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Lewis Co. residents vent their anger over elopements

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

WESTON -- Representatives from three branches of law enforcement and nearly 40 Lewis County residents shared their anger about elopements from Sharpe Hospital at a Tuesday meeting.

"We live at ground zero," said Weston resident Charles Rittenhouse, whose property abuts William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital. "We can't even go out to mow our front yard without locking the back door."

Rittenhouse said he has stayed awake whole nights when he was notified that a Sharpe patient -- some of whom are facing criminal charges or are serving a hospital "sentence" for crimes committed while legally insane -- had eloped.

His wife, Alice Rittenhouse, said she is even more concerned about the elopements they are not aware of immediately, such as two in one week in January.

"I wouldn't have known there was a patient out except your cruiser pulled up in my driveway with its blue lights on at 3:15 in the morning," she said to Lewis County Sheriff R.A. Rinehart.

Rinehart, Weston Chief of Police Robby Clem and State Trooper C.J. Tierney echoed similar complaints and urged the residents to join with them in contacting state legislators.

"I just catch them. That's all I can do," Rinehart said. "Write to your legislators to tell them that ... they have to face up to this problem."

More than 20 patients have eloped from the hospital since January 2000. Two of them were forensic patients, who would have been imprisoned for criminal activity had they not been mentally ill.

Rinehart said he had met with hospital administrator Jack Clohan Jr. in recent days to insist that police be notified immediately when a criminally charged patient is missing. He said there was a 45-minute notification delay in one of the most recent elopements.

During the Tuesday night meeting at the Weston Volunteer Fire Department, Rinehart passed out forms through which residents could be added to an elopement-notification phone tree and a neighborhood watch program. He entertained suggestions that a siren be employed to notify hospital neighbors and a barbed-wire topped fence be installed, as well.

He also passed out a list of regional legislators' addresses.

Clem said the latter would be key if a long-term change is to be effected. He noted Sharpe houses criminally charged patients from regional jails throughout the state who are undergoing psychiatric evaluation prior to trial.

"If we cause a big enough stink they have to do something," Clem said.

Rinehart said some eloped defendants he caught told him they had purposefully expressed suicidal tendencies in order to go to Sharpe, where they believed escape would be more likely.

"I ask them why and how," Rinehart said. "(One man said), 'sometimes they would lose sight of me if I get in the right place,' and he just jumped out the door ... another timed the elevator doors and got out that way.

"Mr. Clohan has assured me those holes have been plugged."

Expressing anger that Clohan, invited legislators and county commissioners did not attend the meeting, the group set a tentative follow-up meeting for 10 a.m. Feb. 24 at the hospital and made arrangements to formally invite those individuals.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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