How Veronica Lewis Went From Jail to a Mental Hospital — and Back Again | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Crime

How Veronica Lewis Went From Jail to a Mental Hospital — and Back Again

by

ROB DONNELLY
  • Rob Donnelly

The guards at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington knew that Veronica Lewis could be violent. In the first three months she was imprisoned on an attempted murder charge for shooting a firearms instructor in the face, the 31-year-old lashed out numerous times.

Claire Gilligan had not witnessed that aggressive behavior firsthand when she took a seat in a small jailhouse interview room on September 24, 2015. Lewis' public defenders had hired Gilligan to evaluate their client's mental state as part of building a criminal defense, court records show. She had already met with Lewis twice at the jail, sitting across from her with no table or restraints between them. Gilligan told guards she didn't anticipate a problem.

Lewis arrived from solitary confinement in shackles. Guards double-checked that the handcuffs were tight around her wrists, one of which was tattooed with "D.E.A.T.H" and angel wings. As three of them escorted a blank-faced Lewis to the threshold of the interview room, Gilligan greeted her client with "Hi, Veronica."

Lewis immediately lunged at the psychologist and threw her cuffed arms over the woman's head. Gilligan fell into a fetal position on the floor, her head still pressed against Lewis' chest. Lewis ripped a fistful of hair from Gilligan's scalp. Gilligan heard only muffled voices as guards pried Lewis away. Afterward, she wouldn't remember anything Lewis said, just how she smelled and the sudden onset of terror.

"I was praying that this was not going to be my last day on Earth," Gilligan recalled last week.

Lewis later described Gilligan as "glassy-eyed" and told a guard that, where Lewis is from, people "get killed" for that, according to a police affidavit supporting the subsequent charge of felony aggravated assault.

It was the first of six assault charges Lewis would rack up in custody while she awaited trial for shooting Darryl Montague at his Westford gun range in June 2015 — and one of several she said was motivated by the "look" in her victim's eyes. She allegedly gave one inmate a concussion, threw a cup of urine in a guard's face and, according to an Associated Press report, smeared feces in the cell of actor Randy Quaid's wife, Evi, when the pair was held briefly while fugitives from California.

The debate in Vermont legal circles is not whether Lewis was insane when she shot Montague. The question is: Whom should Vermonters trust to make sure she doesn't hurt anyone else? Lewis' strange path — from jail to mental hospital and, this month, back to jail — suggests there are no easy answers.

Concluding she was not competent to stand trial on charges stemming from the shooting, Superior Court Judge James Crucitti ordered her transferred from prison to a psychiatric hospital under the custody of the Department of Mental Health in April 2017. Lewis had lost an estimated 80 pounds and become dangerously malnourished during her 21 months behind bars, the result of "hunger strikes" she attributed to suspicions that her food was poisoned, according to Crucitti's order.

A defense psychiatrist diagnosed Lewis with schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She had been hospitalized for psychiatric issues at least 16 times before moving from her birthplace of Queens, N.Y., to a private therapeutic home in Vermont in 2015. That's where she was living at the time she shot Montague, court records state.

"Her mental illness grossly impairs her judgment and behavior; her capacity to exercise self-control and judgment is so lessened that she poses a danger of harm to herself and others," Crucitti wrote.

Veronica Lewis - COURTESY OF VERMONT STATE POLICE
  • Courtesy Of Vermont State Police
  • Veronica Lewis

Lewis remained hospitalized for just over two years, during which time her assaultive behavior abated and she resumed eating. But this month, U.S. marshals arrested Lewis and hauled her back to the South Burlington prison on new federal charges tied to the 2015 shooting. The feds said her arrest was necessary to protect the public. More likely, according to those who attribute Lewis' violence to her mental illness, she's a casualty of the politicized debate about how Vermont should treat the criminally insane. Her re-incarceration, they say, is inhumane — and won't keep anyone safe.

The confusion started last month when Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George dropped all state charges against Lewis after a state-hired forensic psychiatrist determined that Lewis was insane when she committed the crimes.

Criminal justice reformers and Lewis' public defender welcomed George's decision, which affirmed the principle that people whose crimes stem from mental illness should be treated as patients, not locked up as criminals.

Practically speaking, George placed Lewis' fate in the hands of the Department of Mental Health, which had been treating her at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin. Lewis' public defender, Jessica Brown, hoped her client would remain in the department's custody, in whatever form of care her doctors saw fit, for the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future lasted less than two weeks. On June 5, Gov. Phil Scott requested that Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan consider refiling criminal charges due to the gravity of the crimes and legal limitations of the supervision provided by the Department of Mental Health. Before Donovan formally responded, federal prosecutors began preparing new federal charges against Lewis.

On June 12, U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan announced that her office was charging Lewis for stealing and illegally possessing the firearm she used to shoot Montague in 2015. The feds hadn't charged Lewis earlier, Nolan told reporters, because they didn't want to duplicate efforts while a more serious attempted murder charge was pending in state court. But with the state charges dismissed, Nolan said, she believed Lewis' release from the psychiatric hospital was "imminent" and decided to act quickly so that nothing "tragic" happened.

Nolan initially told reporters that U.S. marshals had arrested Lewis at the South Burlington prison, where she said the Department of Mental Health dropped Lewis off as a first step in releasing her into the community. The U.S. Attorney's Office later clarified that Lewis was in fact arrested at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. A spokesperson refused to provide Seven Days with any other information about the mix-up or Lewis' supposedly pending discharge, except to say, "We were informed that her release was imminent."

That was news to George, who said the Department of Mental Health, which has strict patient confidentiality policies, refused to provide her office with information about Lewis' treatment. If the department was planning to release Lewis from the psychiatric hospital, it's more likely that it planned to move her to a less intensive treatment facility than to discharge her from state custody entirely.

Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell told Seven Days that her department is obligated to care for patients in the "least restrictive" setting. For hospitalized patients, the shortest possible step down is an seven-bed residential facility in Middlesex that is locked and secured by a 15-foot fence. Patients typically stay there for six to 18 months, Squirrell said.

Lewis appeared in federal court in Burlington on June 17 for a hearing about whether she should remain in custody on the firearms charges. Lewis' federal defender, Michael DeSautels, appeared to refer to the Middlesex facility when he told Magistrate Judge John Conroy that the state hospital or a "secure and locked facility that had been in the plan of the state mental health office" would be a "perfect fit" for Lewis.

But those treatment options were no longer available. When U.S. marshals serve a federal arrest warrant on a patient, the Department of Mental Health interprets the order as "superseding" state authority and immediately discharges the patient from department custody, Squirrell said. Brown told Seven Days the state discharged Lewis the day the feds arrested her.

With no treatment setting readily available, Conroy ordered that Lewis remain jailed, even after grilling the government's attorneys about their ability to ensure she receives her medications while incarcerated. Nolan accompanied Montague and his family in the gallery during the hearing.

Montague, who still carries two bullets Lewis fired into his skull, has been vocal about his desire to see her held criminally culpable. His long-simmering frustration turned to cautious optimism when Nolan filed federal charges, he told Seven Days.

"I came within minutes of not being able to have this conversation and spent a year laying on my back in the house and have spent the last four years in recovery," he said. "I still have draining physical issues ... Up until literally a few hours ago, I wasn't even going to get the satisfaction of the person who does this going to jail."

But to Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Lewis' return to prison represents a kind of "state-sponsored violence" against a person whom another prosecutor had already conceded could not be held legally responsible for shooting Montague.

"We should be horrified that our government, in our name, would put someone who is deeply mentally ill in that setting," he said.

The circumstances around Lewis' re-incarceration are extremely unusual. Jack McCullough, who has represented mental health patients through Vermont Legal Aid for more than 25 years, said he couldn't recall another instance when the feds brought charges against a patient who was already committed to the department's custody.

In an interview, Vermont's top mental health administrators didn't express dismay at the prospect of a patient being removed from treatment and placed in prison. Instead, Squirrell sought to clarify that the department is set up to treat short-term illnesses and return individuals to the community, not continually supervise dangerous individuals with chronic conditions. She said the controversy over George's case dismissals is an opportunity to consider how Vermont could better integrate mental health care and criminal justice.

Brown and Dalton acknowledged that the Department of Mental Health is underfunded and resource-strapped but questioned what they believe is the state passing off responsibility for making hard decisions about Lewis' care.

"If people are truly concerned that Veronica Lewis is a danger to the community, the safest place for her to be was in the psychiatric hospital, where she was receiving excellent medical and mental health treatment, where she was the most stable that she's been in years," Brown said.

Gilligan declined to share a perspective on how Lewis ought to be supervised, in part because she acknowledged that she might be looking through a "clouded lens, given what happened to me." The attack prevented her from completing a psychological evaluation of Lewis.

She added, "I'm just happy that the feds are involved now."