The harrowing case of a psychiatric patient missing for 10 months shows the gaps in the state's tracking system.
A fugitive psychiatric patient with a violent history was on the loose in Minnesota for 10 months last year -- avoiding arrest and terrorizing a Wisconsin woman -- because of a breakdown in state and local efforts to track his whereabouts, according to agency documents and officials familiar with the case.
Only after Ronald Sampson put a shotgun to the head of his girlfriend in Danbury, Wis., last December did the Minnesota Department of Human Services refocus its attention on returning him to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, state records show.
Sampson's case is the latest example of a recurring state failure to properly track mentally ill and dangerous patients who violate their discharge conditions, the Star Tribune has found. The case has come to light as the state considers allowing more supervised release for sex offenders, another category of patients committed to the hospital in St. Peter.
Now state officials are conducting an internal investigation to explain how Sampson avoided apprehension, despite at least seven encounters with law enforcement authorities, and how the state tracks more than 100 similar patients.
State officials and law enforcement professionals angrily describe the Sampson case as a classic tear in what is supposed to be a safety net protecting the public from psychiatric patients who have violated their terms for release.
"This isn't supposed to happen; we need to fix this gap and keep it from happening again,'' Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said in an interview last week. Her deputies and Cloquet police were the ones finally tipped to Sampson's whereabouts after he tried to kill his girlfriend. "He sounds like a gentleman who shouldn't have been out on a provisional discharge in the first place,'' Lake said.
In an interview last week, top Department of Human Services officials said Sampson's case has caused them to intensify efforts to improve surveillance, including conversations with the Department of Corrections.
But they also said the agency decided decades ago not to bother searching for some of its still-missing patients, even though they may be a danger to themselves or the public.
The first such patient disappeared in 1977, and five more vanished over the years through 1998. "These are people we've lost and don't know where they are,'' said Mike Tessneer, chief executive of state operated services for DHS. He said that he didn't know whether the state has ever tried to track them down and that there are no such efforts now.
Sampson's case, however, has prompted the department to overhaul the way it tracks such patients. "We're pulling this situation apart piece by piece and asking the questions you're asking," Tessner said. "What went wrong, what can we do better next time. Nobody is happy when [a patient] walks away and commits a crime.''
Currently, 138 mentally ill and dangerous persons are living in communities across the state under supervised release.
The case of Sampson is probably exceptional -- and may be the most chilling.
Released and returned
Sampson, 38, has called the St. Peter hospital home, on and off, since 1999, when he was first committed as mentally ill and dangerous.
In April 2009, he was on release from St. Peter when he landed in the Carlton County jail on a domestic assault-strangulation count. The charge triggered an order to revoke his provisional discharge, and he found himself in a deputy's squad car, making the 207-mile trip from Cloquet back to the security hospital.
Then, just three months later, Sampson was released again. Court records show that in late July, a DHS special review board recommended that Sampson be discharged back to Cloquet. Tessneer signed off a month later, and Sampson was free, headed north again.
Tessneer said he signs such orders based on opinions provided by mental health staff.
Last year, the special review board considered 75 provisional discharge petitions from patients considered mentally ill and dangerous, granting 42, according to the state. Such patients live throughout 33 of the state's 87 counties. Hennepin County, with 49, has the highest number, followed by St. Louis County with 13.
But by March 2010, Sampson had violated his discharge conditions again, this time by missing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, failing to check in with case managers in Cloquet and failing to produce pay stubs to verify a job, records show.
A Carlton County judge issued an order to apprehend Sampson -- but he became another missing person who had fallen off the state's radar screen.
A gap in the network
Sampson's case is symptomatic of a gap between the state mental health system and Minnesota's network of local law enforcement agencies.
A missing patient who is deemed mentally ill and dangerous but has not committed a crime cannot easily be entered into state and national criminal databases if no criminal warrant has been issued, Tessneer and others said.
It turns out that the Carlton County Sheriff's Office decided the judge's order to apprehend Sampson could not be entered into a statewide database for criminal warrants or missing persons, Sheriff Lake said.
"The civil order for apprehension doesn't fit the criteria ... he wasn't charged with a criminal warrant," Lake said.
Her department put out an alert in Carlton County and, as a courtesy, in nearby St. Louis County.
What the state needs, she said, is an additional category in the law enforcement database for civilly committed patients.
Some law enforcement professionals say they are troubled that this fault line has existed for years. Troopers and deputies describe cases where their colleagues made seemingly routine stops on missing patients but had no way of knowing if the person they stopped was unstable and dangerous.
With Sampson, those fears were not a stretch. The criminal complaint for the attempted murder of his girlfriend notes that he said he was going to kill her, then himself, because he told her he "was not going back to prison.''
Sampson could have been back in state custody six days after the Carlton County judge issued his order, according to records. The State Patrol stopped Sampson on an apparent routine check last spring, but there was nothing to alert the trooper that Sampson should be taken into custody.
"There should have been a way to enter this so the first law enforcement stop would have triggered him being picked up," Lake said.
A harrowing visit
Lynn Powers had dated Sampson off and on for 10 months after meeting him in an online support group as she mourned the death of her husband.
The Danbury, Wis., said Sampson befriended her and treated her with respect -- but became physically abusive as fall approached.
On Dec. 17, he showed up at her home, attacked her and tried to force her to swallow his medications, according to a criminal complaint. He then cut her wrists with a steak knife, dragged her into the bathroom and sat on top of her. He pointed a shotgun at her head.
"He said, 'It's going to look like suicide ... I'm not going back to prison,'" Powers recalled in an interview. "I don't know what gave me the strength, but I turned my head to the right just as the gun went off. This burst of energy. That gun was pushed up right against my chin.''
Sampson let her go, she said, and she retreated to her bedroom. Hours went by, and she wondered when he would come to kill her. Terrified, she saw him finally standing in the doorway.
"He said, 'I'm making some macaroni and cheese. Do you want some?''' She said she was dumbfounded.
Finally, he left. She called a relative, and soon police in Cloquet were notified of Sampson's whereabouts.
The order for apprehension showed up on the Carlton County sheriff's system -- and only then was the Department of Human Services back in the loop.
Today, Sampson resides in the St. Peter hospital, in a lock-down ward housing the most dangerous mentally ill patients in Minnesota.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745