June 29, 2012

Mute mystery man baffled jail psychologists

 Deemed incompetent to stand trial after month of silence

How do you provide treatment to someone who won't talk, when you know absolutely nothing about him -- not even his name? That was the problem facing clinical staff at the San Mateo County Jail this month.

"John Doe" was arrested May 30 for shoplifting two frozen pizzas and several candy bars from a local supermarket. But it was no ordinary theft: Store personnel described him as semi-catatonic, making no effort whatsoever to conceal what he was doing, private investigator Rich Fischer told me today. Perhaps because of his odd behavior, supermarket employees didn't even call the police until Mr. Doe's third attempt to make off with the food.

When police responded, the disheveled man placidly declined to communicate. And he has remained mute ever since, not speaking a single word to anyone for an entire month.

He had no identification, and his fingerprints didn't show up in any databases. No missing persons reports could be found.

He seemed to understand simple commands, both in English and Tagalog. (About one out of five residents of the local community of Daly City are Filipino.) But he wouldn't sustain eye contact or write. In the sole clinical breakthrough, when a nurse asked him if he was "happy or sad," he drew a picture of a happy face. Consistent with his sketch, he seemed perfectly content with his situation, according to an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the mystery..

Knowing nothing about him, jail mental health personnel concentrated on ruling out medical causes for his muteness, such as a stroke or a brain hemorrhage. No medical causes were found, and no clinical interventions were successful.

He was not in any immediate danger, as he was able to understand enough to take care of his basic needs in jail. But he did not seem to be in a position to rationally assist his attorney with his criminal case, so he was found incompetent to stand trial and transferred to a local hospital for further treatment.

Meanwhile, the private defender's office (the local version of a public defender's office) retained investigator Rich Fischer to solve the mystery.

In addition to plastering the local community with fliers, Fischer contacted the news media, which ran an article with a photo. Finally, just today, he got a lucky break when someone who knew the mystery man alerted the family, who contacted Fischer and identified him from a photo. As it turns out, the family had filed a missing persons report in San Francisco, but it had fallen through the cracks.

Maguire Jail, Redwood City
Although Mr. Doe has now been identified, some mystery remains as to his clinical condition. The 44-year-old Filipino native, who holds advanced degrees in computer science and electric engineering, began withdrawing about a year ago, Fischer said. He continued to deteriorate until he finally disappeared from his San Francisco apartment about a month ago.

So, in the end, it was old-fashioned gumshoe work as opposed to psychological detection that cracked the case. In the absence of any collateral information there is only so far that psychology can go in cases of psychogenic muteness.

"I’ve got a reputation for being able to find people when I have a name," a satisfied Fischer told me. "But this was the opposite situation. It was a little unusual."

Now that Mr. Doe has been identified and his family can provide collateral information about his condition, it will be up to the court-appointed experts to decide whether he is competent to stand trial, or can be restored to competency.

Somehow, I doubt he will ever face trial. After all, a couple of frozen pizzas and a few candy bars is hardly the crime of the century. Especially when the alleged culprit isn't talking.

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