Politics & Government

Mentally ill and homeless, he rolls into traffic to die but goes to jail instead

This homeless Lexington man dares drivers to hit him in his wheelchair

James Edmonds, a severely mentally ill homeless man, has been arrested dozens of times around downtown Lexington over the years. He is best known to local residents for rolling his wheelchair into busy streets.
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James Edmonds, a severely mentally ill homeless man, has been arrested dozens of times around downtown Lexington over the years. He is best known to local residents for rolling his wheelchair into busy streets.

Darryl Hudson-Jones thought he was doing a good deed.

One chilly November day in 2013, he saw an older man lying in the middle of the busy intersection of North Limestone and Mechanic Street. A wheelchair stood nearby. Clearly, the man had fallen out and needed help before a car hit him. So Hudson-Jones approached and extended his hand.

“Suddenly, some of the homeless people who were standing there on the sidewalk started yelling, ‘Get back! He’s crazy! He’s got a knife!’” Hudson-Jones recalled in a recent interview.

“The next thing I knew, he’d pulled out this big butcher knife, and he’s swinging it at me. If they hadn’t hollered and given me a second to step back, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have cut me bad.”

A police officer from nearby Transylvania University responded to the disturbance. The older man unsteadily rose to his feet and faced the officer with the knife and a vodka bottle — just emptied into his stomach — that he had broken against the pavement, turning it into a weapon. After a brief scuffle, the man was headed to jail for 13 months on assault and wanton endangerment charges.

This was simply another wretched day for James William Edmonds, a severely mentally ill homeless man who has spent much of his adult life revolving between downtown Lexington’s streets and the Fayette County Detention Center, with scores of brief, ineffective stops in the state’s mental health system.

Edmonds, now 63 years old, is best known for rolling his wheelchair into traffic. He tries to get in front of speeding vehicles, terrifying and enraging motorists as they swerve or slam on their brakes. Sometimes, just for good measure, he swings a large stick at the cars as they barely miss him. These misadventures often end in his arrest for disorderly conduct or some similar offense.

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James Edmonds, a severely mentally ill homeless man, has spent more than five years cumulatively in the Fayette County Detention Center since 2004 on 169 separate charges. Fayette County Detention Center

Edmonds hasn’t been able to talk since he underwent throat surgery for laryngeal cancer. But he hisses. With a “Go to hell” look on his face, he pulls a knife or throws a punch at people who rush into the road to roll him to safety. He trashes hospital emergency rooms when ambulances bring him in for treatment. Once in jail, he spits at and slaps the corrections officers and urinates on the floor. All of this behavior has led to additional charges.

Due to his outbursts, Edmonds is banned from the public facilities around Lexington that ordinarily would give him shelter or let him use the bathroom. So he sleeps outdoors in all sorts of weather, forages for food in garbage cans and defecates and urinates in public, which is illegal and yet another source of criminal charges.

Just since 2004, he has spent more than five years cumulatively sitting in a jail cell, isolated because of his history of aggression, held on 169 separate charges.

That doesn’t sound so bad to Hudson-Jones, the man Edmonds almost sliced open.

“If you want my honest opinion?” Hudson-Jones asked. “That guy needs to be locked up somewhere for a long time. He’s going to hurt somebody, rolling around town with butcher knives up his sleeves and drinking vodka. That’s not cool with me.”

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A cell door inside the Fayette County Detention Center. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

As terrible as his behavior is, though, Edmonds cannot control it. His brain is broken. Among his psychiatric diagnoses is schizoaffective disorder, a chronic condition that combines the hallucinations of schizophrenia with mania, or unmanageable emotional impulses. In his few interviews with a counselor over the years, he has reported suicidal impulses — hence, rolling himself into downtown traffic.

Complicating matters, Edmonds doesn’t want to take medication that might help him. Behind bars, he is known even to refuse meals, despite the fact that he usually arrives emaciated.

A survey last year counted 19 people without shelter in Lexington who were chronically homeless and severely mentally ill. There once were mental hospitals to hold those, like Edmonds, who needed a secure environment and mandatory treatment. Now there are the streets and jail cells.

“I’d have to say that between our legal system and our mental health system, our institutions have failed him monstrously,” said Robert Friedman, a public defender who has represented Edmonds in some of his past criminal cases.

“Jail is absolutely the wrong place for someone like Mr. Edmonds,” Friedman said. “In a perfect world, he would get a fairly stout level of support — housing and supervision and health care. He does not get the help he needs when he’s incarcerated. It’s a humongous waste of public money to lock him in a cell, apart from the fact that it’s flat-out cruel.”

‘We all have a James story’

The Herald-Leader was unable to interview Edmonds for this story.

Public records at the courthouses and jail reveal little of his life. He has told people he’s a Lexington native who graduated from high school. A sister occasionally is referenced in his files. But there is no explanation as to when or how his mental illness first exhibited and few details about his physical ailments, such as his throat cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and difficulty walking.

Courts officials say they can remember Edmonds as a criminal defendant as far back as the early 1980s, for the same general nuisance charges he’s known for today. Since 2015, he has been charged 21 times with offenses that include assault, menacing, disorderly conduct, alcoholic intoxication, carrying a concealed deadly weapon, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.

His record sounds worse than it is, say those who know him. Edmonds makes a spectacle of himself, and when people approach, he snaps at them. But whether by intent or luck, he doesn’t have a history of seriously hurting anyone. He’s mostly bark, not bite.

“We all have a James story,” said Charlie Lanter, former director of Lexington’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.

Lanter is among the many to come across Edmonds in his wheelchair blocking traffic — on South Limestone in his case — and who walked into the road to help him. Edmonds angrily arced a fist but missed. Lanter managed to shove him back onto the sidewalk.

“He was hissing and fussing the whole way,” Lanter said. “He was not happy with me.”

Rather than call police, Lanter swore out a petition to have Edmonds admitted to Eastern State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric center in Lexington. Under state law, Lanter had to say that he believed Edmonds was mentally ill and presented a danger to himself or others if not restrained and treated at the hospital.

Not a problem, Lanter said.

“My argument was, if this guy is sitting in the middle of traffic, then he’s clearly a threat to himself and others,” Lanter said. “He’s either going to get himself killed or he’s going to get someone else hurt when they swerve to avoid hitting him.”

What happened next is not publicly known. Officials at Eastern State Hospital referred questions about Edmonds to their supervisors at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which said it cannot comment on individuals’ cases under federal privacy laws.

However, it was revealed in public testimony that Edmonds had been presented to Eastern State Hospital at least 71 times as of a June 23, 2015, mental competency hearing in Fayette Circuit Court.

On two-thirds of those occasions, the hospital said Edmonds did not meet admissions criteria, and he was sent on his way. For the remaining 23 presentations, Edmonds was admitted, but typically only briefly, not for the 60-day to 360-day holds that are allowed under state law if the hospital believes treatment could be beneficial, according to testimony at the hearing.

The dilemma: As mentally ill as Edmonds seems to people who encounter him in public, the state of Kentucky generally considers him sane. State mental health officials have blamed his alcohol abuse; they have acknowledged that he might have a “personality disorder.” They call him stubborn, attention-seeking and anti-social. But at critical moments, they deny that he is seriously mentally ill.

For example, Dr. Amy Trivette, a psychiatrist at the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in La Grange, has repeatedly evaluated Edmonds in criminal cases and found him competent to stand trial, even when judges sounded incredulous. In a 2014 hearing — related to his assault on Hudson-Jones and the Transylvania University officer — Trivette testified that Edmonds was mentally capable.

“It is my opinion, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Mr. Edmonds does have the capacity to appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, and that he can participate rationally in his own defense,” Trivette told Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine. (Trivette did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.)

As the doctor elaborated on Edmonds’ mental competence, he furiously scribbled on a piece of paper at the defense table, then waved his manacled hands to get attention. A bailiff approached to read his written comments aloud to the judge.

“’I am be hit on the people is wanking at on you,’” the bailiff read haltingly.

Edmonds entered a plea deal in exchange for “time served.” His lawyer said he was eager to be set free. But he ended up spending most of the next two years behind bars, anyway. While he was being prepared to travel to the courthouse that morning, he angrily hit a corrections officer on the wrist, getting himself a felony assault charge.

The Fayette County Detention Center makes its best efforts to safely house mentally ill inmates, said spokesman Lt. Matt LeMonds. The local mental health nonprofit Bluegrass.org provides services at the jail, including suicide-prevention, although inmates cannot be forced to take medication or accept other treatment if they don’t want to, LeMonds said.

Asked whether the jail is an appropriate place for the severely mentally ill, LeMonds replied, “We don’t have a whole lot of say in that. We are not in a position to turn people away when they show up at our door.”

Die with your rights on

Kentucky once treated its mentally ill differently, although not necessarily much better.

In 1824, the state-funded Kentucky Eastern Lunatic Asylum opened in Lexington to house the insane so they would not “roam at large through the country,” in the words of its founders. Other states soon built their own asylums.

Unfortunately, these institutions often were crude warehouses of human flesh that provided little to nothing in the way of proper medical care. The Eastern Lunatic Asylum — later renamed Eastern State Hospital — relied on cages and iron chains in the 19th century and lobotomies and electoshock therapy in the 20th. Asylums’ signal accomplishment was holding the mentally ill in a secure place. More than 2,000 people lived at Eastern State Hospital at its peak during the 1940s.

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An isolation room at Eastern State Hospital in Lexington. Mark Cornelison mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Mental hospitals eventually fell from grace. Exposés in the news media revealed their often brutal conditions. Simultaneously, a new “wonder drug” called Thorazine helped stabilize many psychiatric afflictions, promising a more or less normal life at home.

Setting a reform-minded tone, President John Kennedy signed a law in 1963 authorizing Congress to spend $3 billion to establish a network of community mental health centers to treat people on an outpatient basis rather than lock them in hospitals. But Kennedy was assassinated days later. Most of that federal funding never materialized.

Mental hospitals closed or downsized over the next few decades, putting their patients out onto the streets without the safety net originally intended to catch them.

Just as it had pioneered asylums, Kentucky ambitiously built its own statewide system of community mental health centers, including the nonprofit in Lexington that today is known as Bluegrass.org. What it didn’t do was continue to adequately fund them.

In fiscal year 1998, the state of Kentucky spent $39 million on community mental health services. In inflation-adjusted dollars, just to keep even, that sum should be $60 million this fiscal year. Instead, it’s $55 million. Next year it will drop to $53 million. And much of the current spending goes to soaring public employee pension costs, not patient services.

Back at Eastern State Hospital, a $2 million cut in the state budget this year forced the closure of a long-term care facility originally licensed for 44 beds. The hospital that once housed more than 2,000 mentally ill Kentuckians held only 101 on a recent weekday.

Just as consequential as the spending cuts was a pair of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s. One guaranteed mentally ill Americans the constitutional right to not be confined in a psychiatric facility against their will unless they are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Another said the mentally ill have the right to refuse mind-altering medication if they don’t want to be treated.

By the early 1980s, the time of James Edmonds’ first recorded arrests, it would be difficult under the law to hospitalize him and treat his mental illness unless an open bed could be found somewhere and he volunteered to climb into it.

As Dr. Darold Treffert, a nationally renowned mental health researcher once put it, Americans like Edmonds are “entitled to die with their rights on.”

Coming to the rescue

That’s what Edmonds has been doing for years. His physical and mental health failing, sometimes sitting in sleet or snow wearing only hospital scrubs, Edmonds is left to die until he rolls his wheelchair into traffic, at which point he is arrested and goes to jail again. When he’s released from the jail on Old Frankfort Pike, days, weeks or months later, he is given a bus token to travel back downtown.

“It’s so sickening what’s been allowed to happen to him,” said Kelly Gunning of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Lexington.

“If you had a courtroom full of 99 people who work in Lexington’s legal system, all 99 of them would tell you that they know James and they know he is mentally ill,” Gunning said. “And yet the mental health system has formally concluded that he’s perfectly sane and competent to be held responsible for his actions. So he just gets locked in a jail cell over and over and he deteriorates.”

This is where Zag came in.

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Firefighter Patrick Branam, left, and Officer Alejandro Zaglul are the heart of the Lexington fire and police department’s Community Paramedicine Unit that launched this year. Zaglul used his new position to fight to get James Edmonds off the streets after many years of homelessness. John Cheves jcheves@herald-leader.com

Officer Alejandro Zaglul — “Zag” to everyone who knows him — is a member of the Lexington police and fire departments’ tiny Community Paramedicine Unit that launched this year. The team, which also includes Firefighter Patrick Branam, was created to preemptively address the needs of the people responsible for the bulk of the city’s 911 calls and expensive ambulance runs.

This includes some of the city’s chronically homeless population.

“A lot of the people we see out here have got absolutely no safety net,” Zaglul said in a recent interview. “They have no access to services, and they don’t know how to access services.”

As a former downtown patrol officer, Zaglul already was familiar with Edmonds, who has been carried to hospitals by ambulance at least three dozen times in the last three years. He had worked hard to get to know the feisty older man and earn his trust.

This new community paramedicine job, Zaglul decided, would allow him finally to get Edmonds off the streets. There had to be a residential facility that would accept him, the officer thought.

To accomplish this, Zaglul spent much of the last year chopping his way through state government bureaucracy.

After he saw Edmonds feeding himself from a trash can with hands that still had his own feces on them, Zaglul made the phone calls necessary for Edmonds to be placed under state guardianship through the Kentucky Department for Aging and Independent Living.

A social worker was assigned to the case. Edmonds was dropped off at Messner’s Home, an open-door assisted-living facility just off Versailles Road. He promptly rolled right out the open door and back to his usual life of blocking roadways with his body.

Not satisfied with this outcome, Zaglul sent a barrage of emails to the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services. The state’s assistance for this mentally ill man proved “inadequate,” Zaglul said, in that Edmonds had no food, no shelter and no clean clothes. Something more needed to be done, the officer said.

“Am I reporting this to the correct government entity, or should I be reporting this to someone else in order to prevent his untimely death while the state is his guardian?” Zaglul wrote to the complaint review branch of the cabinet’s Office of the Ombudsman.

Finally, after lengthy negotiations between Zaglul, the cabinet and Eastern State Hospital, where Edmonds was taken for evaluation yet again, the state agreed to send Edmonds to a secure residential facility in another state — not the sort of place with open doors — because Kentucky evidently has no similar facility. Edmonds’ aggressive behavior made him unwelcome in traditional nursing homes, cabinet officials told Zaglul.

On Dec. 6, to make Edmonds available for his trip, prosecutors in Fayette District Court agreed to drop the latest case that had been pending against him, allowing his release from jail. Overall, Edmonds spent six months of this year in jail on five different cases.

“It’s fantastic to finally be getting him into a place with the help that he needs. I started on this in August of last year,” Zaglul said in a recent interview. “At this point, it looks like it’s just one evaluation that needs to be done for him, a certification that he needs for that level of residential treatment, and then he’s good to go. It might take a couple of weeks.”

But Edmonds couldn’t stay out of trouble.

Six days after his release, he was blocking traffic on South Limestone near the University of Kentucky campus, pounding his fists on the patrol car of the Lexington police officer who stopped to check on him. Edmonds was arrested again for disorderly conduct. But this time, he was released after his arrest and told to appear in court on Dec. 28.

Cabinet officials won’t comment on Edmonds’ case, citing privacy law. However, a push is clearly being made to get Edmonds out of Kentucky and into the secure residential facility before he lands in serious legal trouble in Lexington again, Zaglul said.

“Or before he gets himself killed,” he added.

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