Questions raised after 'mentally ill' man absconds from Minnesota security hospitalRoger Lloyd Zimmerman was in a treatment program that eventually tries to get "mentally ill and dangerous" patients to the point that they can return to their home community. The only alternative to that effort is lifetime confinement for the mentally ill, St. Peter (Minn.) Police Chief Matt Peters said. "For society, the bigger question is, do we want to warehouse people for the rest of their live?" he said. "If these people are ill - in this case, mentally ill - the premise is that they're treatable. That's not going to be possible in every case."
By: Mark Fischenich, Mankato (Minn.) Free Press / MCT
ST. PETER, Minn.
When Roger Lloyd Zimmerman was committed to the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center in 1996 as "mentally ill and dangerous to the public," he clearly met both pieces of the designation.
Zimmerman was living in a self-described "cliff house," which was actually a hole dug out of a hillside, according to a 2001 review of Zimmerman's court file by the St. Paul Legal Ledger. He heard voices that told him "things were getting hotter and hotter because the sun was coming down out of the sky."
Zimmerman apparently believed "that the only way to cool things down was to have sex with a woman."
In July 1996, the 25-year-old Zimmerman entered a Wayzata home where a 13-year-old girl was baby-sitting, pulled a rug over her head, raped her twice and threatened to kill her if she told anyone, according to the criminal complaint in the case. The girl ran from the house with a baby in her arms and flagged down a car.
Zimmerman was arrested nearby later in the day. In a trial in 1998, a judge believed that Zimmerman had committed the rapes but found him "not guilty by reason of mental illness."
Thirteen years after his commitment, Zimmerman's treatment had steadily progressed to the point that he was given a four-hour unsupervised pass to the St. Peter community. On Tuesday afternoon, he went to the library in the St. Peter Community Center, may have stopped by Arby's, called Kato Cab for a ride, gave a cabbie two $100 bills and asked to go the Greyhound bus depot in downtown Minneapolis, according to the St. Peter police report.
By early Wednesday morning, he'd been tracked down by Department of Human Services investigators with help from the St. Peter police. At 12:30 a.m., he was still at the Greyhound station, intoxicated, and taken into custody by Minneapolis police.
Security hospital incident likely to spur 'community conversation'
Neither Regional Treatment Center officials nor the St. Peter police notified area residents that Zimmerman had failed to return and was on the run.
St. Peter Police Chief Matt Peters said he considered issuing a notification but also realized that Zimmerman was probably nowhere near St. Peter when RTC staff member Karen Gorman reported the missing patient at 8:43 p.m. -- about three hours after he is believed to have absconded. (A Department of Human Services spokeswoman didn't have an explanation for the time lag before police were notified).
"We know that when patients abscond, they don't remain in our local community," Peters said.
Police alerted area law enforcement but quickly made progress in tracking Zimmerman to the Twin Cities -- contacting Kato Cab, learning they'd dispatched a taxi to the Community Center, discovering that the cabbie had taken a man matching Zimmerman's description to the Minneapolis bus station. Unable to get Minneapolis police to immediately check the Greyhound station, St. Peter police alerted law enforcement in the St. Cloud and Fergus Falls areas -- guessing he might have gotten on a 10:30 p.m. bus to St. Cloud in an effort to get closer to his mother, who lives in Ottertail.
"I think it's important to keep in perspective that he didn't do anything other than abscond," Peters said.
The police department regularly receives missing-patient reports from the RTC's chemical dependency unit, but Peters said he couldn't remember another case of patients walking away from the Forensic Transition Services Program. That's the program Zimmerman was in, and it's the one that eventually tries to get "mentally ill and dangerous" patients to the point that they can return to their home community.
The only alternative to that effort is lifetime confinement for the mentally ill, Peters said.
"For society, the bigger question is, do we want to warehouse people for the rest of their lives," he said. "If these people are ill -- in this case, mentally ill -- the premise is that they're treatable. ... That's not going to be possible in every case. Some people are sick and don't get better."
Peters said he is impressed by the quality of the treatment at the RTC and the staff's ability to assess which patients have progressed to the point that they can be trusted with a few hours of freedom in the community. Sometimes, though, a patient will prove them wrong.
"I have lots of confidence in them," he said. "But we're all people, and people make mistakes."
This week's events were the second time Zimmerman made news since his commitment. He was cited by lawmakers in 1999 as a prime example of why the state's sex offender registration law needed to be changed to close a loophole.
Under the then-existing law, Zimmerman would not have had to register as a sex offender upon his release from St. Peter because he hadn't been convicted of a crime (due to his mental illness) and had been committed as "mentally ill and dangerous" rather than as a "sexually dangerous person."
The change to close the loophole passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.