- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Whenever would-be Reagan assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. petitions to leave St. Elizabeths, the District's hospital for the criminally insane and mentally ill, he meets resistance and with good reason. Hundreds of other patients there, however, do not. They are free to come and go as they please even though they, like Hinckley, pose a danger to themselves, the community at large or both.

"Hundreds of patients are walking away," Del Walters, WJLA-Channel 7 news anchor, reported Wednesday evening. "Last March a pedophile walked away … No questions asked." Mr. Walters' startling report is the result of a six-month investigation into patient security at the hospital, which opened in 1855 as the federal Government Hospital for the Insane and was transferred to the District in 1987. Hinckley, who has been confined since 1982, is the hospital's most notorious patient. Other well-known patients have included emotionally tormented baseball great Josh Gibson and the "shotgun stalker," a paranoid schizophrenic who terrorized two D.C. communities by randomly killing four persons and wounding others in 1993.

Situated in a depressed area of Southeast Washington, St. Elizabeths straddles Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and serves as headquarters for the D.C. Department of Human Services. Its neighbors include several schools, nonprofits that cater to youths, a graveyard, several public and low-income housing complexes, churches and mom-and-pop shops. Safeway abandoned its site across the street from St. E's in 1998, and High's Dairy Store and McDonald's pulled out long ago after patients rattled customers' and workers' nerves by constantly panhandling them. Even these days adult patrons of nearby bars are careful to escort one another to their cars at night. Everyone in the surrounding community has good reason to be cautious.

One violent criminal addicted to drugs has walked away from St. Elizabeths six times since 1998, once as recently as March. A woman with HIV and a history of promiscuity comes and goes, too, "almost daily," according to the report. They are permitted to leave because they are granted passes by medical staff; guards have no control over the patients, although they present a clear and present danger to children or anyone else in the vicinity.

There are hundreds of children living, playing and attending school within view of the guards shelters at St. Elizabeths. Children who live in the largest nearby housing complex, Barry Farms, attend one of five elementary schools near the hospital, including a charter school that recently moved into the old Safeway site. Teens and toddlers are a few blocks away at Covenant House Washington, and children seek recreational refuge at the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club on Milwaukee Place, which is open most nights until 9.

One former guard, Virgil Thompson says that "28 to 30 persons" are "missing" from the hospital every month, and that the problem is lax security rules, as well as too many gates and patients. Says former U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova, the situation is a "recipe for disaster."

Fortunately, patients such as Hinckley and the stalker can only be granted passes by the courts because they were sentenced to St. Elizabeths by the courts. But other violent predators, including pedophiles and other sex offenders, are permitted to walk away "no questions asked." No one wants to trample on individual rights, but local and federal authorities need to investigate St. Elizabeths before that community loses more than a supermarket.

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