Politics & Government

Mental patient's field trip escape still being probed

SPOKANE - Field trips from Washington's two state mental hospitals will remain suspended indefinitely after a criminally insane killer walked away during a visit to a county fair in Spokane last month, the Department of Social and Health Services said Friday.

Agency Secretary Susan Dreyfus said the state will continue investigating why Eastern State Hospital staff failed to call 911 for some 90 minutes after Phillip Paul disappeared during the outing to the Spokane County Interstate Fair. The state also is studying why Paul was allowed to go on the Sept. 17 trip, after he had been deemed a danger to the public by a judge earlier in September.

Any discipline of staffers would follow those reviews, she said.

Paul, 47, was committed in 1987 for the slaying of a Sunnyside woman. He was recaptured without incident near Goldendale three days after escaping.

“That breach raises serious community safety concerns,” Dreyfus said, in releasing the findings of an initial DSHS review of the incident.

Eastern patients have taken outings into the community for years, and hospital officials say the trips can be a useful tool in treatment. But Dreyfus said she would also create a panel of experts chaired by Dr. Richard Veith of the University of Washington to look into the department’s field trip policy.

Until then, all group field trips involving the 1,072 patients from Eastern State and Western State hospitals will remain suspended, she said.

State officials are particularly concerned about a 90-minute gap between the time hospital staff noticed Paul was missing and the first call to law enforcement officers. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said officers would have swarmed the fairgrounds area if called immediately, and might have caught Paul right away.

According to the review by DSHS, planning for the annual outing to the fair began on May 26, and Paul was first approved for the trip on Sept. 9. The 31 patients on the trip were all from the so-called forensic unit, meaning they were patients committed to the hospital as a result of a criminal act.

There was no indication to staff that anything was out of the ordinary when the patients and 11 staff members boarded a bus and van and arrived at the fair at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, the report said.

Paul’s escort, who was not identified in the report, noticed him missing sometime between 11:40 and 11:45 a.m., and at first thought he might be in the bathroom. Staff members at the outing communicated among themselves, in violation of a policy that required them to call 911 immediately after a patient went missing

At 12:09 p.m., escort staff called workers at Eastern State to report him missing. Escort staff asked twice if they should call 911, and asked if they needed to return to the hospital. They were told a person at the hospital would call 911, and that they should stay at the fair, which was another breach of procedure, DSHS said.

There was a flurry of conversations among staff at the hospital. Finally, the Washington State Patrol was called at 1:10 P.M. and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office at 1:15 p.m., the report said. But it took more time to get a description and other identifying information about Paul.

The rest of the patients at the fair were put back on the bus about 1:45 p.m., the report said.

In all, a dozen staff members had a chance to call 911 and none did, said Richard Kellogg, head of the DSHS Division of Mental Health.