- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Hundreds of patients were left unguarded in the John Howard building of St. Elizabeths Mental Hospital in Southeast D.C. Saturday night when the only government security officer on duty in the building's front sally port fell unconscious.

The Howard building holds 260 patients, including John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Reagan.

Under regulations, there are supposed to be two officers inside the sally port area, a secured entrance which leads directly upstairs to where the patients are housed. However, only one officer was on duty on Saturday night.

The supervisor in charge, whose name is not being revealed, has been put on administrative leave and an investigation was being carried out to look into what hospital administrators called a "serious security lapse," said Jasper F. Burnette, deputy director of the office of administration at the Commission on Mental Health Services.

The supervisor could possibly be dismissed if the accusations prove true, Mr. Burnette added.

Mr. Burnette said there were two contracted security guards at the front desk of the John Howard building on duty on Saturday night when the incident happened. The front desk is a few feet away from the window looking into the front sally port area. Another officer was in another sally port in the rear of the building, he added. None of the security officers at the facility is armed.

No patients would have been able to get out, Mr. Burnette said, because they must announce themselves to the guard in the sally port, who then allows them out through an electronic door.

He said one supervisor for the government security staff typically is on duty overnight and would make trips to the sally ports every hour during the night to ensure things were moving smoothly. Mr. Burnette said hospital administrators held frequent meetings with the contractors to coordinate security supervision at the facility.

J.W. Lanum, chief of security and materials management for the commission, who was conducting the inquiry into the incident, did not return several calls from The Washington Times.

However, a source who works at the hospital said there were no supervisors on duty that night and most other nights.

The contract staff do not have a key to the sally port area, which is guarded only by government employees, but they do have to report any irregularities immediately, Mr. Burnette said.

The source said Lt. Mary Bunn, 47, who started her shift at midnight Sunday morning, could have fallen unconscious "at any time during the night."

Mr. Burnette said Lt. Bunn was found lying unconscious at 7 a.m. Sunday, and added that they thought she had slipped on some water leaking out of the refrigerator and hit her head.

She was taken to D.C. General Hospital, where her condition was described as "stable" yesterday.

Mr. Burnette said the supervisor failed to provide the key to the door, and it had to be broken to get to Mrs. Bunn.

The source pointed out that although there were supposed to be two guards present in the front sally port at all times, there often was only one.

"It is a lot of responsibility for one guard," the source said.

Mr. Burnette acknowledged that the hospital "sometimes" had just one guard on duty in the sally port, but said this was due to shortages of staff.

"We can't always foresee what will happen with employees," he said.

This, however, was a lapse the hospital had taken "very seriously," he said, adding that officials were making sure there were two guards on duty in the sally port every night since Saturday.

The John Howard building is divided into three wards: maximum security, medium security and low security. Patients in each have different movement privileges, including unaccompanied access to the grounds of the facility, said Ritzia George, chief of the post-trial branch at John Howard. The hospital would not say what ward John Hinckley Jr. is in.

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