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The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)

June 16, 2000

Author: Jonathan Martin Staff writer

State officials have ordered an unusual external review into accusations that Eastern State Hospital wrongfully set free a dangerous man accused of later killing a 70-year-old woman.

Four days before the killing, Todd A. Marsh told mental health counselors in Omak, Wash., that voices in his head were ordering him to kill, sources familiar with the case say.

The counselors sent him to Eastern State Hospital – but not before warning the ambulance crew to take extra caution with Marsh.

Once at Eastern State, Marsh disclosed the murderous voices again to hospital staff, according to his attorney.

Yet he was released after less than three days of observation. No warning was sent to Omak police or mental health counselors.

Pat Terry, head of the state Mental Health Division, said Thursday that a three-person team from outside the agency – a psychiatrist, nurse and social worker – is expected to be assembled quickly and examine the reasons for Marsh’s discharge.

Terry said an outside review is unusual for the agency. She said she hopes the report will be concluded by the end of July.

“It’s a serious and unusual incident. We need a review,” she said. She and other members of the hospital staff declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing confidentiality laws governing mental health treatment.

The review team will look at the laws and state policies governing the decision and is expected to suggest what additional protections are needed, Terry said.  “I don’t know if anything could have been prevented,” she said. “I’m trying to make sure there’s something we can do.”

Okanogan County prosecutors on Thursday charged Marsh, a 38-year-old Omak native, with first-degree murder in the bludgeoning death of Marcie Robbins.  She was found dead of massive head injuries in her home Saturday.

Marsh was also charged with robbery and burglary for allegedly stealing jewelry from Robbins’ house. He was charged with assault and harassment for allegedly beating and threatening to kill Helen Moore of Okanogan.

In the beating incident last Saturday, police called Moore looking for Marsh, who was believed to be in her home. Moore told officers she’d seen Marsh earlier and hung up.

The phone call reportedly sent Marsh into a rage. He kissed Moore’s forehead, told her he was going to kill her, then punched her in the face four times, according to court papers. Marsh then fled after Moore’s dogs attacked him, according to the papers.

Marsh was arrested soon after the incident.

His attorney, Kelli Armstrong, said her client has  “had a lifetime of mental illness.” Marsh and his family told Armstrong that he’s been hearing voices since age 16 or 17.

“My recollection is that there’s a male and a female voice, commanding him to hurt people,” she said.

Marsh has received mental health treatment at Okanogan County Counseling but had stopped taking his prescribed mood-altering drugs at the time he was sent to Eastern.

He has seven felony convictions and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, according to police and Armstrong.

When he was discharged from Eastern State, Marsh was prescribed three drugs: Doxapin, used to treat depression; BuSpar, used for anxiety; and Paxil, used for both.

“The circumstances of this cry out for an insanity plea,” said Armstrong, who has requested that Marsh be sent to Western State Hospital in Tacoma to be held and evaluated. She said she expects Marsh to be sent back to Eastern on Monday.

The hospital, she said, is hiring two outside psychologists to assess whether Marsh was sane at the time of the killing and whether he’s competent to stand trial.

“He doesn’t remember what happened,” she said, after talking to Marsh at the Okanogan County Jail.

Marsh called police on June 6, threatening suicide.  He was referred to Okanogan County Counseling.

The Okanogan evaluation describes Marsh as having  “command hallucinations” – meaning he heard voices in his head he couldn’t control, according to a source familiar with the case.

That kind of assessment is a  “real alarm bell” for mental health counselors, said Vicki Bringman, acute care manager for Okanogan County Counseling.

“That usually means they’re pretty far gone in their psychosis,” said Bringman, who declined to speak about Marsh specifically.

That evaluation prompted Marsh to be committed to Eastern for 72 hours. But Eastern staff members saw a different picture of Marsh, according to a hospital source.

They saw a man with a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and an  “antisocial personality disorder.” Someone with this antisocial condition has no regard for harm he or she does to others, counselors say. However, Eastern staff members said he lacked a major mental illness that would require further commitment, the source said.

Marsh emphatically denied that he was going to hurt himself or others while in the hospital, according to the source.

Terry, the state mental health chief, said Marsh was assessed for about 65 hours before discharge Friday. Omak authorities initially reported that he was discharged after 48 hours.

Eastern could have kept Marsh hospitalized for up to 14 additional days, if hospital staff had considered him very ill and an imminent risk to himself or others.

Marsh’s release prompted harsh criticism from Omak Police Chief Larry Schreckengast and Tommye Robbins, the dead woman’s daughter.

“I think he was a danger to society when they let him out,” said Robbins, 50. “There are a lot of questions I want to ask the mental health professionals here and (at Eastern State Hospital). … There is something wrong with the system. It needs help.”

The killing, she believes, was not a random act of violence.

Marsh bought an entertainment center at Marcie Robbins’ yard sale a week before the killing, and the two lived just four blocks apart. And her mother told Tommye Robbins that she had befriended a man matching Marsh’s description within the last month.

“He knew my mother,” she said.  “He knew whose house he was going to.”