with some sort of comment when these kinds of incidents occur because there’s so much that we don’t know,” Cagan said, referring to the shootings. “But, still, blaming the individual only goes so far. At some point, we have to look at the overall well-being of our mental health system.”
Budget cuts in the mental health system
Kansas’ system, he said, hasn’t fared well in recent years.
“I don’t like saying this,” Cagan said, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”
In Pittsburg, the community health center so desperately needed more space that last year staff converted closets and a bathroom into offices.
But next year the number of patients the center sees is expected to grow 24 percent, said Krista Postai, chief executive of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
"And I have no place to put them," she said. "This building is totally and completely at capacity."
That should soon change.
By December 2014, using a $4.7 million federal grant, the center will nearly triple its space from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet.
The grant was announced today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is part of more than $21.6 million awarded to five Kansas community health centers.
About 40,000 new patients will gain access to care thanks to the construction and renovation projects funded by the grants, according to HHS.
The funding stems from the Affordable Care Act, which authorized $9.5 billion to expand health services over five years and $1.5 billion for construction and renovation at community health centers.
“For many Americans, community health centers are the major source of care that ranges from prevention to treatment of chronic diseases," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a prepared statement. "This investment will expand our ability to provide high-quality care to millions of people while supporting good paying jobs in communities across the country.”
The grant amounts for the other Kansas health centers were:
■ $2.7 million for the Salina Family Healthcare Center in Salina.
■ $4.6 million for Hunter Health Clinic in Wichita.
■ $4.5 million for Konza Prairie Community Health Center in Junction City.
■ $5 million for PrairieStar Health Center in Hutchinson.
The grant funds were disbursed directly to the health centers, which are private, nonprofit organizations.
In Pittsburg, the new construction is set to begin in July and finish by December 2014, Postai said.
The center will then be able to expand most existing services as well as add optometry, physical therapy and speech therapy services. An estimated 8,200 additional patients will be able to access the center.
Plans are to add 42 positions at an average salary of $45,700 as a result of the expansion, center officials said.
The waiting room has been at capacity for years with more demand on it after one of the area's biggest employers was shuttered at the end of 2008. The wheel maker Superior closed as the auto industry crashed and the number of people near Pittsburg without insurance shot up from 12 percent in 2009 to nearly 18 percent in 2010.
"From the time we open, it is wall-to-wall people. We need space," Postai said. "You can only be open so many hours and you can only schedule so creatively. And our efficiency has been impacted by our lack of space."