This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Phillip Arnold Paul is back where he belongs – in lockdown.
The head-slapping story of the 47-year-old criminally insane killer – who walked away from an Eastern State Hospital field trip to the Spokane County fair – could have had a far worse ending.
A big attaboy goes to the federal, state and local law enforcement officers who converged on tiny Goldendale in central Washington to nab Paul on Sunday, three days after he escaped.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he’ll be sending the state a bill for all that overtime and the use of a police helicopter. As well he should. Paul’s disappearance has exposed an appalling lack of judgment by administrators at one of the state’s mental health hospitals.
Eastern State CEO Hal Wilson told reporters last week that Paul was not considered extremely dangerous – even though a judge just days earlier had deemed the killer a “threat to public safety.”
That judge’s ruling appears to have spurred Paul to begin planning his escape. When he left Eastern State last Thursday with 30 other patients, Paul had $50 in his pocket and packaged food he had ordered online.
Hospital officials either missed the clues or ignored them. The president of the employees’ union says that staff have repeatedly raised alarms about which patients get sent on field trips – and Paul was specifically one of their concerns.
Paul certainly seems like the last patient fit for a day at the county fair. He’s at Eastern because he killed a well-known Sunnyside woman in 1987, slitting her throat and breaking her neck because the voices in his head told him to “kill the witch.”
Three years later, he made his first escape from Eastern while on another sanctioned outing to a lake. He attacked a deputy while being booked into jail, shattering the officer’s shoulder. Over the next 19 years, Paul won release to the community several times, only to be ordered back to the hospital after refusing to take his medication or exhibiting increasingly defiant behavior.
When courts commit the criminally insane to state hospitals, it’s not only to protect them from themselves but to protect the public as well. A supervised outing could indeed be therapeutic – for some patients. It should go without saying that county fairs are not the appropriate place for testing the mental health of paranoid schizophrenic killers.
State authorities are promising a thorough review of the policies at Eastern as well as Western State Hospital in Lakewood – where on Monday the union president said his members have had similar concerns about which patients are allowed on community outings.
That review must produce changes that ensure patient treatment does not endanger public safety. The state got lucky that Paul didn’t hurt anyone. That kind of luck won’t hold.