Court hears testimony on possible release of mental patient who killed mother

Published: Wednesday, May. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 15, 2013 - 7:51 am

Once again, California mental health officials are pushing to release into Sacramento a psychotic man who slashed and bludgeoned his mother to death in South Land Park nine years ago.

In testimony Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court, a psychiatrist from Napa State Hospital said Ronald Benjamin Toppila "is now psychiatrically and behaviorally stable" and at such low risk of danger that he is capable of living in a community group home.

"Under the Conditional Release Program, he can be safely managed in the community," Dr. Margaret Leftwich Miller, a staff psychiatrist at Napa, testified Tuesday.

A jury had found Toppila not guilty by reason of insanity in his mother's death.

Leftwich took the stand in a hearing in front of Judge David W. Abbott to decide if Toppila, who is now 72, qualifies for release. Attorney Robert J. Saria, who is representing Toppila, is scheduled to call one more witness today before Abbott takes the case under submission.

Sacramento County prosecutors strongly disagree with the state doctors.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Donell Slivka ripped into Miller on cross-examination, strongly inferring the Napa psychiatrist all but consciously ignored multiple previous diagnoses that Toppila is a paranoid schizophrenic.

Miller said Toppila has only major depression, with severe psychotic features that can be controlled through monthly medication injections that would be administered by Conditional Release Program staffers.

Asked by Slivka where Toppila would be placed if he is released from Napa, Miller replied, "Sacramento." When questioned again to provide a specific location, Miller said, "I don't know."

"My understanding is he will be in a board-and-care home," Miller testified, where "he may or may not have somebody there to dispense his medications."

Miller said there likely would be no psychiatrist or psychologist on staff where he lives. It would be up to Toppila, she said, to make it to his appointments with program officials and to attend any sort of therapy sessions that would be required.

When the prosecutor wondered how Toppila would make it to his various appointments, the psychiatrist testified, "Well, I imagine the Conditional Release Program would help him with bus schedules, show him how to get on a bus." His family also could help, Miller said. "Down the road," she added, "they may let him have a car."

A social worker with a master's degree who once worked for the county's Child Protective Services agency, Toppila killed his 86-year-old mother, Hilma Tone, in her South Land Park Drive apartment on Oct. 7, 2004, slashing her 52 times with a box cutter and breaking her larynx, ribs and jaw.

He had previously been diagnosed as delusional and suffering from Capgras syndrome, an affliction in which a person thinks a relative or close friend has been taken over by an impostor.

Before the killing of his mother, Toppila engaged in bizarre rituals such as bathing himself in a bathtub full of bleach. Miller testified he also had taped all the windows in the apartment he shared with his mother with black paper.

A jury in 2006 found that Toppila killed his mother but that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, and a judge had him committed to Napa. Under the terms of his commitment under state law, Toppila is afforded a hearing every three years to determine whether he can be released from the mental hospital.

In November 2008, Judge Kevin J. McCormick rejected an effort by Napa psychiatrists to have Toppila transferred into a group home. In announcing his decision, McCormick said that one of the psychiatrists who testified at the hearing committed perjury. State officials reviewed the testimony but did not disclose what action, if any, was taken against the doctor.

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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