Suspect’s release frightens victim — (South Bend Tribune)

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South Bend Tribune

Mishawaka man says assailant needs mental health assessment.

March 19, 2008

NANCY J. SULOK Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND — Jeffery Slabaugh is frustrated that a man he said clobbered him on the head with a metal bar last week and threatened to kill him was allowed to bond out of jail over the weekend. Leo Wantuch III, a 37-year-old Mishawaka resident, is charged with battery with a deadly weapon, a Class C felony, in connection with the March 12 assault. Accompanied by his parents, Wantuch appeared Monday before Magistrate Richard McCormick, who ordered him to return to court April 14.

McCormick also granted a request for a no-contact order to keep Wantuch away from Slabaugh. None of the Wantuchs wanted to talk after the brief court appearance. Slabaugh, 39, who attended the hearing, said afterward that he is now afraid of Wantuch. Because they live just three blocks from each other, Slabaugh said, he decided to stay with a friend Sunday night after learning Wantuch had paid a $2,000 cash bond and been released from jail. Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said he could not comment, because of medical privacy laws, on whether a mental health evaluation was requested for Wantuch.

Generally speaking, Dvorak said, when a suspect demonstrates behavior that indicates there may be a mental health issue, the prosecutor’s office can contact Madison Center to do an evaluation. The evaluator can make a determination about the suspect’s mental condition. If and when that’s done, Dvorak said, it’s not something that becomes a public record. Slabaugh said he and Wantuch have been friends for more than 20 years. He has been teaching Wantuch to use a computer, he said, and in exchange Wantuch was letting Slabaugh do his laundry at Wantuch’s house.

On the afternoon of March 12, a police report says, Wantuch picked up Slabaugh and drove home. As Slabaugh was unloading his laundry from the bed of the truck, the report says, Wantuch hit him on the head.  Slabaugh said he fell to the ground and Wantuch kept hitting him.  An off-duty police officer from French Lick, Ind., who was visiting at a neighboring house, allegedly witnessed the attack.  He subdued and handcuffed Wantuch before Mishawaka police arrived. The witness told police he saw Wantuch hit Slabaugh several times.

Slabaugh says he needed about 20 stitches to close a wound in his head, he suffered a fractured left wrist when he raised his arm in a defensive posture and had numerous lesser injuries. The witness told police Wantuch had claimed “the devil made me do it.” At the Mishawaka police station, the report says, Wantuch repeated that claim. He said when he started using the drug Paxil about six years ago, “the devil began telling him what to do.’‘ Paxil is an antidepressant drug used to treat anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.

The police report says, “Leo stated the devil told him after 6 people were murdered in a school shooting, and the planets lined up correctly, he was supposed to beat Jeffery with the pipe.” The purpose for the assault, Wantuch allegedly told police, was to draw attention to the allegedly harmful effects of Paxil; to raise awareness of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; and to expose a brake cleaner that allegedly causes cancer.  Slabaugh said the comment about HIV, in his opinion, makes the assault a hate crime, because Slabaugh is gay. Dvorak noted that Indiana does not have a hate crimes law, so he cannot file that kind of charge. But, he said, the remark can be brought to the court’s attention at sentencing and can be used as an aggravating circumstance for a stricter sentence.

Mental illness could be used as a mitigating factor, he added. A Class C felony has an advisory sentence of four years, but aggravating factors can raise it to eight years, and mitigating factors can lower it to two. Slabaugh questioned why the assault was charged as a C felony instead of a more serious B felony, especially because Wantuch allegedly said he was trying to kill Slabaugh. Dvorak said a Class B assault requires injuries that are permanent or protracted, such as permanent brain damage. Though Slabaugh’s injuries are serious, he said, they likely are not permanently disabling. Slabaugh said he feels sympathy for Wantuch because of his alleged mental illness. He said Wantuch needs to be punished for what he did, but he also needs help.Staff writer Nancy J. Sulok: nsulok@sbtinfo.com (574) 235-6234