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Murder suspect’s escape prompts security review at psychiatric hospital

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Murder suspect William Hall, 29, of Bangor, climbed over this tall metal fence to escape Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor Tuesday evening, June 28, 2011. He was captured around 10:30 a.m Wednesday in Brewer.
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — William L. Hall had a long history of assaults and probation violations even before he admitted to police that he strangled an acquaintance and threw him out a second-story window to his death on June 9.

Since his arrest, confession and initial court appearance in connection with the slaying of Melvin F. Abreu, 28, Hall has been held not in Penobscot County Jail but at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center under psychiatric evaluation.

It was from that Bangor hospital on Tuesday evening that Hall made a daring escape.

Shortly before 8 p.m., the 29-year-old man reportedly was granted supervised smoking privileges outside. All that stood between the suspected murderer and freedom was an 8-foot wrought-iron fence. Once he cleared the fence, there were some shrubs to navigate, then grass, then trees, then pavement.

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t Alcatraz, either.

According to police, Hall somehow evaded hospital staff, climbed the fence and ran into the fading sunlight, successfully escaping from the hospital.

The event spurred a massive manhunt by local public safety officials after Hall swam across the Penobscot River into Brewer, but everything ended peacefully late Wednesday morning with Hall’s arrest.

As police tracked Hall, state health officials launched an investigation into the circumstances of his escape, an investigation that could lead to a comprehensive review of safety policies and procedures at Dorothea Dix.

“This is clearly not the first time a patient has eloped, but we’ll certainly look to see if changes need to be made,” said John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In the meantime, Hall was not returned to the mental health facility.

Dorothea Dix is one of only two state-run psychiatric hospitals in operation. Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta is the other.

In many cases when criminal suspects need to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, they are sent to facilities such as Dorothea Dix, although the hospital does not house criminal suspects exclusively. As such, the facility does not have the same level of security as a jail or prison.

Martins said he could not talk specifically about what security measures were in place Tuesday when Hall escaped, but he did confirm that the patient was in a supervised outdoor recreation area when he bolted.

Hospital Superintendent Linda Abernethy was not available for comment on Wednesday, Martins said, leaving a number of questions unanswered: Dorothea Dix, according to numerous signs around the building, is a smoke-free campus, so why was Hall allowed to smoke? Were there other patients outside during the escape? Who was supervising Hall at the time? Did that supervisor have any mechanism to stop Hall once he bolted for the fence?

Martins said he could not address Hall’s case directly because of confidentiality laws. However, he said any patient, when clinically appropriate, has access to outside areas with varying levels of security. Patients with pending criminal charges may have access to outside areas but must be supervised.

The level of supervision at Dorothea Dix is based on a variety of factors, including staff and patient safety, but Martins added that the staff receives a high level of training in safety and security, including how to prevent elopement.

Anytime a serious incident occurs involving a patient or staff member, state law mandates that the event must be reported and an investigation must be conducted. The results of that investigation would then guide any actions and corrections that may be needed.

In addition, Martins said, a serious incident requires an independent evaluation by the licensing division at DHHS and is sometimes required by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services as well.

Almost 31 years ago to the day, a convicted killer escaped from the same facility, when it was known as the Bangor Mental Health Institute.

Charles W. Page, then 32, of Levant was reported missing at 6:28 p.m., Tuesday, June 24, 1980.

He was captured by Bangor police just eight minutes later in a wooded area near 900 State St., according to a previously published report. He was returned to prison at 9:50 p.m. the same day.

Page was convicted in July 1979 of beating, raping and stabbing Diane Titus, 29, of Dexter 55 times at her home on April 11, 1978. He was serving a life sentence at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston when he was sent to BMHI two months before his escape for treatment for severe depression, the Bangor Daily News reported on June 25, 1980.

Shortly before his escape, Page told a BDN reporter in a telephone interview that he preferred BMHI to prison and threatened to commit suicide if he was returned to prison.

Even if the state reviews safety and security of Dorothea Dix in light of Tuesday’s escape, budget constraints have put the hospital’s long-term future in jeopardy.

Earlier this year during state budget negotiations, the Legislature approved creation of a 13-member panel chaired by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to study the future role of the Bangor psychiatric facility.

Funding outlined in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget included $56 million for Dorothea Dix, about the same level as the last two years, but some have worried that the work group plans to recommend closing the hospital and transferring its patients.

There has been a long history of attempts to close the facility going back to the 1970s. The hospital once held as many as 1,200 patients but now allows a maximum of just 60 patients.

BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.

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