ABC15 Exclusive: Arizona mental hospital patient's death raising safety, staffing level concerns

PHOENIX - Christopher Paul Blackwell would have celebrated his 24th birthday in two weeks.

But he didn't live to see September 27th.

Blackwell died early Tuesday morning after collapsing at the state mental hospital.

The circumstances surrounding his death are raising further questions about safety, staffing levels, security and violence at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH) .

In a series of exclusive reports, the ABC15 Investigators have exposed a disturbing level of violence at the hospital and a startling number of escapes amidst deep cuts to security.

A TROUBLED YOUNG MAN LOSES HIS LIFE

Chris Blackwell was a young man with serious mental illness.

He had been committed at the state mental hospital for the past two years.

According to hospital officials, Blackwell collapsed in his room just after 10 p.m. Monday.

A statement from a hospital spokesperson says staff immediately "initiated emergency medical response procedures."

Blackwell was transported by ambulance to the nearby Maricopa Medical Center.

He was pronounced dead at 3:40 a.m. Tuesday.

The Arizona State Hospital is not releasing any additional information about Blackwell's death, citing privacy laws.

But insiders and sources close to the case tell the ABC15 Investigators there is more to the story of how Christopher Paul Blackwell lived and died.

Despite Blackwell's illness, he was never considered dangerous to others, according to our sources.

However, Chris had a history of swallowing dangerous objects.

A friend of Chris Blackwell told ABC15 he told her earlier this year about swallowing a radio antenna.

He wasn't suicidal, but mental health experts say some patients do things like cutting themselves or swallowing dangerous objects to deal with stress.

Multiple sources told the ABC15 Investigators that Blackwell was designated a "one-to-one patient."

That designation means he was considered such a danger to himself because of his propensity to swallow objects that he was supposed to be carefully monitored, watched by a staff member 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The official cause of Blackwell's death has yet to be determined.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner will conduct an investigation and make a determination.

But sources say doctors at the county hospital found Blackwell had lacerations to his colon and small intestines caused by objects he had swallowed while at the Arizona State Hospital.

Sources told the ABC15 Investigators that despite being closely watched, in the past few months Blackwell managed to swallow pieces of a broken compact disc and a piece of an eyeglass frame.

Insiders claim that because of low staffing levels and a dangerous environment, it's difficult or impossible to provide adequate care for patients and recently at least one Arizona lawmaker has said he is considering calling for hearings to address problems at the hospital.

Dozens of current and former hospital staffers have told the ABC15 Investigators that high levels of staff turnover that results in part from dangerous levels of violence at the hospital are factors in their ability to adequately monitor and provide treatment to patients.

One of numerous insiders we spoke with who have actually treated Chris Blackwell told us staffing shortages and violence inside the hospital have a direct impact on staffers' ability to watch patients like Blackwell 24/7.

"It actually got to the point where every single day, I'm on the floor alone," said one insider, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"There are many days I will be on the floor alone, other staff will be on the floor alone." 

People who knew Chris Blackwell said he was well-liked and they are heartbroken over his death.

Officials at the Arizona State Hospital declined to provide answers to most of our questions about the tragedy, citing privacy concerns, but a spokesperson with the state health department issued this written statement:

"At approximately 10:10 p.m. on September 9th a patient at the hospital collapsed in their room. Hospital staff observed the patient collapse and immediately initiated emergency medical response procedures. The individual was transferred by ambulance to the emergency room and was treated for several hours by medical staff. Medical staff was unable to stabilize the individual's medical condition and the patient expired shortly after 3:40 a.m, on September 10th. The cause of death remains under investigation and will be determined by the medical examiner."

ABC15 has learned that top hospital administrators are also investigating Blackwell's death as well as trying to find out who's providing us with information.

We're working to find out if police are also investigating the death.

If you have any information about the Arizona State Hospital, contact ABC15 Investigator David Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com .

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