Two federal suits filed over shootings
Federal lawsuits filed Wednesday allege Nevada County created a dangerous environment at its Department of Behavioral Health Services and failed to act when Scott Thorpe became a threat, violating the civil rights of the Jan. 10 shooting victims.
“We believe the county acted in a way to create a dangerous situation and failed to do anything to correct the problem before people were hurt,” said Stephen Munkelt, a Nevada City attorney.
Munkelt filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of California in Sacramento on behalf of two women who worked at Behavioral Health and who say they were traumatized by Thorpe’s alleged attack on the department: Pamela Chase and Yvonne O’Keefe.
A separate federal lawsuit was also filed Wednesday in Sacramento by Paul “Nick” Nichols Wilcox and Amanda M. Wilcox, parents of Laura Wilcox, who died in the Jan. 10 shootings; Darrel Edzards; and Judith A. Edzards, a Behavorial Health Department employee injured in the shootings.
Steven Spiller, a Nevada City attorney who filed the Edzards-Wilcox suit, did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Chase and O’Keefe’s due-process civil rights under the 14th Amendment were violated by the county’s abuse of power, said Munkelt.
County Counsel Charles McKee said he did not believe anyone’s civil rights were violated, based on what information he had Thursday night – he had not seen the cases.
“It’s very difficult to determine whether someone’s civil rights are violated based on the information I have at this time,” he said.
McKee said no one made him or Phyllis Murdock, director of Nevada County Human Services Agency, aware of any dangerous situations in Behavioral Health prior to the shootings.
In hindsight, said McKee, it’s easy to second guess whether someone is violent. But it’s virtually impossible to know what is going on in someone’s mind and whether he or she is going to take violent action like the Jan. 10 shootings.
Named as defendants in the Edzards and Wilcox suits are Nevada County; Murdock; George Heitzman, a former independent contractor to the county; and Benjamin Lopez, a Behavioral Health contractor, according to court records.
Thorpe is named as a defendant in the Wilcox-Edzards suit, while the Chase-O’Keefe suit names mental health staff members Doug Bond and Robert Gillespie, court records show.
Lopez, Gillespie and Bond did not return a phone call requesting comment. Murdock said she had not seen the suit and declined comment.
The suit filed on behalf of Chase and O’Keefe alleges that county policies discouraged contacts with patients more than once a month, even for patients in a psychotic, delusional state. The county also discouraged the commitment of patients to mental hospitals, the suit claims.
McKee said he was unaware of any policies limiting visits, though lack of money and lack of client cooperation could have constrained the number of visits.
“Funding is very deficient in mental health care, and they work on a shoe-string budget,” said McKee. “They do a great job with the funds they have.”
McKee said commitments are not easily obtained and are tough to get through the courts.
The Chase-O’Keefe suit claims that Thorpe was evaluated in July 2000 for an involuntary psychiatric commitment, but no commitment was ordered.
On April 30, 2000, a Thorpe relative called Chase and said Thorpe had become obsessed with Chase, and that Thorpe had access to an “arsenal” of weapons at his house, according to the Chase-O’Keefe suit.
That May, Chase told Heitzman she was concerned for her welfare and requested the Nevada County Sheriff be asked to investigate Thorpe’s firearms possession and possible danger to the community, according to the Chase-O’Keefe suit.
According to documents, Heitzman refused to involve law enforcement, a decision what was ratified by other defendants in the Chase-O’Keefe suit.
Heitzman’s attorney, Glenn Kottcamp, declined comment.
McKee said he could not comment on Thorpe’s treatment because of patient-client confidentiality.
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