The punches kept coming.
By the time staff inside the Arizona State Hospital responded, Robert Flemming had already landed 16 strikes to the head and face of a fellow patient who laid unconscious in a hallway in the middle of the night.
His 83-year-old victim, Donald Prather, who suffered critical brain damage, would die six hours later.
“That f***** started it, and I finished it,” Flemming, 58, told police in an interview.
ABC15 obtained surveillance footage, police interview video, investigation reports, internal hospital documents, and 911 recordings related to the homicide. The records and information highlight a long-standing and continued failure to keep patients and staff safe at Arizona’s only state-run psychiatric hospital.
The incident began at 2:37 a.m. on April 23, 2019.
The unsupervised and unconfined patients, Flemming and Prather, were both severely mentally ill and committed to the hospital’s special unit for sex offenders, the Arizona Community Protection and Treatment Center (ACPTC).
Their rooms were next to each other and the confrontation began because of music.
“This god damn son of a b****, he plays his stereo all night, full blast,” Flemming told a detective.
Flemming and Prather had a history of problems with each other, including multiple physical confrontations, records show. ABC15 has also learned there were documented death threats between the two.
Insiders don’t understand why hospital administrators continued to keep the pair in neighboring rooms.
The Arizona State Hospital has struggled with violence for years.
In 2013 and 2015, ABC15 aired multiple investigations exposing an extreme level of violence inside the hospital and how it failed to properly report, document, and investigate physical and sexual assaults.
Governor Doug Ducey ordered an outside investigation, which confirmed ABC15’s reporting and issued several recommendations for the hospital to improve.
However, a 2019 state audit showed physical assaults inside the hospital were on the rise for a two-year period, with the average increasing to 60 assaults per month. The audit also found that “because the State Hospital lacks a structured approach to evaluating its strategies, it may be missing opportunities to more effectively respond to and reduce assaults.”
Flemming was first confined to ACPTC in 1997 following a prison sentence for child sex crime earlier in the decade. He’s been in-and-out of the hospital since and has repeatedly victimized other patients and staff.
Court records show Flemming has been arrested for violence in the hospital at least six times: In 2003, 2006, 2008, 2010, and twice in 2019.
Sources said Flemming has had at least a dozen additional assaults, which did not result in arrests or criminal charges.
“A failed state hospital is a public health threat to Arizona,” said attorney Holly Geizel, in an interview with ABC15 about a separate aggravated assault in 2017.
Geizel and attorney Josh Mozell represent multiple patients, including Aaron Wallace, who was assaulted and stabbed while he slept in the forensic unit of the hospital.
“This is just a continuation of what’s gone on for years and years at the state hospital,” Mozell said of the case.
Wallace was attacked by Reuben Murray, who was wandering the halls unsupervised, in the middle of the night with a sharpened pencil, according to a lawsuit. Murray had previous convictions of aggravated assault and murder and was committed to the state hospital in 2006, released in 2016, but then re-committed in August 2017.
“Here’s why you should care: Everybody in that unit, as this assailant had been twice, gets out,” Gieszl said. “It’s not just endangering Aaron. It’s endangering everybody.”
Multiple patients who have been released, or escaped, from the Arizona State Hospital have committed murders.
In Prather’s homicide case, a judge ordered in November that Flemming was not competent to stand trial.
Instead, for safety reasons and further treatmeent, he was ordered back to ACPTC -- the place that has repeatedly failed to keep him and others safe.
“The court further finds that the Defendant is likely, without immediate or continued hospitalization, to suffer serious physical harm or serious illness, or to inflict serious physical harm on another person prior to evaluation and further hearing,” the judge wrote in a decision.
The Arizona Department of Health Services declined an interview with ABC15 and failed to address several specific questions, including whether or not the patients were properly supervised. Instead, they issued the following statement:
"As reported by your station on April 23, 2019, the Arizona Department of Health Services notified the Phoenix Police Department about an incident involving two individuals at the Arizona Community Protection and Treatment Center (ACPTC) and fully cooperated with authorities during the criminal investigation. Within 24 hours of the event, ADHS self-reported the incident as required to the Division of Licensing which conducted a complaint investigation of the ACPTC. The investigation was conducted on August 19 through 22, 2019 and no deficiencies were identified. To clarify, the incident occurred at the ACPTC, not the Arizona State Hospital. The ACPTC provides treatment and housing for individuals who have committed a sexually violent offense, completed their mandatory sentence with the Arizona Department of Corrections, and are deemed unsafe to return to the community based on their status as a sexually violent person with a high likelihood to reoffend. These individuals are court-ordered to our facility through a petition process by the county prosecutor.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.