A 56-year-old man found dead on a snow-covered sidewalk in Southeast D.C. Thursday had been reported missing four days earlier from the District’s psychiatric hospital — where he had received on and off treatment for nearly three decades.
City officials are now investigating the circumstances surrounding Daniel Ellis’ unauthorized departure from St. Elizabeths Hospital to determine how he was able to walk away from the facility unnoticed.
A report from the Metropolitan Police Department states that Mr. Ellis was found “laying face down and partially covered by snow” on Thursday afternoon in the 2400 block of Shannon Place Southeast, about 2 miles from the hospital.
The cause of his death has not been determined, but police preliminarily said there was no indication of foul play.
Officials with the Department of Behavioral Health, which oversees the city’s public psychiatric facility, said Mr. Ellis both left and was reported missing from the hospital on Feb. 9. It was unclear what he may have done or where he may have gone during the time he was missing.
“When we saw he was missing we searched the grounds and didn’t find him and filed a missing person report,” said Phyllis Jones, spokeswoman for the Department of Behavioral Health.
Mr. Ellis was voluntarily committed at the hospital, meaning he could request to leave at any time. However, doctors can hold a voluntarily committed patient for 48 hours after a release request is made to monitor the patient, contact family and arrange for any necessary medications.
“Mr. Ellis didn’t request that. He just left,” Ms. Jones said. “If we had seen him leaving, of course we would have stopped him.”
Patients at St. Elizabeths include individuals with serious mental illness and those undergoing court-ordered mental evaluations or care. One of the hospital’s most famous patients over the last few decades has been John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Leave and privileges at the facility differ from patient to patient.
Mr. Ellis had privileges to be in the hospital’s lobby and on its grounds, Ms. Jones said. Whether he was required to be accompanied by a staff member, and if anyone was watching him when he left, are both matters under investigation, she said.
“We’re reviewing the incident to make sure the protocols were followed and the staff acted appropriately,” she said.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray spoke publicly about Mr. Ellis’ death during an interview on CNN about the city’s response to the recent winter storm.
“He apparently had wandered away from there several days ago,” Mr. Gray said during the interview.
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Ellis’ disappearance and death have worried D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat who heads the council committee with oversight of behavioral heath.
“My concerns are with the personnel who were charged with the patient that day,” she said. “My concern is where was staff at the point in time that he left?”
Ms. Alexander said she was unaware of any other recent instances in which a patient from the hospital has walked away unnoticed but urged anyone with complaints or concerns about treatment of patients there to contact her office.