Dave Happ knew his brother’s time in lockup wasn’t going to be a life sentence.
As soon as a Carver County district judge adjourned court 14 years ago, Happ started preparing for the day when his older brother, Richard, would be released from the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.
Just before midnight on March 24, 1999, Dave, then 27, had watched in horror as Richard A. Happ, then 30, had stabbed their parents to death with a butcher knife in the kitchen of their Waconia home, then threatened him as he fled outside to call police with a mobile phone.
Now, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) says, Richard should be allowed to leave the hospital and live at a licensed, state-operated residential facility in West St. Paul. He is considered at low risk to reoffend, has gained great insight into his mental illness and “is at a point of being ready to move on,” according to a finding of fact and recommendation report.
Dave Happ couldn’t disagree more.
On Friday, he and his first cousin, Dean Stuewe of Chaska, with the support of the Carver County attorney’s office, will be back in a courtroom to fight Richard’s provisional discharge.
The recommendation that Richard Happ, now 45, be released also contains cautions. In the report, the psychologist representing Carver County Human Services also raises concerns that Happ isn’t symptom-free, that his psychosis wasn’t sufficiently addressed in a risk assessment report and that his history of substance abuse before commitment was substantial.
Because of Happ’s history of mental illness, the county attorney’s office said in the report, “if [a release] goes badly, then it will go very badly,” and that’s why it’s fighting the discharge.
“I’m very worried they will have him heavily medicated and roll the dice,” Dave Happ said. “The people releasing him may not be around in two, three or five years. There is no culpability.”
If a panel of three Dakota County District Court judges denies Carver County’s appeal, Carver County could petition the state Court of Appeals.
The West St. Paul facility has 24-hour care and awake overnight staff, the recommendation report said. A representative from the facility said in the report that it has a good relationship with Happ and that he has attended its monthly peer-monitoring group. The representative also said the facility can provide safety for the public and assist in Happ’s adjustment into society.
Stuewe, the Happ brothers’ cousin, said he visited Richard at the security hospital last year. He said Richard’s speech seemed very deliberate, “as if he was telling me what I wanted to hear,” he said.
When he went to St. Peter, Stuewe said he believed he had an agreement to look at his cousin’s medical charts, but hospital staffers told him Richard had changed his mind, he said.
“He would tell me that ‘they’ say he’s ready to leave the hospital, but he never said ‘he’ is ready,” Stuewe said.
‘People can and do recover’
Discharges of people indefinitely committed to the security hospital for being mentally ill and dangerous take place far more frequently than for those committed to the state’s sexual offender program.
While only one out of nearly 700 people has ever been released from the sex offender program, 111 other people treated at the state hospital have been provisionally discharged the past two years.
DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry declined to comment on Happ’s case. In general, she said, the department “is required by law to meet the mental health needs of those committed to our care in the most integrated setting possible.”
“People can and do recover from mental illnesses, including very serious illnesses that can lead to violence. Even when someone has successfully been treated, we take great care to address risks to others in the community,” she said. “Patients who have been provisionally discharged are subject to multiple conditions and close monitoring, and DHS can and does revoke provisional discharge for violations.”
Happ’s discharge petition was filed in May by Dr. Steven Pratt, the forensic medical director at the state security hospital. A special review board approved it after hearing testimony and reviewing 41 documents, including a letter from Stuewe pleading for Happ’s continued commitment.
The recommendation report noted Happ’s diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and alcohol and drug addiction but said he has been free of aggressive behavior since he was admitted to the security hospital. He also has received passes to go into St. Peter and stay overnight with a friend, the report said.
Even with its concerns, Carver County Human Services supported Happ’s petition “in principle.” The county attorney’s office also acknowledged that it was encouraged by his excellent work in treatment. Yet an evaluation in the report also said Happ is subject to olfactory hallucinations and sporadic unwanted, disturbing images related to his past homicidal behavior.
‘Kind and loving’ parents
Dave Happ saw those behaviors firsthand. On that night in 1999, Richard shoved him down the stairs and asked him “if he was ready to die” before fatally stabbing their parents, Richard H. and Angela Happ, ages 62 and 59, when they rushed to Dave’s aid.
When a deputy arrived, summoned by Dave’s frantic cordless-phone call once he had fled the house, Richard lunged at the officer with the knife, then broke the locked squad car window and drove off in the car. Officers chased him about 12 miles, arresting him in the parking lot of a Lake Minnetonka restaurant.
After being charged in the crimes, Richard Happ was deemed mentally ill and dangerous, and was committed indefinitely to St. Peter.
The Happs had long recognized that Richard was deeply troubled; they had sought help for him at three hospitals.
Happ had a bench trial, which meant his case wasn’t heard by a jury. He was ruled mentally ill at the time he killed his parents and acquitted of murder and attempted-murder charges.
Dave Happ said he has never contacted his brother at the hospital because he doesn’t trust him and doesn’t want a relationship if he is released. He said he believed he is being victimized all over again and wants the people pushing for Happ’s discharge to be held accountable.
“We are dealing with a volatile personality,” he said. “I have to deal with it for now. If he gets out and I’m uncomfortable, I might have to move out of the area.”
He described his parents as “the most kind and loving people I knew.”
“It was a massively devastating event that defined my life,” Dave said. “It angers me that they are gone and he’s still around.”