Fallen Angel

Angela Coffel, the first woman in Missouri deemed a sexually violent predator, is locked up despite overwhelming evidence that she isn't one.

Despite the strength of their experts, Angel and her lawyers waived a jury trial, afraid that a jury wouldn't be able to get past the fear of Angel's HIV status. Judge Flynn, for his part, made it clear early in the case that he thought HIV was irrelevant.

(About two weeks before the trial started, Bruce entered his appearance in the case on behalf of the attorney general's office. Soon after, Flynn called Ruess and told her about a possible conflict of interest he had with Bruce. In 1996, a group of people in Lincoln County who were part of the "common law courts" movement, which rejects the authority of the law, were upset because a group member's daughter received a traffic ticket and Flynn refused to let the girl's father, who was not a lawyer, represent her in court. As a retaliatory measure, the group filed a $10.8 million lien against Flynn's property. The attorney general's office prosecuted the group for the act, and Ted Bruce was the lead attorney in the case. Ruess told Angel about the possible problem, but she waived her right to protest the conflict.)

On Thursday, July 19, 2001 -- almost a year after she was supposed to be released -- Angel appeared in the Lincoln County Courthouse in Troy, Mo. During two days of open-court testimony, Judge Flynn heard Angel's sometimes emotional testimony about her past and her vows that she isn't sexually attracted to children. Most of the remaining testimony came from the experts. In addition to his report, Scott also testified that the law is flawed because it only allows complete freedom or total commitment. After all of the evidence was presented and closing arguments were made, Judge Flynn didn't take a short recess or leave the bench. He sat quietly for a moment, then said he agreed with Scott's criticism, that the law gave him few choices. Then the judge ruled for the state -- total commitment instead of complete freedom.

Jennifer Silverberg
Angela Coffel, 25, spends her days cut off from the world -- except for state employees. "They say that staff members can't be your friends, 'cause it's overstepping the boundaries," she says. "So who in the fuck am I supposed to get close to?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Angela Coffel, 25, spends her days cut off from the world -- except for state employees. "They say that staff members can't be your friends, 'cause it's overstepping the boundaries," she says. "So who in the fuck am I supposed to get close to?"

Angela Coffel had just become the fourth woman in the U.S. to be declared a sexually violent predator -- and Missouri's first.

The young woman with alabaster skin and short brown hair eyes the Riverfront Times writer warily at the beginning of their first meeting and at the same time breaks into a side-mouthed grin as she gently teases her lawyers, calling Selig a "preppy boy" and joking about Ruess' red hair. The relationship between the two lawyers and their client appears close. She gives them presents she's made during art class, cards for their birthdays. They send her pajamas, a robe and slippers for Christmas. Ruess calls Angel on Christmas Day. Only Angel's lawyers visit since she was moved to a Department of Mental Health facility in Farmington in October. As they leave, Angel, now 25, hugs them and cries.

Angel's existence is a solitary one. The law won't allow her to be housed with female inmates in the Department of Corrections, and she must be separated from other mental health patients. Living with the male inmates deemed sexually violent predators isn't an option, so she sits alone, locked in a wing of the Hoctor Building. The three-story redbrick building is ringed by two barbed-wire fences with large coils of silver-spiked razor wire coiled between them, a measure added by the Department of Mental Health to make her facility secure. According to Dr. Rick Gowdy, the Missouri Department of Mental Health's director of forensic services, the 22 male violent sexual predators and the 29 male detainees awaiting trial will move into the building next door to Hoctor this summer and out of the Farmington Correctional Center. The program expects to add 20 to 30 convicts a year, so the space is needed.

Although the Hoctor Building houses other mental-health patients, Angel is kept away from them. She lives in a small third-floor suite, behind locked double doors. Although each door has a small window, it's covered with paper; she can't see out, and no one can see in. A blue semicircular receptionist's desk dominates the interior of Angel's living room. There are always two aides sitting behind the desk, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their sole task is to guard Angel, to make sure she doesn't hurt herself and to record her behaviors. When Angel goes out into the yard and other patients are present, they stand like bodyguards around her so she can't speak to anyone. The Department of Mental Health asked the Legislature last year to appropriate an extra $215,000 just to cover the costs of housing Angel. Lawmakers refused.

A table is pushed up against the wall across from the desk, beneath a small, secure window. Three chairs are placed around it. Angel sits in the chair much of the time, watching television. She likes Cops and Jenny Jones, as well as The Golden Girls, one of her Big Mama's favorite programs. Next to the TV, pressed against a wall adjacent to the desk, is a small bookshelf. Paperback romance novels supplied by the department sit on a shelf, along with games such as Sorry and Yahtzee.

Angel isn't ready to talk, so Selig suggests a game of Yahtzee. Angel's ready to offer helpful hints to those who can't remember how to play the game. While the two lawyers, Angel and the writer play, the aides keep a careful watch over the group. Dr. Jay Englehart, Angel's psychiatrist, HIV doctor and focus of most of her hostility, watches. Angel's caseworker also keeps a careful eye on the proceedings.

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