OLYMPIA – A Tenino man charged with murder in August after police found a dead woman in the passenger seat of his pickup is incompetent to stand trial, according to the results of his 15-day evaluation at Western State Hospital.
During a court hearing today, a judge ordered that Bernard Keith Howell, 26, be readmitted to Western State for up to 90 days for an additional evaluation, during which doctors will administer medications in an effort to render him competent. Howell, who appeared in court, agreed to that plan when asked.
Under Washington law, a criminal defendant is incompetent when he or she “lacks the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense as a result of mental disease or defect.” Law also states that “No incompetent person shall be tried, convicted, or sentenced for the commission of an offense so long as such incapacity continues.”
Howell can be arraigned anytime after he gains competency, Thurston County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Powers said outside court today.
Howell is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Vanda Boone, 60. Boone, who had moved to the Yelm area from New York in March to work as a massage therapist, died after having her throat slit, according to Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock. Blunt-force injuries to her head and neck and asphyxia resulting from strangulation also contributed to her death, Warnock has said.
Boone worked for Radiance Herbs and Massage in Olympia. She had studied at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment.
According to court papers:
A Thurston County sheriff’s deputy pulled over Howell’s pickup Aug. 8 near Parkside Elementary School in Tenino. The deputy had been flagged down by a man who said he had been approached by the driver of a pickup who said he needed help moving a body.
The witness then spotted the pickup driving by and told the deputy, who pulled Howell’s pickup over. He found Boone’s body wrapped in a sleeping bag in the passenger seat. Howell denied having anything to do with Boone’s death and was arrested.
Howell told police that he “just wanted to save the family of this woman the $5,000 it would cost to bury her.” He had brought “plastic bags, a sleeping bag, zip ties, bungee-type elastic cords and a 10-pound weight with him.” After initially denying involvement in Boone’s death, he admitted after his arrested that he’d had sex with her body.
Detectives think Boone was walking or riding a bike on the Yelm-Tenino Trail when she was attacked and killed, Thurston County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Mealy has said. Detectives have not been able to find evidence that Howell and Boone knew each other.
Howell has told court officials he hears voices and wants to be left alone. Howell’s father, also named Bernard Keith Howell, has said he fears his son has “a screw loose” and may have got involved with methamphetamine. Howell operated a meat-delivery business in Tenino and used his pickup for his job, Mealy said.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor noted today that Howell’s evaluation from Western State indicates that he has a problem understanding what’s going on during discussions with his attorneys about legal strategy.
“Mr. Howell has difficulty staying on topic,” Tabor said.
Outside court, Thurston County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim said the court’s determination that Howell is incompetent will not affect plans to prosecute him.
“This happens,” Tunheim said. “It’s not that infrequent.”
Jeremy Pawloski: firstname.lastname@example.org