For the second time in recent weeks, California’s mental health system wants to release a killer in Sacramento.
This time, he’s a former methamphetamine addict who walked into a bar 20 years ago and shot a man through the heart.
Thomas Alvin Webster, according to the medical staff at Napa State Hospital, has his drug problem under control and is no longer insane.
“I do not believe he represents a substantial danger if released into the community,” Dr. Robert Picker, a Napa staff psychiatrist, testified this week in Sacramento Superior Court.
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If Judge Cheryl Chun Meegan agrees, Webster would be the second such killer to be ordered released into community outpatient treatment in Sacramento by the local court this year.
On Nov. 5, Judge David W. Abbott ordered Ronald Benjamin Toppila released from Napa, based on his finding that the 73-year-old man – who stabbed and beat his mother to death in 2004 – is no longer dangerous.
Toppila gained admittance into the state’s Conditional Release Program on his second petition to the courts. Although he has yet to be released from Napa, according to his lawyer, he is scheduled to ultimately land in Sacramento.
Webster, now 55, is trying for the third time to be released. His hearing is expected to conclude next week.
Both Toppila and Webster qualified to petition for their releases because they were found not guilty by reason of insanity. The findings enabled both to be placed in state mental hospitals instead of prison, turning them into patients instead of inmates.
“Patients have the constitutional right to be treated in the least restrictive alternative, the least restrictive place,” said attorney Robert Saria,who represented Toppila. “Even if you kill somebody. The Penal Code says we don’t prosecute or punish people who are mentally ill.”
California does, however, keep its homicidal insane locked up in state mental hospitals, which have confined Thomas Webster since his placement following the Oct. 8, 1993, shooting death of Troy Allen Clower, 22. .
Clower’s mother wants to see her son’s killer institutionalized forever.
“This man is a menace to society, and if he is turned loose, he is going to do it again,” Corinne Summers said in an interview outside Meegan’s courtroom earlier this week. “His brain is really, really fried on drugs.”
On the day he was killed 20 years ago, Clower and friends were shooting pool and drinking beers at the old Harbor Bar and Grill on Marconi Avenue
“We came into the bar, and four minutes later, Mr. Webster pulled out a gun and shot my friend,” Eric Silva said in the courtroom hallway. “No provocation, no contact. He walked right up and pop pop, and I looked up and he’s standing there with a drink and a gun. He set the drink down and walked right out of the bar. I went to my friend and tried to give him CPR, but he was dead already. One of the bullets went right through his heart.”
According to court records, Webster had a lengthy history of mental problems that doctors said primarily stemmed from his abuse of methamphetamine. He had been snorting about a half-gram a day for a few weeks before he killed Clower.
Amid his “command auditory hallucinations” and “fragmented paranoid delusions,” he told doctors he believed his apartment had been infested with bees. Calls to NASA and to the 911 operator didn’t solve the problem, so he went to the bar to be around people. He felt company sometimes diminished his anxiety.
Instead, while nursing his drink, he locked on to Troy Clower, and according a prosecutor’s brief, “he felt that Troy was one of them, the people who read his mind and tried to control him.”
At Webster’s last release hearing in 2003, Judge Lloyd A. Phillips rejected the recommendation of Napa’s since-retired medical director, Dr. Jeffrey Zwerin, that Webster be released.
At this week’s hearing, Picker, the Napa psychiatrist, testified that he has been treating Webster since October 2012. Picker said Webster has not exhibited any psychotic behavior for years.
Webster’s mental problems were totally linked to drugs and alcohol, the doctor said, and the patient has been heavily involved in recent years in programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“He is painfully aware of the devastating impact drug abuse has had on his life,” as well as the lives of his victims, Picker testified under questioning from Assistant Public Defender Joe Cress.
Picker described Webster as “extremely remorseful.” Webster, according to the psychiatrist, “has reached a level of maturity where he realizes drugs cannot be part of his life.”
In two days of cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Michelle Becker peppered Picker with questions about incident reports on Webster’s behavior in the 10 years at Napa since Phillips refused to release him. In his Wednesday testimony, Picker said more than 30 times that he was unaware that Webster had been written up by Napa staffers for outbursts of anger toward employees and other patients, and for exhibitions of what the nurses and psychiatric technicians had characterized as possibly paranoid behavior.
On one occasion, Webster complained about having to pick bugs off his skin, spitting up lice, feeling bees stinging him, or that wasps were filling up his car – all of which the doctor agreed were consistent with the same kind of “meth psychosis” that preceded the shooting of Clower.
Picker said those kind of reports “obviously raise red flags,” but that he wasn’t aware of them.
The psychiatrist said he wasn’t aware of reports that Webster had sold morphine to another patient in his housing unit, or that he had accused staff members of being on drugs and selling them.
In testimony Thursday, the community program director for the contractor who administers the Central Valley Conditional Release Program said that if Webster is released, he would eventually wind up in one of two unlocked board-and-care homes in the Sacramento area.
Citing patient confidentiality, Rhonda Love of the Harper Medical Group did not disclose their locations. She testified under questioning from Cress that her agency has endorsed Webster’s transfer.
“I believe he has exhibited the ability to execute the tools he has learned to maintain his sobriety,” Love said.
She will be cross-examined when the hearing resumes Monday.