BANGOR, Maine — A murder suspect who escaped Tuesday from a local psychiatric hospital never should have been there in the first place, according to a top law enforcement official.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said he doesn’t blame officials at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center for allowing William L. Hall to climb a fence and flee the facility. Instead, Ross said he blames the system for not having the proper mechanism for detaining Hall, a suspected criminal who had significant psychiatric needs that could not be met in jail.
“When something bad happens, the normal reaction is to point the finger, and in this case it’s at Dorothea Dix,” the sheriff said in an interview Thursday. “If [Hall] had stayed at Penobscot County Jail and something happened or he committed suicide, we would have been blamed.
“But finger-pointing does not fix the system. The state needs to address this and it’s something I’ve been hollering about for years.”
Hall was found about 14 hours after he fled from Dorothea Dix and reportedly swam across the Penobscot River into Brewer to evade police. He did not have a chance to do harm to himself or others, but easily could have, Ross said.
So far, few agencies with a stake in Hall’s case have commented on his escape.
Linda Abernethy, superintendent at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, has declined interviews at least until next week, but even then she will not be able to comment on specifics. Because of patient confidentiality laws, she has not even been able to confirm whether Hall was a patient there, though his escape was widely publicized.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which will prosecute Hall’s murder trial, said Thursday that she could not comment or answer any questions about his case.
Officials with the Bangor Police Department, whose officers first detained Hall on June 9 after the 29-year-old reportedly confessed to strangling an acquaintance and then throwing him out a two-story window to his death, also said they could not comment on Hall’s escape.
Hall’s attorney, Hunter Tzovarres, said Thursday that he couldn’t comment on the case at this time.
Sheriff Ross, however, was willing to talk about the incident because he said it highlights glaring deficiencies in how criminal suspects with psychiatric needs are dealt with before their trials.
When an inmate is admitted to Penobscot County Jail, Ross said, he is evaluated by staff. In most cases, if the inmate has mental health needs, they can be addressed right there at the jail. In some cases, the jail is not equipped to care for the inmate, Ross said.
When that happens, the inmate is taken to the emergency room at Eastern Maine Medical Center for another evaluation. A crisis team at EMMC then makes the determination about what to do with the inmate, according to Ross.
“Then, it’s up to the hospital to find a bed,” the sheriff said. “The typical place is Riverview [Psychiatric Center in Augusta], but Dorothea Dix sometimes helps out when Riverview cannot.” The two are the only state-run psychiatric hospitals in Maine.
Ross said Riverview is built with security measures and services in place to handle an inmate such as Hall. Dorothea Dix, in the sheriff’s opinion, is not.
“In nearly all cases, Riverview is full,” Ross said. “When that happens, we have to keep them at the hospital or find another place for them.”
In Hall’s case, Bangor police first took him to Dorothea Dix on June 9 to undergo an evaluation. He remained there until June 17, when he was officially arrested and charged with murder. Hall was booked at Penobscot County Jail and made a court appearance by videoconference from jail but then was returned to Dorothea Dix.
After Hall’s arrest on Wednesday following his escape, he was taken back to Penobscot County Jail, but an official at the jail said Thursday afternoon that Hall since had been transferred to Riverview in Augusta.
Ross questioned why Hall was not admitted to Riverview last week but was able to get a bed there this week. State officials did not have an answer.
Officials confirmed Wednesday that Hall had been granted smoking privileges at Dorothea Dix, a smoke-free campus, and it was on a smoke break that he successfully escaped.
John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said criminal patients at Dorothea Dix are monitored anytime they are outside, but he couldn’t comment on whether hospital staff tried to detain Hall or if they had any policies in place that would have allowed them to do so.
Martins also said the escape of a patient was considered a serious incident and therefore would prompt an investigation to see if any actions or corrections need to be made.
Since the state’s investigation has not been completed, Martins could not comment on details. However, he indicated that many of the specifics would remain confidential even after the investigation is complete because they involve a patient, albeit a patient facing serious criminal charges.