Slain firefighter's family wins settlement, reforms
Seattle Times staff reporter
Rose Stevenson and her five daughters never thought much about the mentally ill, about jails or psychiatric hospitals or what it takes to treat someone against their will.
But that was before Aug. 24, 1997, when they lost Stanley Stevenson - retired Seattle Fire Department captain, husband of Rose and patriarch of a family that includes 14 grandchildren - who bled to death from a knife wound on a Chinatown International District crosswalk.
The culprit: a violent schizophrenic released from the King County Jail 11 days earlier. Dan Van Ho was considered so unpredictable that five guards escorted him out of jail and onto a downtown sidewalk.
After marathon talks this week, attorneys for the Stevenson family agreed yesterday to a $5.5 million settlement with the state of Washington and King County, resolving a wrongful-death suit filed by the family.
It is the largest wrongful-death settlement in the county's history.
When their grief subsided, the Stevensons spent years promoting change in the mental-health system. More important than the money, says the family, yesterday's agreement calls for changes in jail-staff training and establishes better communication between the jail and mental-health institutions. The state Department of Corrections has pledged to implement tougher standards of supervision for minor offenders with a history of violent behavior.
The reforms come three years after the family successfully lobbied the state Legislature to allow judges more authority to confine mentally ill offenders.
It's hasn't always been easy to attend the countless meetings and court procedures, the family said, but Stevenson would have expected no less of his family.
"It's something Dad would have been proud of and would have done himself," said Rose. "I have felt all along that Stan's death had a purpose."
Earlier conviction, lost file
A year before the killing, in 1996, Ho had violated a no-contact order against his sister and was sent to Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, where he stabbed a staff member with a nail file. He was convicted of assault and put on state supervision. But a probation officer lost his file, and no warrant was issued after Ho failed to pay restitution.
Over the next year, Ho was in and out of jail, but he never was sent back to Pierce County for failing to make the court-ordered payments.
On July 7, 1997, Ho was arrested in Seattle for trying to steal a $50 bicycle.
The jail knew Ho well and knew he didn't take his medication.
By law, the nurses and psychiatrists could not force Ho to take anti-psychotics. All they could do was monitor his illness. If Ho became a threat to himself or others, they could call a county-designated mental-health professional, who could involuntarily commit Ho to an institution.
But the jail psychiatric staff never called for a mental-health professional, even though Ho threw water and feces at staff members, tore his mattress and did not participate in interviews.
Only one nurse sought to collect anecdotal evidence about Ho for a possible referral to a mental-health professional.
On Aug. 4, Ho was sent to Western State to determine whether he understood the bicycle-theft charges against him and could help his lawyers.
He kicked two assistants in the face and spent two days in restraints.
The doctors determined that he was angry, hostile and paranoid, and should be committed for treatment against his will.
Yet Ho was returned to the jail, and his unpredictable behavior continued.
On Aug. 12, Ho appeared before Seattle Municipal Judge Elsa Durham, who dismissed the theft charges even though she had the letter from the Western State recommending that Ho be treated against his will.
Ho was released the next day, after a psychiatric evaluator interviewed him through a locked door.
Yesterday, in her first public statement about the case, Durham would not explain her decision but added, "My sympathy has gone out to the family for this tragic occurrence."
A corrections officer later told attorneys that five guards escorted Ho downtown because there was "an air of unpredictability about him."
Ho returned to his haunts in the International District, where he slashed a woman's face the day after his release. On Aug. 24, he stabbed a stranger, Stevenson, in the stomach. He was later convicted of both crimes.
Husband, father is stabbed
Stevenson loved Mariner games, though he didn't have season tickets. On Aug. 24, he drove his wife, daughter Jeanne Lagerquist and future son-in-law to a game against the Yankees. The Kingdome lot was full, so Stevenson parked in the International District. He was happy to find the space.
After a Mariner victory, the four were in good spirits. They joked and talked about finding a place to eat dinner.
They were the first in the crosswalk when the light changed at Sixth Avenue South and South Jackson Street. Ho walked toward them.
Lagerquist said she thought Ho was a cook because he carried a large knife with such care. She never saw the blow.
"What happened?" were the last words she heard from her father. He died less than an hour later at Harborview Medical Center.
Ho later told his sister that he thought somebody was going to kill him when he stabbed Stevenson.
"I didn't realize that there were people on the streets who were very, very sick," said Lagerquist. "I always thought that people who had history of mental illness were taken care of. I found that wasn't the case."
Eight months later, three generations of the Stevenson family watched from the state Senate gallery as lawmakers unanimously passed a bill to give judges greater discretion to treat mentally ill offenders who show a "likelihood of serious harm" even if they have not committed serious crimes.
The family gathered around Gov. Gary Locke when he signed the bill into law a few months later.
They lobbied for the creation of King County's Mental Health Court in 1999, which aims to get offenders into treatment.
"It wasn't a vindictive-type effort," said Don Plucker, Stevenson's son-in-law. "It was not to punish mentally ill offenders. It was to give them treatment."
The settlement goes a few steps further to improving the process, said family members. But they are still upset that a state Appeals Court ruling gave immunity to the City Attorney's Office, which could have sought to civilly commit Ho at the bicycle-theft hearing.
"The county and state 'fessed up. The city has not admitted they are guilty," said Plucker. "They are immune, but they should be held accountable."
City Attorney Mark Sidran did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office last night said that the settlement "serves the interest of justice and removes the risk of additional costs to taxpayers had the case proceeded to trial."
Ho was found not guilty by reason of insanity for first-degree murder in 1998 and sent to Western State. The state Department of Social and Health Services has control over Ho for the rest of his life.
A 2-year-old medical report states that Ho continues to have difficulty in treatment, but his sister visits him from time to time and says he is doing well.
He talks about getting out someday and getting a steady job so he could send money to support his family in Vietnam, his sister says.
The Stevensons say Ho was a victim as much as their father. "The system failed Stan and our family, but it also failed Dan Van Ho," said Rose. "He was not helped."
The family doesn't know what it will do with the money, but it will stay active in mental-health issues. Because their patriarch would have wanted it that way.
"We've done all this for my dad's memory," said Sue Plucker. "I know he's thinking, `Thanks.' "
Alex Fryer can be reached at 206- 464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.