Why was decapitation suspect walking the streets?

Laurie Roberts
opinion columnist
Kenneth Dale Wakefield

It appears that Kenneth Dale Wakefield will be indicted any day now for the gruesome crime of decapitating his wife.

Pity the grand jury can't look elsewhere, for the real culprit in this bloodbath.

They'd have to look no farther than our system for dealing with people like Kenneth Dale Wakefield.

Or rather, not dealing with them.

Wakefield was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of first-degree murder in the grisly death of his wife, Trina Heisch.

When a neighbor knocked on the door to check on the couple, he found Wakefield without an arm and one eye, Heisch without a head and two dogs mutilated.

I'd say it was a horror story right out of a movie, except this sort of thing happens far too often.

Remember Ed Liu? He suffered from serious mental illness for most of his life. He was enrolled in the state's mental-health system yet went eight months without taking his medication and no one noticed, until he killed two people in a Walmart parking lot in 2005.

Remember Joe Gallegos? He never showed up for court-ordered psychiatric treatment and four months later killed two little boys with a baseball bat as they played in a park just before Christmas 2008.

Once upon a time, such people would have been seen not as potential time bombs but as sick people in need of help. But we long ago decided it was inhumane to keep such people locked away in mental hospitals. Inhumane and unhelpful to their treatment.

I wonder how humane it was to release Kenneth Dale Wakefield?

According to court records, the guy was convicted of attempted second-degree murder in 2004 after stabbing his mother at the request of the demons in his head. He also attempted to mutilate himself in ways best not described in a newspaper. He then stripped naked, jumped out a window onto his head and was hit by a police car while running down the street. He had to be repeatedly stunned with a Taser to be subdued.

He was found "guilty but insane" and sentenced to 10.5 years in the state mental hospital.

Last September, the state Psychiatric Security Review Board voted unanimously to conditionally release him, noting "Mr. Wakefield's mental disease or defect is in stable remission and he is not dangerous if he resides in the residential treatment program as specified in the conditional release treatment plan and is compliant with the terms of his conditional release."

Two months later, state records show the board revoked that conditional release but Wakefield had served his 10.5 years and the board's jurisdiction was about to expire. So the board voted unanimously to order the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to begin civil commitment proceedings.

"Because the case is sealed, all I can share with you is that the efforts to have him civilly committed were not successful and he was not, in fact, civilly committed," MCAO spokesman Jerry Cobb told me.

"Even if he had been committed, he would have been released shortly thereafter," Cobb added, noting that once he was properly treated and no longer posed a danger he would have been released. Cobb says the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is considering asking for a change in state law to allow for indefinite commitment in cases such as this.

As for Wakefield, it's unclear why he wasn't committed or whether a judge ordered him into community-based mental treatment and monitoring, to ensure that his treatment continued. A spokeswoman for the state's Behavioral Health Services division declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality. A spokeswoman for Mercycare Maricopa, which serves the seriously mentally ill in Maricopa County, didn't return a phone call.

We apparently aren't entitled to know why Wakefield was seen as fit to walk the streets or whether anybody was supposed to be monitoring him. We aren't allowed to know what steps the system took to ensure his safety and the safety of those around him.

Here's what we do know. A seriously disturbed man with a history of mental illness – one who once tried to kill his mother and mutilated himself -- was released onto the streets of Phoenix by psychiatric professionals who apparently had no choice.

Several months ago, he moved in with Heisch, whom he met while in the state hospital as she was serving 10.5 years for attempting to kill her son in 2000.

Police were called to their central Phoenix apartment at least five times in the last two months and a mental-health crisis team was dispatched at least once.

On July 25, police say Wakefield decapitated Heisch – something he explained was necessary "to get the evil out". He also mutilated their dogs, cut off part of his left arm and gouged out his right eye, stripped naked and answered the door to his neighbor.

No doubt, he appreciates his humane treatment at the hands of the state of Arizona.