GLENDALE, AZ — The City of Glendale arrested, jailed, and is now prosecuting an 81-year-old man who his family says has dementia and physical disabilities.
Sam Thomas was accused of trespassing at a neighborhood shopping complex, including a Dunkin’ restaurant where he drank coffee for years.
Sam’s family is sharing his story hoping people, businesses, and the criminal justice system gain understanding and treat people with cognitive impairments respectfully.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5 million Americans have age-related dementia, a disease that impacts brain function.
Glendale police arrested Sam on December 6, 2020.
The person who called 911 told the dispatcher she had offered Sam a ride to the shopping complex, but she did not want to leave him there because he appeared confused.
“We were just a little bit concerned about his safety,” the unidentified woman told officers on the scene.
The incident was captured on the officers’ body-worn cameras.
“I don't care if you're old,” Officer Chris Bastin told Sam. “You were told not to come back.”
Officers indicated they knew Sam previously had a stroke, they knew where he lives, and they previously spoke with his daughter.
Sam's daughter, Omedia Thomas, is his primary caretaker. She shared medical records with ABC15. Sam’s nurse practitioner wrote several times in the last two years that Sam had dementia. In one report, she noted a referral to a neurologist.
If you or someone you love has dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association Desert Southwest Chapter offers support and referrals through their helpline: 1 (800) 272-3900.
Omedia said for the last six years, her dad would go nearly every day to a Dunkin’ near 67th Avenue and Loop 101 for coffee. He would often meet longtime friends and relatives, members of the Assyrian community, and socialize.
“Yeah, my friends are all there,” Sam told ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius, but when we asked if Sam could recall any of their names, he had no answer. Omedia said her dad is frequently forgetful.
“He won't know not to go there,” Omedia said. “Then he'll take a walk, and he'll end up there. Or his friends will pick them up and take him there.”
According to police reports, the Dunkin', Samurai Sam's next door, and the property manager, Tait Development, all complained about inappropriate behavior. Police said Sam would not leave for hours, stared into business windows, raised his voice, and got feces on the bathroom wall of one business.
Omedia said she tried to explain his medical condition to the businesses, gave out her phone number, and offered to pick up Sam immediately if there were any further problems.
Sam's daughter added she offered to clean Dunkin’s bathroom if Sam had to use it again. Relatives say Sam has incontinence and wears a diaper. They also say he had a stroke that left him physically disabled.
Omedia told ABC15 that her dad needs someplace to go to socialize instead of staying in the house all day, every day. She said she originally wanted Sam to get another chance to return to Dunkin’ and the surrounding businesses. Options are limited. Omedia said many senior centers and public activities are unavailable because of the pandemic.
Glendale police reports show they responded at least eight times to trespassing complaints before Sam’s December 6 arrest.
A police spokesman admitted the officers had frustrations.
"They're trying to find an answer, and they just don't have one,” said Sgt. Randy Stewart, a Glendale Police Department spokesman. “We still have laws that we have to maintain. In these cases, we have victims.”
“But to enforce this?” Omedia said. “It was not something for them to take to that level considering they know him.”
Glendale police spokesmen told ABC15 in early April that their officers acted within policy, and the family never told police Sam had dementia. Since then, police officials also claim Sam’s daughter told a city social worker and Adult Protective Services her dad did not have diagnosed dementia.
Omedia said, while her dad has not seen a neurologist, his primary care provider, a nurse practitioner, has documented his dementia and discussed ongoing treatment and care for the disease for the last few years.
ABC15 also has a body-worn camera video where Sam’s granddaughter tells an officer in December, “He has dementia, so he does not remember. He’ll walk there [Dunkin’] without us even knowing.” That officer, empathizing with the granddaughter, gave her tips about addressing wandering, and encouraged her to get an official diagnosis for Sam, if it had not already happened.
Meantime, other Glendale officers put Sam in a holding cell to spend the night. After the officers walked away, they joked about whether the 81-year-old soiled his diaper.
“It smells like poo-poo," arresting officer Delores Baumann said.
An unknown officer responded, “I thought the opposite one, but I didn't smell that end yet.”
“I know it wasn't me because I pooped before briefing,” Baumann said to chuckles from other uniformed officers in the room.
“I did mine after my morning coffee,” the unknown officer piped in from off-camera.
None of the officers made any comment about getting Sam cleaned up prior to the end of the video.
“I don't know why they were mocking him, and I don't know why they weren't treating him with the respect that he is due,” said Robert J. Campos, an attorney who represents Sam in his criminal cases.
In addition to his arrest, Sam was issued two misdemeanor citations for allegedly trespassing at the shopping center in March. Glendale police ticketed Sam a third time in late April, weeks after ABC15 brought Sam’s family’s concerns to police officials.
“I don't know what I have to do to make you understand that you can't do this,” Glendale Community Action Officer Chuck Buffington told Sam on March 4.
On March 8, Buffington told Sam, “You are not listening to me; You are completely blowing me off.”
Glendale police said Buffington is working on finding a solution. They have also called Adult Protective Services and got a city social worker involved. It is unclear what, if any, services or options they provided.
SAM FOUND INCOMPETENT
On Wednesday, a Glendale municipal judge dismissed all four trespassing cases against Sam. He was found incompetent to stand trial.
The judge’s decision came after court-ordered psychological evaluations found Sam’s cognitive impairment prevented him from being able to understand the charges against him or aid in his own defense.
He still will not be welcome at the shopping complex, police said.
“He still could be cited, or charges submitted,” Sgt. Stewart said.
Omedia said she wants alternatives for her dad, who still tries to go to Dunkin’ where he still has memories and close friends. She also said a nearby Starbucks seems more welcoming, and they will start to get coffee there instead.
Dunkin’ issued a statement saying their franchises are committed to creating a "welcoming and inclusive environment," and they hope Sam "gets the support and services he may need."
A Samurai Sam’s employee declined comment when ABC15 visited the business in mid-April. When ABC15 called Tait Development, company executives denied any knowledge of the trespassing situation, and a follow-up request for comment received no response.
Next week on ABC15, Investigator Melissa Blasius will delve deeper into the needs of Arizona's aging population.
In the coming years, there could be a lot more police encounters like Sam's, as the Alzheimer's Association calculates Arizona has the fastest-growing population of people with dementia in the country. We look at new training options for police and a community-wide response to treat people with dementia with dignity.