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.

"Get me my snack!" Angel orders an aide during a game. The aide dutifully brings over a plastic bowl of cereal, plastic spoon and Styrofoam cup full of juice. Selig teases Angel as she dumps packet after packet of sugar in the bowl.

She makes it clear that there are aides she likes and those she doesn't. The aides she favors see her sweet, considerate side; the tough-talking prison inmate is the side that interacts with aides she doesn't care for. Angel's relationship with her psychiatrist is so strained that he recently asked her lawyers to intercede because, he told them, "she yells at me."

During the Yahtzee game, Angel starts talking about her new boyfriend, confined at Fulton State Hospital. She says he's a Blood she knew "from the streets." The envelopes carrying the love letters between the two facilities are covered with hearts, drawings and little notes, much like the love letters high-school students pass across the aisle, except these are sent between institutions. She reads excerpts from the letters: He says he'll kill her if she's with another man. But that's OK, Angel says, because she'll break his legs if he's with another woman.

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?"

In a deposition before her trial, Angel testified that her sexual preference is women: "They don't beat you." But now, she says, she has converted to Islam, and she's back to preferring men. "Women know what other women want; they know how to feel, how to connect within the heart, more than a man does," Angel says. But "with me, having the religion I do, I can't go through that."

Angel gives her guests a tour of her bedroom, which is just off the reception area. Dawn Chellis, the caseworker, follows. Angel's small writing desk is covered with pictures ripped from magazines: Nelly, Pink, Eve, Snoop Dogg, Tank and the late Aaliyah are just a few of the celebrities represented. A picture of Lil' Bow Wow is taped to a cabinet that doubles as her dresser. Angel's bed is pushed up against the farthest wall, the only place with windows, and is positioned so that when she wakes up, she's looking outside at barbed wire and sky. Red dice rest on the window ledge; the numbers 6-6, facing out, represent gang symbols.

Angel prefers spending her time asleep in her room. "I love to sleep -- it gets me so I can be at home with my family, touching them," she says. Plus, there isn't much else to do. Some Mondays, she has an hour of crafts; on Tuesday and Thursday, her caseworker comes by for about an hour; Dr. Englehart comes by on Wednesday for an hour. The rest of the time is empty.

As the visitors leave the bedroom, Ruess talks to Chellis about Angel's treatment, which doesn't seem to exist. Englehart reprimands the caseworker for talking to Ruess about her client -- it would violate the therapist-patient privilege. Of course, that same privilege doesn't exist if the attorney general's office wants to read Angel's records. The sexually violent predator law waives the privilege for them.

A few weeks after the conversation between Ruess and Chellis, the caseworker is fired by the Department of Mental Health for three things, according to Chellis: speaking with Ruess about Angel's treatment, participating as a witness in a wedding at the Farmington Correctional Center involving a man committed as a sexually violent predator, and being late to work. In an interview with the Riverfront Times, Chellis blasts Angel's confinement and treatment: "It is bad for her. It is difficult to be isolated for a long period of time; it makes her angry and causes her physical condition to worsen." And she says that the limited treatment Angel is being given isn't suited for her. "She's much more likely to be victimized" if she is ever released, says Chellis, than to be a "victimizer." It is an opinion echoed by many of the other psychologists and psychiatrists who've examined Angel.

Chellis also worries about Angel's health: "She's had HIV for nine years, and now is when she's going to have physical problems. Around 10 years is when full-blown AIDS" can develop. She notes that Angel is already experiencing nosebleeds and sores in her mouth but says Angel's psychiatrist isn't really equipped to be an HIV doctor. Chellis says frankly that she thinks "we are going to run out of time." Dr. Rick Gowdy -- the mental-health department's top forensic psychiatrist -- tells the Riverfront Times that although he can't speak about Angel's medical treatment specifically, he admits that the department doesn't have a physician who specializes in HIV treatment; instead, the state uses "general medical doctors, like family doctors."

Gowdy also generally outlines the sex-offender treatment currently provided to the men, much of which will presumably apply to Angel. She will participate in anger-management and substance-abuse classes, write in a journal and identify the psychological triggers that cause her to prey on children so she can stop herself from offending in the future. The time frame for the treatment? "Years," Gowdy says.

Angel, however, has her hopes pinned on August. Under the law, Angel's case must be reviewed on an annual basis by the Department of Mental Health, after which a report is sent to the judge. If the department believes that Angel's condition has changed so that she is no longer a threat, they can recommend another trial -- to get her out of sexually violent predator mental-health prison. But so far, in all the cases that have come up for review, the department has not recommended a trial. Because Angel's treatment has barely begun, it is extremely unlikely that the department will recommend release for her. She can petition the court for release after the first year, and the judge must hold a hearing on the question of whether to schedule a trial, but it is a one-shot deal. If the judge denies the trial request, he doesn't have to hold a hearing on any subsequent petition filed in ensuing years. Under the law as written, it's conceivable that Angel could spend the rest of her life in solitary confinement without another hearing.

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