LAS VEGAS, N.M. (KRQE) – From the streets to jail, then back out again. There are those who commit crimes in the community that the courts deem “incompetent to stand trial,” and as KRQE Investigates found, their cases often fall through the cracks.
But what if the person found ‘incompetent’ is also posing a danger?
KRQE Investigates shows viewers what happens when competency is in question at New Mexico’s biggest Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, New Mexico; how it works, and who it serves.
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Tucked away in northern New Mexico, the Behavioral Health Institute, or BHI, has been in Las Vegas since 1889. The facility was initially known as the state’s ‘Territory Insane Asylum.’
“The field has changed dramatically,” explained Dr. Tim Shields, Executive Director of the BHI. Shields and his staff at the BHI are doing work most people might shy away from.
“You know, there’s a lot of stigma out there still about working on an inpatient psychiatric unit or a forensic unit that it kind of scares people away,” Shields explained. “Because they are sometimes perceived to be the more difficult to work with population.”
Dr. Shields added, “I would disagree. I think they’re more fun to work with population and the more rewarding to work with population. But it’s hard to convince someone who’s never been on one of these units that, you know, hey, trust me – it’s fun.”
Long before modern medicine, the Las Vegas hospital housed people with behavioral health issues. “They would send them to these institutions across the country,” Dr. Shields explained. “And then in the 70s, we started to get better medication and kind of a different outlook. And we tried to move a lot of these institutions from custodial – to treatment,” he said.
“We’re going to actively treat their behavioral health condition, and we’re going to try to get them back into the community in a safe way,” Dr. Shields explained.
The state hospital is overseen by the New Mexico Department of Health and sits on a sprawling 300-acre property with five divisions:
- Community-Based Services – behavioral health outpatient service provider with community outreach.
- CARE – Center for Adolescent Relationship Exploration, which serves 13-17-year-olds.
- Adult Psychiatric Division – provides inpatient hospitalization for civil commitments, treating serious and persistent mental illness.
- Meadows – a long-term care facility, like a nursing home.
- Forensic Division – treating defendants who are found incompetent to stand trial and dangerous. Most people get treated back to competency and will be released, while others are ‘not restorable’ and will stay there long-term.
What happens if someone is incompetent and dangerous?
The forensic unit serves a population of New Mexicans who are court-ordered to be there. “So these are individuals that have been alleged to have committed a crime, and then they go and they speak with their defense attorney, and they can’t assist their defense attorney in their defense,” Dr. Shields explained.
Attorneys are the ones who raise the issue of ‘competency.’ If the court finds the defendant incompetent to stand trial and dangerous, judges in every New Mexico county can order that person to the BHI in Las Vegas for treatment, to help them become competent.
The most referrals to the BHI come from Albuquerque. “It’s the biggest city, so we’re going to get a lot from there,” said Dr. Shields.
According to court records, Gerald Leon has been found ‘incompetent to stand trial’ in the past, and was ordered to the BHI in 2017. A criminal complaint in a child abuse case against Leon states a group of middle schoolers reported that Leon attacked them with a three-foot stick at Bataan Memorial Park, and hit a boy across the face in 2016.
When someone is ordered to the BHI, Dr. Shields explains he and his medical staff work to treat the underlying cause of the person’s symptoms. “We treat them like they’re human. A lot of times in the community, everyone runs away from people who are responding to internal stimuli or they try to avoid it. We don’t. We go up to them, we talk to them, we make them feel safe,” Shields added.
Returning to life outside of the hospital has its challenges
After treatment in Las Vegas, Leon was released and pled guilty to the child abuse case. With credit for the time served, he spent one year at MCD.
However, police would get calls about him again. “And who all got maced?” An Albuquerque Police officer is heard on lapel video responding to a call at a Walgreens on Central and Eubank in 2021. A security guard replied, “All of us. My face is burning.”
Albuquerque Police officers took that report after workers said Leon was cursing at them unprovoked, then maced three security guards. “He came walking up to us and just started flipping out,” one guard explained.
The security guards said they were able to put Leon in handcuffs and waited at least an hour for APD to respond to the store. “I don’t wanna just let it fly,” the security guard told the APD officer.
After watching the security footage and speaking with employees, the APD officer explained, “I can forward charges to the courts, but I can’t take him anywhere.” The officer told Walgreens staff and security that Leon wouldn’t be going to jail that night.
When the Walgreens Manager asked the officer why Leon wouldn’t be arrested, the officer replied, “Because in the state of New Mexico, aggravated battery, a misdemeanor level, is not an arrestable offense.” A criminal trespass notice was the best that officer could do, he explained.
“He don’t give a damn,” the frustrated Walgreens manager told the officer. “You know, people who don’t have anything to lose, don’t care – those are the ones that are a threat to me.”
The Walgreens manager went on to tell the officer about other encounters she’s dealt with at the store, with people with apparent mental health issues. She also expressed frustration with delayed or no police response, and the ‘low priority’ status from dispatchers that didn’t warrant a quick response.
“Because he needs meds,” the manager explained. “I’m afraid that he’s gonna come and act a fool with us and nobody’s gonna be able to protect us in a timely manner,” she told the officer.
“It’s just, we’re frustrated,” a security guard stated. “Sure. And I don’t blame you,” the APD officer replied.
Leon’s criminal record is extensive, dating back 23 years. His charges include aggravated battery, assault, and the Bataan Park child abuse case.
Is the process working out?
Once someone is released from the BHI in Las Vegas, a place where they’ve been getting help from medical professionals, there are often other challenges. Whether a person will continue down the right path is up to the individual and community support.
When asked if that process working out for people, KC Quirk replied, “I would say not so much.” Quirk is a Social Work Unit Director with the Albuquerque Law Office of the Public Defender, or LOPD.
“Whether or not somebody can meet the criteria to be found competent to stand trial – is completely different from whether or not that person’s wellness is being attended to,” Quirk explained. She also said putting someone through a mental health evaluation, which in many cases, doesn’t lead to that person receiving wraparound services – is a missed opportunity.
And that’s where resources outside of hospitals and jail come into play, especially since stays at the BHI in Las Vegas are meant to be temporary.
“It’s sort of a warm handoff,” Dr. Shields explained, referring to the process of releasing defendants from the BHI. Shields said 80% of defendants sent to the BHI are treated back to competency to stand trial, usually within the first six months.
“There are a lot of good community programs in New Mexico,” Dr. Shields said. “But that tends to be where we need more help when we discharge someone from here – are we sure that they’re going to have a safe place to stay? Are we sure that that place is going to make sure they go to their appointments, that they’re going to take their medication?”
Another resource in ‘Mental Health Court’
District Court Judges, Lucy Solimon and Bruce Fox preside over Bernalillo County’s mental health court, a diversion program that aims to tackle the root causes of crime, such as substance abuse and behavioral health.
“These diversion courts started, you know, 30 years ago with drug court,” explained Judge Fox. “The idea was to provide an alternative to probation and jail.”
Attorneys can refer defendants to the program, usually as part of a plea agreement. “Other times, the judge can also order it as part of conditions of release,” explained Judge Solimon. “If I look at a case or their history and they see a pattern, sometimes you can tell it might be the right path to go into mental health court.”
The judges agreed one of the biggest obstacles for a defendant is usually stable housing and accessibility to medical care. “It’s already difficult for a lot of people just to who have a very clear mind, intelligent background,” explained Judge Fox. “And you can imagine if somebody’s not quite properly medicated and needs to renew their prescription.”
“The most success I see here in district court is when you are providing people with the resources that they need to change their behavior, get the medication they need, to give them stable housing, address substance abuse,” said Judge Solimon. “And reach a point where they can have a stable life and not re-offend.”
However, the judges said a person must be self-motivated. Treatment through mental health court is voluntary. “We’ve really tried to get people to open up, talk, get the team members to provide advice,” said Judge Fox. “It is really a collaborative effort.”
He also said diversion courts have the ability to go beyond the adversarial courtroom, where attorneys on both sides are trying to win a case. In mental health court, attorneys on both sides, judges, and medical professionals – are on the team of the defendant, Fox explained.
But what about those who can’t or won’t help themselves?
KRQE asked about civil commitments, another legal process where a doctor signs off, and a person with behavioral health issues can be involuntarily committed to treatment. It happens, but it’s rare.
“It gets a little complicated because you’re talking about civil rights and taking away somebody’s freedom, basically,” said Judge Fox.
“The reason that our civil commitment standards are where they are today is because that civil commitment process was misused and people were abused,” explained Quirk. “And back in the 80s and 90s, there was this massive deinstitutionalization thing that happened in our mental health facilities, right? But we didn’t create safety nets.”
In a system where getting people help can seem like an uphill battle, Dr. Shields points out, “Statistically speaking, individuals with serious and persistent behavioral health conditions are much more likely to be victims of crimes than they are to be perpetrators of crimes.”
“The more we can kind of repeat that and let people know that this is a good population to work with, they need support, they need to be treated well,” Shields explained. “With that, you see some really great results.”
The BHI in Las Vegas employs nearly 600 staff members across its campus. Dr. Shields said the BHI is in need of more direct-care staff. “Thank goodness that there’s people out there who want to help people with their bathing and, you know, help them eat and, all of these things that are really honorable things to do,” said Dr. Shields.
The state legislature recently approved $68M to replace the old forensic unit in Las Vegas, which will increase the hospital’s capacity. The new unit is expected to open in 2026.
The average length of stay at the BHI to be treated to competency is six months, but there are some defendants who stay there long-term. That’s been the case for John Hyde, a man accused of killing five people at random back in 2005.
Hyde was found incompetent to stand trial and is serving out what would be a life sentence at the Las Vegas hospital. While he’s there, forensic psychologists still keep the courts updated on his mental status.