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Now 'a long road' to put life back together

Now comes the hard part.

After the release of Anthony J. Capozzi from prison Tuesday, his family is determined to create a new life for him, one that will restore the self-esteem and dignity he has lost to two tragedies in the last 32 years.

First came his decade-long slide into schizophrenia -- a mental illness that led to his hearing voices and becoming reclusive.

Then came almost 22 years in prison for a pair of rapes he didn't commit.

"There's great anticipation and celebration for Anthony's freedom, especially for his mom and dad [and his whole family]," said Bill Miller, one of Capozzi's brothers-in-law. "He's exonerated, and his name is cleared, but it's tempered by the fact that we have a long road ahead."

Anthony Capozzi may be free from prison, but he still suffers from the schizophrenia he developed at age 18 or 19. Now his family members want to help their 50-year-old loved one ease back into a society that expelled him almost 22 years ago.

That's 22 years of following someone else's timetable, of eating institutional food, of wearing prison garb, of never knowing freedom.

"We owe him his dignity as a human being," Miller said Tuesday in an interview. "We need to take care of his self-esteem, in terms of what he looks like, what kind of life he has and what he thinks of himself."

Family members see Capozzi living a largely independent life, perhaps in some kind of assisted-living apartment, where a mental-health agency makes sure he's getting his clinical care, taking his medication and attending some day-treatment program or job.

That lifestyle would allow Capozzi to develop his own circle of friends but still return to the family's West Side home for spaghetti dinners and get to know his nieces and nephews better.

Miller, a retired teacher and administrator, has been researching mental-health services available in Buffalo. Tuesday, he talked about those possibilities, about his brother-in-law's descent into schizophrenia and about the mostly top-notch psychiatric treatment he received in prison.

Capozzi was diagnosed in the mid-1970s, after his behavior had started to become bizarre. He became reclusive and withdrawn. He heard voices. He did some weird things, such as burning a television set. And he became restless, often taking long walks from his family's Lower West Side home into North Buffalo and back.

The burden fell most heavily on his parents, Albert and Mary. This was more than 30 years ago, and Albert Capozzi did a lot of research on schizophrenia. He traveled to Philadelphia and Canada to learn more about the disease and to find experimental drugs for his son.

After one trip, he came home with tapes on how to deal with a schizophrenic family member.

Anthony Capozzi was hospitalized at least twice during that time, in Erie County Medical Center for about three weeks and in Buffalo Psychiatric Center for about a month, Miller said.

Capozzi had stopped working and was on Supplemental Security Income at the time of his arrest. Curiously, his arrest might have resulted from one of his long walks, after a citizen noticed Capozzi at a Delaware Avenue restaurant near Hertel Avenue and thought he was the suspicious person he had seen previously in Delaware Park.

Miller remembers the last time he saw Capozzi before his arrest. Capozzi was with his 11-month-old niece, Meagan, daughter of Miller and Capozzi's sister Sharyn.

"He took her for a walk down the street in the stroller," Miller said. "He loved the kids. When we left that day, I never saw Anthony as a free man again.

"[During Meagan's] whole life, he has been incarcerated."

Capozzi spent his first 1 1/2 years behind bars in the Erie County Holding Center, where he received medication but no psychiatric treatment, his family said. After his sentencing in 1987, Capozzi was sent to one prison for a two-week evaluation before being sent to Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, near Utica.

Capozzi spent roughly 15 of his 22 years in Marcy, where he was treated by psychiatrists and a social worker who developed strong relationships with him.

"Over the long haul, I think Marcy's care was good, and he improved there," Miller said. "Looking back, we're very thankful to the people who took to Anthony and provided for his [psychiatric] care. The problem with Marcy is that it was such a hardship on my in-laws."

The elder Capozzis tried to go every week, a taxing nine-hour round trip that had them bringing lunch to their son. Among his favorites were pizza, pepperoni and capicola sandwiches with Italian dressing.

According to his family, Capozzi's treatment was sidetracked when he was sent closer to home, to Wende Correctional Facility and Attica, which didn't have as extensive psychiatric care for him. There's an irony for the family, that once Capozzi was diagnosed and sent to Marcy for psychiatric care, his condition began to improve -- something that wasn't happening before his arrest.

Capozzi is a more mellow man than when he entered prison, his family said. The Hutch-Tech graduate retains the keen memory he always had. And he's not shy about telling his loved ones what he needs and what he likes to do.

Both his imprisonment and his illness have robbed Capozzi of his independence, forcing him to rely on simple daily routines to remain comfortable, Miller said. Without much social interaction, Capozzi relied on those routines to get him through daily prison life. Now, besides finding the right place for him to live, family members want to strengthen their personal connections to him.

"We haven't been with Anthony for a 24-hour period for 22 years," Miller said. "There's a whole lot missing in terms of our experiences with him."

Miller already has contacted at least four local agencies and facilities dealing with the mentally ill.

"The challenge is to help Anthony establish a lifestyle for himself that is, for the most part, independent, viable and worthwhile for his personal well-being," Miller said. "He can't do that by himself. How much is the [mental health] system there to help us? We don't know."

Half the task has been done, the legal part.

"You can right the [legal] wrongs. We did that [Monday]," Miller said. "But there's an intangible out there that has to be restored, as far as his humanity goes -- who he is as a human being and how he can re-establish his identity in this community."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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