Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

Thweatt admits throwing a punch at a nurse as he fell to the floor -- he calls it "a last act of defiance" -- but says he never struck anyone. "He simply ducked, and I missed," he says.

Nothing much came of it, at least at first, even though the police officer who took the call classified the incident as an assault and reported that he would apply to the county prosecutor for arrest warrants. "There was a charge that was brought against Don shortly after the incident," Nester recalls. "The assault [charge] against the nurse originally was issued by the county counselor as a county-ordinance violation. That must not have materialized into anything -- it was either dismissed or it went away or it was referred to the prosecutor for further prosecution." Thweatt continued living at the Jefferson Barracks VA until late that year, when VA officials placed him in a residential care center in Illinois. "He went to this facility, which was a nursing facility that specialized in head-injury people, it claimed," Nester says. "It turned out to be a place with more elderly people than people Don's age. Then Don had behavioral problems there." Thweatt was subsequently sent to a locked residential center, also in Illinois, but he didn't last there, either. His medical records show he tried living with a brother before ending up back at the VA hospital in the spring of 1999.

"I believe he was at the VA until maybe the end of June or early July of '99," Nester says. "Then we tried him down at a home in Festus. You can come and go as you please, but they've got rules they want you to follow: Sign in, sign out. Make sure you're here at certain times so they can count heads. Don shows up with a $90 check from the VA representing the balance of his patient funds. Arrives on maybe a Thursday, goes across the street, opens a bank account, takes a taxicab from Festus to South County. Buys a computer, writes checks for it with all these new checks he's got now. Well, later Don claims that he thought the decimal point was one point over or something -- either he's lying or it's another example of the inability of his brain to process properly. We find out about it Friday afternoon. Monday morning, we have this big teleconference with people from the VA and the [home] administrator and Don and me. We all talk this thing out for an hour or so, come up with rules that Don is going to follow. The administrator says, 'We're going to write these up and Don's going to sign off on them.' Sounds great. 'Don, do you understand?' Of course, Don was very apologetic and saying, 'Jerry, I'm really sorry. I fucked up.' That was in the morning. By the afternoon, I got a call. Don was on his way back to the VA." The residential home had kicked him out.

Guard Michael Sullens, Thweatt's alleged victim, showed no sign of injury four hours after the purported assault, even though prosecutors say he sustained a broken nose.
Guard Michael Sullens, Thweatt's alleged victim, showed no sign of injury four hours after the purported assault, even though prosecutors say he sustained a broken nose.

Thweatt lived at Jefferson Barracks until late 1999, when he was hauled to jail and charged with felony assault for the confrontation with VA nurses that had taken place the previous year. Medical records suggest the charges may have been brought as a way to force Thweatt into a locked psychiatric hospital. "He is likely to engage in extremely dangerous or even criminal behavior which will result in his placement in the forensic system," wrote a psychiatrist who reviewed Thweatt's files and examined him at the VA hospital in September 1999. "It is rather amazing to note that despite several arrests and rather extremely dangerous behaviors, he has been allowed to escape the forensic route and has remained a civil patient. Unless formal charges are pressed and he indeed ends up pleading NGRI [not guilty by reason of insanity], it is unlikely that he could be directly transferred from a VA system into a forensic system at this time." Citing patient confidentiality, VA officials at Jefferson Barracks won't discuss Thweatt's case.

Even though he's been acquitted, the VA hospital won't take Thweatt back. "We have known and treated him for a long time," wrote Dr. Mohinder Partap, acting director of the hospital's mental-health service line, in a Feb. 16 letter to Nester. "He did not benefit from the care.... Mr. Thweatt needs a stable and structured situation for his mind to heal and stabilize and prevent harm to self and others. Our facility is not set up for such care."

Nor is the St. Louis County Jail.

Since Thweatt arrived at the jail on Dec. 1, 1999, he has amassed a file more than 3 inches thick. Thweatt lasted barely a week in the infirmary before being transferred to maximum security -- Harris accuses jailers of labeling him a malingerer. His stay in jail has cost county taxpayers at least $35,000 (a figure based on an average per-inmate cost of $75 a day) and likely considerably more, considering his behavior in the infirmary, the maximum-security unit and the supermax unit, where he has frequently been locked down 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

Thweatt was locked down on his second day in jail for refusing to take medication. Confining Thweatt to his infirmary cell didn't help. He urinated on himself and the floor and refused to clean his cell. On his sixth day in jail, he was written up for failing to put his clothes on so a nurse could record his vital signs. There wasn't much guards could do. "I don't give a shit about lockdown," he told a guard who told him to get dressed. "Now, get out of my room. I'm done talking to you." It was his 37th birthday. Jailers who had allowed him to call his mother a couple of hours earlier reported the conversation had left him emotional. His mother subsequently told the jail staff that she loved her son but didn't feel comfortable being alone with him.

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