ABC15 Investigation: Some escaped mental patients with criminal records are still on the streets

PHOENIX - There are about 230 patients confined to the state mental hospital.

Some were committed by a civil court and some were found criminally insane by a court. None are there voluntarily.

But the number of patients at the Arizona State Hospital should actually be slightly higher.

An exclusive ABC15 investigation reveals four escaped mental patients, some with criminal backgrounds, are still on the streets -- they've never been caught.

They are all listed as AWOL -- absent without leave.

One of the escapees has been on the loose since 2010.

In the most recent case, a patient who escaped in August of last year is still missing.

Hospital CEO Cory Nelson told ABC15 that if the escaped patients are found, they will be returned to the hospital not only for their own safety but for the safety of the community.

"The worst thing we can do is put somebody back out on the street that isn't prepared for that," Nelson said.

The case of Jesus Murrieta is a tragic example.

Murrieta escaped from the Arizona State Hospital in May 2011.

He ripped a security badge from around the neck of a staff member and got past the front gate.

Three months later, Murrieta brutally beat and murdered 34-year-old April Mott.

"It's a black cloud that no one deserves," her mother told ABC15 Investigators.

Mott's entire body was covered in bruises and her throat had been slit.

Monika Vinquist, April's mom and her sister Sharron Mott had to identify the body.

"They wouldn't let us see her face because of how bad it was," said Sharron Mott.

"It was my worst nightmare come true," said Monika Vinquist.

Murrieta pled guilty to murder.

He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

But April Mott's family says the hospital didn't do enough.

The ABC15 Investigators obtained Murrieta's case file from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office with over 900 pages of documents on the murder.

And we obtained an internal hospital investigation with details about Murrieta's escape.

The records show that after Murrieta escaped from the Arizona State Hospital, officials there filed a missing persons report with the Phoenix Police Department.

They reported to police that the missing patient was "suicidal" and "a danger to others."

But nine hours later, hospital officials contacted police to cancel the missing person alert.

They changed Murrieta's status to voluntary which meant that he was free to go.

"I don't think it should have been taken so lightly," said Monika Vinquist.

April Mott's mother points to the fact that during the three months Murrieta was on the streets, he was stopped repeatedly by police.

Murrieta had contact with police at least six times in those three months.

If he'd still be listed as an escapee, he would have been taken into custody and returned to the hospital.

But each time Murrieta was cited for minor infractions and released.

"He would have been brought back to safety and my daughter may still be alive," said Monika Vinquist.  

We asked Hospital CEO Cory Nelson about the Murrieta case but he said strict privacy laws prevent him from discussing it.

"I can't talk about his treatment while he was here or even acknowledge he was here," Nelson said.

But the hospital's own investigation calls Murrieta's escape and reclassification as a "voluntary" patient a "multiplicity of errors."

Records show mistakes were made that allowed Murrieta to get away and stay away.

We asked CEO Cory Nelson if mistakes were made and if they were fixed.

"There were changes made," he responded.

ABC15's exclusive investigation discovered that one of the biggest changes Nelson made was to cut the number of security guards at the Arizona State Hospital.

He reduced the number of security guards from 110 to 50 in an effort, he says, to increase the number of staff who can provide direct patient care.

"We are going to be so much better off," Nelson said.

Asked if cutting 60 security guards from the hospital made it safer and escapes less likely, Nelson explained that he wants all staff members to consider security as part of their responsibility.

"We have worked on filling those 60 positions with staff members who are actually working with the patients and we've trained all of our staff now in better safety procedures," Nelson said.

But records show Nelson has yet to replace the security guards he eliminated with direct patient care staff.

The ABC15 Investigators have talked to more than a dozen insiders—people who work at the hospital or worked there recently.

They all told us they do not believe the hospital is safer and they doubt the security cuts are going to reduce the number of escapes.

One insider who asked not to be identified told us, "It has actually gotten worse since the changes."

Watch part #1 of our exclusive ABC15 investigation of the Arizona State Hospital and learn more about Hospital CEO Cory Nelson's new approach to security and the security cuts he made.

The Director of Arizona's Department of Health Services Will Humble responded to part one of our investigation in a blog posted today saying, "Recent changes in security are making the Hospital a better place for patients, staff and the public."

Read Humble's entire blog entry.

Officials have confirmed a patient briefly escaped on Tuesday from the state's mental hospital.

The incident comes less than a day after an ABC15 Investigation exposed that hospital made deep cuts to security last year.

Read more about recent escapes from the Arizona State Hospital.

Below is an interactive graphic that shows hospital staffing levels and escapes.

Here are some resources for anybody who is seeking mental health services:

If you have information, a tip or a lead: contact ABC15 Investigator David Biscobing


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