Mentally ill man who set woman on fire in 2004 asking judge to allow him day trips

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

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.

Six years later, Hucksteadt was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the custody of the Illinois Department of Human Services. He has since been confined to the Elgin Mental Health Center.

Blankenship said over the years she has sat through more than a dozen hearings as her mother’s killer attempts to get more freedoms, all part of th process to eventually re-acclimate back into society.

Last year Hucksteadt was in court asking that he be allowed to go out into the community on 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 who 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 at a hearing held in McHenry County courthouse last month, authorities 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” to the purpose of the outings.

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, properly takes his medications and attends mental illness and AA meetings. He also successfully completed an off-site substance abuse program last year at the Renz Addiction Center while escorted by a security guard without incident.

Messer said it is “unnecessary” to require security guards. She said no other patient has required such an escort.

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.

At the hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs cautioned Judge James Cowlin, (currently hearing the case since Feetterer has been assigned to another courtroom)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.”

But this did little to ease Blankenship’s anguish. She said she is “drained” by the never-ending court hearings. She believed that once he was committed she would not have to ever worry about him being among the public.

Outside the courtroom Blankenship wept as she said she feared him being near small children or families. She also fears for her own safety if he ever is released.

“It’s not right,” she said adding that he is mentally ill and that it is not a curable disease. “This is just the first step to integrating him into society. He is very unstable. He’s a murderer.”

Cowlin could rule March 22.

At murder trial defendant claiming insanity says he heard voices and “smoked pot with God”

A 29-year-old man was hearing voices that someone was going to kill him the day he strangled and stabbed his 53-year-old roommate in their Woodstock apartment, according to recent testimony in a McHenry County courtroom.

Expert witnesses testified in the beginning of a bench trial for Branden Napolitan accused of killing Daryl K. Fox Oct. 23, 2015.

Napolitan’s lawyers argued that he is not guilty by reason of insanity while prosecutors counter he is guilty but mentally insane, meaning he knew the criminality of his actions.

Defense attorneys called to the stand Robert Meyers, a clinical psychologist, who said Napolitan was having a “psychotic break” at the time of the murder, hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations.

“He knew killing … was wrong but in his mind he was acting in self defense,” Meyers said.

Meyers said Napolitan called 911 and told responders he is schizophrenic, was hearing voices and he was scared. Napolitan, who admitted to some cocaine use, was taken to a local hospital where he was evaluated, but released. He then walked home and killed Daryl K. Fox, attorneys said.

After killing him, Napolitan stole Fox’s wallet, cellphone, charger and his car and fled to Madison Wis. where he was later apprehended.

Meyers said Napolitan, who was “quite psychotic and confused” at the time of the murder, is a paranoid schizophrenic. He said there is “no way he’s faking” his illness.

He testified Napolitan has been mentally ill since about 18 years old. He has been in inpatient care multiple times since 2007. Napolitan told Meyers he hears threatening voices, and others that guide him such as Adam.

He also said Satan talks to him and is “dragging him to his destiny to be in hell.”

Napolitan also reported having hallucinations of smoking pot with God and seeing God and other shadows in the clouds.

When arrested Napolitan was agitated and showing “dramatic mood swings” and making “bizarre comments,” the doctor said.

Terrance Lichtenwald, psychologist for the prosecution, disputes Meyers’ assessment. He didn’t believe Napolitan was hearing voices or suffering a psychotic break. He believes he is a paranoid schizophrenic, but said mental illness does not make one a killer.

“Spontaneous, random assaults are uncommon,” Lichtenwald said. “He did appreciate the criminality of his actions.”

The doctor said Napolitan took substantial steps to cover up the murder including closing the blinds in the apartment to conceal the body before he fled. He also continued to answer Fox’s phone as if everything was OK, saying a Fox could not come to the phone.

Regarding his many hospital stays the doctor said Napolitan had a pattern of admitting himself when he was broke and homeless.

The bench trial will continue March 9.

Mental illness, substance abuse and prescription drugs lead to gruesome murder in a small town

A Woodstock man who suffered from “severe bi-polar episodes” and experienced a psychotic break due to medication, according to expert witnesses, was sentenced Thursday to 30 years for the brutal murder of a homeless man in 2009.

As Kyle Morgan, 29, was led away by McHenry County Sheriff’s deputies he and his family said “I love you” to each other. Deputies denied requests for hugs from his parents.

Morgan pleaded guilty but mentally ill to first-degree murder in July for stabbing to death Robin A. Burton Jr., a homeless man, whose last known address was in Rockford.

The two had just met that day on Jan. 18, 2009. They were hanging out at Morgan’s apartment drinking beer and playing video games when out of no where Morgan attacked Burton with a hammer and a knife, said Morgan’s attorney Steven Greenberg.

Authorities said it was a gruesome crime scene inside Morgan’s apartment where  Morgan admitted to stabbing and bludgeoning Burton.

Kyle Morgan took the stand and apologized to Burton’s family.

“I wish I could change the past,” Kyle Morgan said adding that he had struggled for years with his mental illness and drugs and alcohol.

He said he wants to share his story of mental illness and addictions with others.

“I hope I have the chance to thrive in a positive way,” he said.

Prior to sentencing Jonathan Howard, a forensic psychiatrist, testified for the defense that Morgan’s bi-polar, which causes aggression, violence, irritability, depression, mania and poor judgement, was profoundly affected by the prescription drug Vyvanse.

Two expert witnesses said he should have never been prescribed Vyvanse.

He was prescribed Vyvanse in the summer of 2008. Prior to then he had not exhibited violent behavior against others, defense attorneys said.

“Vyvanse should not be given to a person who is bi-polar,” Howard said.

Vyvanse is “particularly powerful” in increasing dopamine in the brain, which can exacerbate bi-polar symptoms, Howard said.

“(Kyle Morgan) should not have been given Vyvanse,” Howard said.

On the day of the murder Morgan doubled up on his Vyvanse and did not take other mood balancing medications he was supposed to be taking.  He often did not take his drugs as prescribed.

He did not have street drugs in his system on the day of the murder, but over the years had abused heroine, cocaine, crack, and he huffed aerosols.

“He was born with a disease and that disease is directly related to what happened here,” said Greenberg in asking for the lesser sentence of 20 years. “This (mental illness) is a birth defect on the inside.”

After the sentencing Greenberg said that McHenry County Judge Michael Feeterer showed “compassion” in handing down the sentence.

As he walked out of the courtroom Greenberg said that at the end of many years of his family searching for the proper care for their son’s mental illness and drug addiction, Morgan was a victim of  “some really bad psychiatric care.”

Morgan had faced up to 36 years.

“This was a horrific, horrific brutal crime,” Michael Combs chief of the criminal division said during closing arguments.  “He chose to abuse drugs and not take medications the way he was prescribed. He killed a man and fled the state.”

After murdering Burton, Morgan left the area and was arrested in Nashville Tennessee.

In asking for the maximum sentence, Combs said if Morgan received just 20 years “He’s out in his forties, he can get out and do this to somebody else. He’s a danger.”

Kyle’s father, Dean Morgan, of Fontana Wi., said his son had battled depression since he was in middle school.

He said his son often cut and stabbed himself, and had attempted to kill himself at least eight times since he was 16.  In that first attempted suicide Morgan tried to jump off of a ten-story apartment building balcony, his father said.

The elder Morgan also said his son had his first drink of alcohol at age 8.

Often choking back tears, Morgan described how he had sent his son to several out-patient and in-patient rehabilitation programs over the years.

He said when his son would come home from a rehab program he would be “an absolutely new person.”

“When sober he was well-liked … had motivation … wanted to go to college,” Morgan said.

But that would be short-lived and within two to three months his son would relapse.

“It would be obvious, no question, he was using,” Morgan said.

James Cavanaugh, forensic psychologist, also testified for the defense and said the crime scene photos show the killing was “highly disorganized.”

The photos showed the “classic, disorganized, impulsive and chaotic crime scene consistent with somebody who is mentally ill,” he said.

In describing the gruesome crime scene, Cavanaugh said Morgan wrote on the wall in a mixture of his own blood and the victim’s blood:  “It is better to reign In hell then to serve in heaven.”

Cavanaugh continued saying that Morgan “desecrated” Burton’s body, which had at least 30 slashes on the head, back, chest and face. He said chunks of the body were cut off and Morgan had laid three Uno playing cards across his chest, each with the number 6 on them.

In “dark” poems Morgan wrote, Cavanaugh said it shows he is “fascinated” with satan worship, the occult, violence and terror. Morgan also had written letters to serial killers Richard Ramirez and Dennis Rader the BTK serial killer. He told Ramirez he admired him. He asked Rader what it was like to murder and if he missed murdering.

All of this, Cavanaugh said, in addition to the bi-polar and depression, shows that Morgan is severely mentally ill. And although he committed this “crazy” crime he knew right from wrong.

Cavanaugh had been asked early on in the case, by the defense, if Morgan was insane at the time of the crime, and he said no. Cavanaugh said although he was severely ill he still knew right from wrong.

After the sentencing,  family members of both Morgan and Burton embraced and apologized to one another.

Cavanaugh said, in his opinion, Morgan would not commit another murder.

“I think it’s a low risk” that Morgan would re-offend when he is released from prison, he testified.

He said in prison he would be getting the proper treatment, healing and as people age they are less likely to do drugs and drink like when they were younger.

Over the years leading up to the murder, doctors and his parents expressed a fear he would either kill himself or someone else.

In 2007 a doctor and his parents tried having Morgan involuntarily committed into a psychiatric hospital. Those close to Morgan said his behavior was “rapidly accelerating downward,” Cavanaugh said.

A Lake County judge denied this saying he did not appear to be a threat to himself or anyone else. But Cavanaugh said this was only because at the time the judge saw Morgan, he was properly taking his medications.

Rick Johnson of Woodstock,  Burton’s uncle said he and his family want to move on and he hopes that Morgan gets the treatment he needs. He described his nephew as “just a normal kid.”

“We are a strong family, it’s been tough, we are a strong family,” Johnson said.

Learning lessons, breaking free from our prisons

Hi friends, family and followers:

This morning I wrote over at ChicagoNow about lessons to be learned from our “prisons.”

In life we will all find ourselves in prisons of all kinds -physical, emotional, mental, relational.

I believe there are lessons to be learned and reasons we are all dealing with all that we deal with.

I heard a message this weekend that helps make a little sense of it all.

Please click on link below and let me know you visited. I value your comments and feedback.

Claudia and Bernice, decades apart, but not so different

A couple of weeks ago I worked on a story about postpartum depression as part of a case I have been covering in McHenry County.

One morning just a few days before Christmas, Claudia Mejia stabbed her 9-month-old baby boy, in the throat with a knife.

Her husband was home and she was supposed to be laying down with their infant son -the youngest of their four children- for a bit before they were going out Christmas shopping. Her husband then heard a shrilling scream from their room. He ran in to find the baby bloody and his wife catatonic,  saying only that she had no idea what happened.

She was arrested, held in jail on $2 million bail, and charged with attempted murder.

That was about two years ago, today in court her lawyer said that a doctor determined she was in fact insane at the time.

In a couple of weeks there will be a bench trial where it is expected the judge will sentence her to the Illinois Department of Human Services until she is found to be stable, instead of sending her to prison. She will eventually return home to her family. Her son survived and is a normal almost 2-year-old toddler. Doctors say he will not remember the stabbing.

Claudia’s story and two others on postpartum depression, written by Chicago Tribune reporter Lisa Black, ran on Jan. 9  in the Chicago Tribune.

A few days later the editors received a letter from an 89-year-old woman named Bernice. She thanked us for the article and shared a painful story that she had never before spoke of. A story decades before Claudia, yet somewhat similar.

She wrote of how one night when her husband was away on a trip she was desperate to get her crying baby to sleep. It had been five days and the baby cried incessantly and she was “exhausted,” she wrote. She had planned one night to turn on the gas in her apartment so they both would “sleep.” That is how she worded the sentence, but if we read between the lines, I think we know what she was saying, but could not bring herself to write it.

She continued that luckily, a neighbor invited her over for dinner that night and somehow helped her to get her  baby to fall asleep.

No one ever knew of her deep depression and frustration as a young, lonely, first-time mother, nor did she ever tell her husband or anyone, until now.

She also wrote of the wife of a friend. This woman jumped off of the top of the hospital building within days of her baby being born.

Both of these women were married to ministers. One would think these men, men of God, would have been more  sensitive, more in tune with their wives. Or that these women would somehow have had a stronger grasp on life and stress. (Link to Bernice’s letter is below),0,4300176.story

Bernice’s story made me think of the movie The Hours. There was one character, played by Julianne Moore, a “perfect” 1950s, housewife and mom with the perfect husband and house, but she is depressed and lonely and in the end she kills herself. There is another movie Revolutionary Road, with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Kate Winslet also plays a 1950s housewife who is so depressed, feels trapped, wants to move away from their idyllic suburban life and travel. But she finds she is pregnant. Gives herself an abortion and she dies.

These movies and Bernice’s story took place decades ago. TV tells us it was such a wonderful, blissful time back then, when women relished in being married and having children. They wore dresses everyday and pearls around their neck. Their houses were always clean and their lawns manicured. They cooked, really cooked, three perfect meals each day. Right?

Today, thank God, there is awareness of women and the unique issues we face with depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, and so on. Obviously we don’t catch all the cases in which women might harm themselves, or someone else, or their own baby, but I think we are in a somewhat better place than when Bernice was a young wife and mom. I don’t think we try to appear perfect. I know I don’t. I mean look it’s 6:30 p.m., I  have laundry to be folded and have not even thought about dinner yet!

Life is so hard and it is long. There needs to be awareness for those in heartache and deep distress.

Maybe Bernice’s neighbors sensed something bad was about to happen. They stepped in and helped this young, lonely mother. Maybe they just heard an angel whisper to them.

I thank God for them, whoever they are, as I’m sure Bernice is grateful to them. I’ll never meet this woman as she declined anymore attention from the newspaper.

But I can  only imagine how she works through that time in her life, now that her baby is a grown woman, maybe she has grandchildren.  What made her sit down at almost 90 years old and share that dark, sad time with the newspaper?

What made Claudia Mejia do what she did to her baby?  She loves her baby, her other three children and her husband, and they love her. Her husband  only asks that his wife comes home to them and that they can be a family again.

I hope she gets the right treatment and can go home as well. I hope her story and the others that Lisa Black wrote and Bernice’s letter catch the eyes of the right women.

You never know what is going on in someone’s head and heart.

Until next time love each other.

Please read, share “like” and comment. Let me know you stopped by!