Rusty Houser's deadly rampage in a Louisiana movie theater left those learning of his reckless past wondering: Why did no one heed the warning signs? Why wasn't a man with his mental issues in prison or hospital? How could someone with his record buy a gun?
Those who know the law, and work with the mentally ill, say such bewilderment reflects a widespread lack of understanding of both.
They make these points:
Houser's more serious crimes were never prosecuted and were spread out over time and across jurisdictions. Had he been prosecuted, he likely would not have served much, if any, prison time.
Involuntarily committing someone to a mental institution is not easy, nor is it intended to be, as the law over time has evolved to protect individual rights and prevent abuses that led to "warehousing" those with mental or developmental disabilities.
Though Houser's previous offenses of soliciting arson and domestic abuse, which weren't prosecuted, precluded his obtaining a "carry permit" from the Russell County Sheriff's Office in 2006, that means he was prohibited only from legally wearing a firearm. He still legally could purchase the .40-caliber handgun he used in the theater shooting.
Houser is not typical of the mentally ill, who are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime. The mentally ill who wind up in jail usually are there for minor offenses and respond well to treatment aimed at stabilizing them and getting them out of jail and into community-based programs.
Had he been prosecuted, Houser could have had two felonies:
In 1989 he was arrested for hiring a man to burn down the office of a lawyer who represented pornographic theater owners. Police said he committed this crime of "criminal solicitation" on June 14, 1989.
The attorney, John Swearingen, said he declined to prosecute if Houser got therapy. A court-ordered psychological evaluation was never carried out, because a grand jury declined to indict Houser on Sept. 19, 1989.
On April 23, 2014, Phenix City police found Houser had trashed the 1101 32nd St. house from which he was being evicted. Besides the mess Houser made inside and out, he disconnected a fireplace gas line and lit it. Police reported "the gas line had been bent upward toward the ceiling and burning."
Those who know the law say that had the new owner opted to prosecute, Houser likely would have been charged with criminal mischief, possibly a felony depending on the estimated damage.
But such charges often are reduced in plea-bargaining, and in Houser's case his vandalism might have been attributed to what were thought to be his well-known eccentricities, before the theater shooting caused them to coalesce into an apparent pattern.
Because Houser had no felony record, Money Miser Northside Pawn in Phenix City had no reason to prohibit his buying the .40-caliber pistol he used in Lafayette, La. Phenix City attorney Eric Funderburk, who represents the pawn shop, said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reviewed the records and found the sale was legal.
An early misconception in the reporting on Houser's past held that his wife had him involuntarily committed to Columbus' West Central Georgia Regional Hospital after he threatened to disrupt his daughter's wedding in Carrollton, Ga., in 2008.
This is not true, and the process is not so simple.
Last week Muscogee Probate Court Judge Marc D'Antonio and Associate Judge Rebecca Crowley talked about the steps required for such commitments, and the options available to families who fear relatives have become dangerous.
No one goes straight to a mental institution, they noted: Each case begins with a professional evaluation, and those who conduct the evaluation then may petition the probate court for an involuntary committal.
But that's rare: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it's a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to deprive the mentally ill of their liberty without extensive due process. The rule now is they must be treated in the least restrictive environment possible.
Typically that means community-based outpatient treatment, not hospitalization.
The probate court procedure is this: First the family files an affidavit swearing the person "appears to be mentally ill" based on conduct witnessed in the past 48 hours. Anything before that can't be cited.
The probate court then may issue an "order to apprehend," to have the person detained for a psychological evalutation, usually conducted in Columbus at The Bradley Center. The evaluation takes about a week.
If the person has quit taking prescribed medication, the facility conducting the evaluation may restore that medication schedule, and that may "stabilize" the individual enough to be released and referred to a followup treatment program.
In severe cases, the evaluators may recommend involuntary commitment, requiring a probate court hearing in which all parties are represented by legal counsel, and the judge decides the outcome.
Even if the judge decides to commit the person to an institution, the order is limited, with a rehearing in six months.
This process is designed to protect the rights of those who in the past were sent off to hospitals and forgotten, leading sometimes to scandals associated with neglect and abuse.
Said D'Antonio: "You don't want it to be easy. You want due process. You could be that person."
The probate judge in Carroll County said she issued only the "order to apprehend," subjecting Houser to an evaluation. Those who evaluated him didn't recommend hospitalization. The precise result of his evaluation is not public record, as it's protected by privacy laws.
Families acting in an emergency don't have to start with the probate court. They may call the Georgia Crisis & Access Line (GCAL) at 1-800-715-4225, to request a mobile assessment team respond immediately to evaluate and stabilize the individual before probate court proceedings. It does not circumvent the court.
Another option in an emergency is calling 911, which is the more common response. Local law enforcement officers have "crisis intervention training" to recognize mental illness and respond less aggressively so they don't escalate the crisis.
Often in such instances, the individual goes to jail for some minor offense.
Recognizing the Muscogee County Jail has become the fallback for emergency mental health treatment, the staff has prepared for that.
Paul Morris runs the treatment program in conjunction with New Horizons, a community-based provider.
He makes the point that most of those he encounters are not dangerous. He said the intense media focus on Houser's mental health stigmatizes those people, makes some fear seeking help and makes the public fear them.
"That's part of the stigma that leaves people out there friendless, homeless, defenseless, and then things just get worse -- no reality therapy, no one to help guide them, no support system," he said.
He and New Horizons psychologist Cyndy Pattillo said the jail typically has about 300 inmates on medication, and 45 mental health patients incarcerated separately from the general jail population -- not because they're a danger to others, but because other inmates are a danger to them. The mentally ill could fall victim to the criminal predators who are thought to be perfectly sane.
If those evaluated in the jail are slated for community-based outpatient care or a mental hospital, they may wait months for transfer. Pattillo and Morris thought only about 20 inmates over the past three years went to a hospital.
Others go to group homes, if they're unable to live on their own.
Though the emphasis now is on such community-based care in the least restrictive environment, the state still needs hospitals for the severely ill, and Columbus is fortunate that West Central Georgia Regional Hospital remains open, despite state moves to close it.
When patients are transferred elsewhere, they often lose touch with their families, who then are unprepared for their return.
The major change she's seen in care over the years is the limited access to such hospitals, Pattillo said: "It's much more difficult to access the highest level of care. There are more hoops to jump through."
State Rep. Debbie Buckner, who serves on the Georgia House Ways & Means Committee and tracks healthcare issues, said the public needs to recognize how crucial such care can be.
The switch toward community-based care should not be viewed as an "either-or," she said.
Both she and Morris noted how differently the public sees mental illness as opposed to a disease or injury.
Buckner said insurance companies don't provide parity in paying for treatment: They may pay for eight weeks to treat an injury and three for mental health care -- and if your broken leg doesn't heal, the hospital doesn't send you home, but it will if you still need more mental health treatment.
Sometimes just two or three days spent stabilizing a mentally ill patient isn't enough, Buckner said. States need the resources to provide differing levels of care: "We don't need either-or," she said. "We need it all."
If Georgia doesn't care for the mentally ill in hospitals, it will care for them in jails and prisons, she added.
Morris said the public's view of mental illness as compared to a disease or injury can be seen in any office setting: Coworkers who have heart attacks are sent get-well cards, and when they return to work, everyone celebrates with a cake.
Said Morris: "No one bakes you a cake because you've got schizophrenia."