UPDATE: Judge allows day passes for mentally-ill man who set woman on fire

Leslie Blankenship thought her mother’s murderer would be put away in the state’s custody until 2099 only to find she would bare through numerous fitness hearings quietly looking on as he attempts to get more privileges and freedoms.

On Thursday Blankenship’s worst fear came true as Hucksteadt’s request to go out into the community on reintegration day trips was granted.

In 2004 Lawrence Hucksteadt doused 69-year-old Ellen Polivka with gasoline and set her on fire as she sat at her receptionist desk at the Centegra Behavioral Health center in Woodstock. She died weeks later.

In 2010, Hucksteadt was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the custody of the Illinois Department of Human Services and confined at the Elgin Mental Health Center.

Last year Hucksteadt was in court asking that he be allowed to go out into the community on these supervised group reintegration trips. The excursions that last about four hours and occur three times a year typically include eight patients and three therapy aides. The group takes a bus from the facility and visits Elgin’s Gail Borden library, the recreation center and they have lunch in a local restaurant.

The purpose of these “highly structured” day trips is to reintroduce the patients, without cuffs or waist chains, to living among the community in order to, at some point, place them in housing outside the facility, explained Dr. Richard Malis at a hearing last month. Malis treats Hucksteadt at the facility.

He currently is clinically and behaviorally stable, allowed unsupervised passes between buildings on the property, and has had no violations, Malis said.

Last year, McHenry County judge Michael Feetterer ruled that he would only grant the off-site request if Hucksteadt were escorted by two security guards.

But authorities initially said due to staffing and the concern that uniformed guards would alter the nature of the trips, Hucksteadt has not been allowed on the day trips.

Malis said the presence of a uniformed security guard on those tips would be “detrimental” to the other patients and “counterproductive.”

Assistant Public Defender Kim Messer described Hucksteadt as a “leader” within the facility and argued that he has been compliant with all his treatments, has had no altercations, takes his medications and attends mental illness and AA meetings. He also successfully completed an off-site substance abuse program last year while escorted by a security guard without incident.

Messer said it is “unnecessary” to require security guards.

Hucksteadt has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, has experienced psychosis, visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions, Malis has testified.

However, Malis and the facility’s chief of security William Epperson each testified that Hucksteadt is compliant with his treatment, has not had any violent outbursts in recent years and is not a threat to the community.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs cautioned Judge James Cowlin, now is hearing the case, to be careful in his ruling noting the horrific crime Hucksteadt committed. “This is your name going on this …,” Combs told Cowlin.

Combs said asking for un-uniformed security guards is “not unreasonable” to protect the community.

Cowlin asked Epperson if it would be possible to provide one or two plain clothed security guards to which Epperson said “I could make it work.”

In his written ruling issued Thursday, Cowlin said he would allow the off-site day passes as long as there was at least one plain clothed security guard with him. Cowlin wrote that he believed Hucksteadt has made progress. He said these outings are not seen as rewards but as part his “therapeutic plan” to reincorporate him into the community.

Upon learning of Cowlin’s ruling Thursday, Blankenship said she is “very disappointed… our hearts are broken.”

“This is pretty sad to hear,” she said. “They are using the community as a guinea pig. Hopefully he doesn’t  act out and hurt anybody, (that) no child or anybody sees what he is capable of. … It is difficult to digest. It’s like a free pass if you are insane you get a free pass to commit murder. This is the beginning of him being allowed to reintegrate. I hope they know what they are doing because he is very dangerous.”

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