Eighteen years is enough, said William “Bill” Sutherland.
Sutherland has been confined to state psychiatric centers since October 2000, when he pleaded "not responsible by reason of mental illness" to a felony arson charge. Fire investigators said he started a fire that caused $100,000 damage to an apartment house at 857 Delaware Ave., owned by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino.
The building was occupied by about 15 people, police said, but no one was injured.
Sutherland’s “not responsible” plea enabled him to avoid prison, but a judge ordered him held in the custody of the state Office of Mental Health for at least six months.
Six months in a psychiatric hospital turned into 18-plus years.
Again and again, state psychiatrists who examined Sutherland maintained he was not ready to be released, and Sutherland kept getting recommitted to the care and custody of the state.
Now 53, he’s a frustrated and unhappy inpatient at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, where it costs taxpayers more than $363,000 a year to house him.
If he had gone to trial in the criminal courts on the arson charge, Sutherland probably would have been a free man at least 10 years ago.
Instead, Sutherland has no idea when – or if – he’ll ever get out.
“On the night of that fire, March 27, 2000, I went down into a rabbit hole, and I’m still not out,” Sutherland told The Buffalo News during an interview inside the psychiatric center on Forest Avenue. “If I had just gone through the criminal courts, gone to trial, or even taken a guilty plea…I would have been out…long ago.”
Officers arrested Sutherland – who lived in the apartment where the fire started – shortly after flames erupted. Officers said Sutherland claimed he was the son of Mafia boss John Gotti and threatened officers. They also charged him with making death threats against Paladino.
Sutherland was charged with felony arson and other offenses. The arrest prompted a series of mental health examinations. Doctors who examined him called him “dangerously mentally ill” at the time.
“I never physically harmed anyone before I was put into psychiatric care, and I haven’t harmed anyone since,” Sutherland said. “If I get released…I just want to work, go to outpatient treatment, and get on with my life. I have no intention to bother anybody.”
The Sutherland case provides a rare look behind the curtain at how New York State handles patients confined to psychiatric hospitals following an arrest.
Cases like Sutherland’s rarely come into public view in New York because of medical privacy laws. Court records on such matters are usually sealed.
A Buffalo News reporter was only allowed to attend a recent hearing on Sutherland’s case because Sutherland asked a judge to allow the reporter to be present.
According to state officials, there are approximately 495 inpatients like Sutherland confined to New York psychiatric facilities because they were found “not responsible” for criminal acts due to mental illness. These patients are often referred to as criminal procedure law patients.
The average criminal procedure law patient in New York spends at least 17 years in psychiatric facilities, according to Sutherland’s lawyer, James S. Hinman, a long-time expert in mental hygiene law.
"This case, like many others, illustrates the web that people get caught in with pleas of not responsible by mental disease or defect. Once caught up in that system, it is extremely difficult to escape it,” said Hinman, who specializes in mental health law. He said some criminal procedure law patients spend the rest of their lives in psychiatric facilities.
Refrained from violence
Sutherland and Hinman are trying to convince a state judge to allow Sutherland to live and work in the community as an outpatient. They argue that releasing Sutherland would not endanger public safety.
They note that in well over 18 years in psychiatric centers, Sutherland has never physically harmed any staff member or fellow patient.
This is at least the sixth appeal Sutherland has made to the courts seeking his release.
Officials of the state Office of Mental Health declined to make any comment on Sutherland’s case or his treatment, citing mental health privacy laws.
In court records, however, the state says it wants Sutherland to remain an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.
Records filed by the state do not allege he’s committed any violent acts during the past 18 years.
But Dr. Kristin Ahrens of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center testified before State Supreme Court Judge Russell P. Buscaglia that Sutherland suffers from delusions and should continue “mandatory inpatient treatment” for the “public safety of the community and the welfare of the defendant.”
“Mr. Sutherland is mentally ill,” Ahrens testified. She said Sutherland exhibits “ongoing characteristics of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders.”
Ahrens testified that Sutherland has made some progress in his treatment over the past year. But she said psychiatric center staffers need more time to help Sutherland to deal with “his frustration tolerance,” “anger management” and lack of “interpersonal skills.”
She said she does not believe Sutherland has developed the “day-to-day” life skills that he needs in the outside world.
Ahrens also voiced the opinion that Sutherland’s “arrogance and negativity often results in disrespectful interactions with others.”
“He still is going to get himself into trouble,” Ahrens testified. “We are also very concerned about a relapse to drugs or alcohol.”
Sutherland has been in the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, which is considered a non-secure facility, since February 2015. Although he is required to live as an inpatient there, Sutherland can go on escorted outings to movies, coffee shops, sporting events, art galleries and other cultural attractions outside the grounds of the Forest Avenue facility.
“We go on three outings a week, and we also go on neighborhood walks,” Sutherland said. “I have my own room on the seventh floor, with a window that has a beautiful view of the Richardson complex,” Sutherland said.
But he feels frustrated, confined and ready to experience life in the outside world as an outpatient. He says the state's opinions on him are subjective and insists that he is ready for life in the outside world.
In Hinman’s view, the fact that Sutherland has refrained from violence during his many years in psychiatric care should count for something.
Hinman said the only chance that a person like Sutherland has to escape the mental health system is to have an unbiased review by an independent judge.
Buscaglia will decide whether Sutherland will be released or will remain in the Buffalo Psychiatric Center for at least the next two years.
Sutherland said pleading “not responsible” to the arson due to mental illness was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
If he had gone to trial, and been convicted of felony arson, or taken a plea deal, he almost certainly would have been released from prison more than a decade ago, based on the outcomes of other arson cases throughout the state.
According to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, five years in prison is the most common sentence for individuals convicted of the felony arson charge that was filed against Sutherland.
Sutherland said he got “bad legal advice” from his attorney and others in the criminal justice system who told him pleading “not responsible” was the best move. If he knew he would be in psychiatric facilities for 18 years, he never would have taken the plea, Sutherland said.
“Everybody I spoke to in the criminal justice system, including my lawyer, said I should take the deal,” Sutherland recalled. “Everyone told me, ‘You’re getting a great deal. No prison time. You’ll be out in six months.’”
It didn’t work out that way.
Sutherland’s attorney in the arson case was Clair A. Montroy III, who had previously represented Sutherland in other matters. Montroy told The News that he feels badly that Sutherland has been kept in psychiatric facilities for such a long time. But he denies giving him bad legal advice.
“Bill had a lot of problems. He was being examined by state-appointed psychiatrists and they were all saying the same thing – he absolutely needed treatment,” Montroy recalled. “I explained all the options to Bill, including the option to take the case to trial.”
“If Bill had taken a guilty plea in the criminal courts, he might have gotten out in seven to 10 years,” Montroy estimated.
Considering all the factors, Montroy said, he advised Sutherland that it was probably best that he go into mental health treatment, rather than prison.
Montroy said he did not envision Sutherland spending 18 years in psychiatric facilities.
Montroy said the psychiatrists who examined Sutherland after his arrest reported that he suffered from several delusions, including the belief that Gotti was his father, fears that the devil was trying to invade his apartment and fears that “people were following him around.”
“I told him, ‘Bill, if you can convince these people that you are not a danger to society, you should be out in a year or two,’” Montroy said.
“I also told him that as long as he kept telling people John Gotti was his father, they would probably keep him in there. I said, ‘You have to stop saying things like that.’”
Hinman and Dr. Gary J. Horwitz, a Rochester psychiatrist who examined Sutherland and testified on his behalf as an expert witness, argue that the state could treat and monitor Sutherland as an outpatient.
Horwitz testified that Sutherland can be loud, obnoxious and “condescending,” sometimes making “snide remarks” about the people who are treating him. He also said Sutherland has suffered in the past from “addictive behavior” and “personality disorders.”
But Sutherland is not dangerous, Horwitz testified.
“There has been no physically aggressive behavior, only verbal,” Horwitz said. “There’s no indication that he’s dangerous to himself or others.”
'I'm an advocate'
Sutherland claims that state officials are punishing him for making loud and angry remarks when he disagrees with the way he and other patients are treated.
“I’ve been here a long time and I know the law. When I see something that is not right, I speak out about it,” Sutherland said. “Is that a legitimate reason to keep me confined for more than 18 years? Because I’m an advocate, I’m a problem…I have a target on my back.”
He also maintains that he does not remember whether he even started that fire back in 2000.
“That night, I went to a bar, had a drink and I blacked out,” Sutherland said. “I believe that something was slipped into my drink. I have no recollection of the fire. The next thing I knew, I was in a police station, and an officer was telling me, ‘We know you started the fire. You already confessed. You could be looking at 25 years.’ I don’t remember if I started the fire. If I did, it was not with wilfull intent.”
Weeks before the fire, Buffalo Police alleged Sutherland made a telephone call threatening the life of his landlord, Paladino, which was recorded on Paladino’s answering machine. After the arson, Sutherland allegedly told officers, “I’ll kill Carl, I swear.”
And during a confrontation with police several months earlier, officers said Sutherland made threats of violence against them while again claiming that his father was the infamous mobster Gotti.
Sutherland said he made some angry statements about Paladino but denies ever threatening his life, or the lives of police officers.
According to Sutherland, he never actually believed he was Gotti’s son. “I was abandoned by my own birth father, and someone told me I was Gotti’s son,” he said. “I didn’t know who my real father was, so I was exploring the possibility that maybe it was Gotti.”
Last year, through DNA testing, Sutherland said he learned the real identity of his birth father – and it was not Gotti. “I now realize there is no possibility that that Gotti was my father,” he said.
Sutherland said he once made a remark to his girlfriend about the devil, but never feared the devil invading his apartment. He denied claiming that people were following him around.
State officials said they carefully evaluate all patients in Sutherland’s situation before releasing them to outpatient status.
The Office of Mental Health’s “top priority is maintaining community safety, while preventing inappropriate and unnecessary incarceration,” a spokesman for the agency said in response to questions by The News.
Because of the “careful process” the state uses to evaluate the risk factors, the rates of “rearrest” of released mental patients are relatively low, the state office said.
State officials said about 7 percent of criminal procedure law patients who are released from state psychiatric facilities are “rearrested” for crimes of violence within five years of their release into the community.
But over the years, there have been highly publicized stories of mental patients who committed violent crimes after their release.
On Feb. 9, 1982, Eleanor Mutka, 53, a mother of 12, was working as a waitress in a downtown Buffalo diner called Joyce’s Lunch Box. She was killed by a 22-year-old customer who jumped over a counter, grabbed a large knife and stabbed her repeatedly. Police said Donald Young was a paranoid-schizophrenic mental patient who had just been released from the psychiatric ward of Erie County Medical Center.
Young said “voices” in his head told him to kill the waitress. Immediately after the murder, Young went to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center and asked to be admitted. He then stabbed a security guard there.
Young pleaded not responsible by reason of mental illness and was sent to a secure state psychiatric facility. Mutka’s family sued Erie County for prematurely releasing a dangerous patient and received a $990,000 settlement. Again citing health privacy laws, state officials declined to comment when asked if Young is still a mental patient.
On Jan. 3, 1999, Fredonia native and writer Kendra Webdale, 32, was killed in New York City when a mental patient pushed her into the path of a speeding subway train. Webdale’s killer was Andrew Goldstein, 29. Goldstein’s attorneys said he had refused to take medication that could have helped him. They also said mental health officials had repeatedly sent Goldstein back to the streets despite his violent history.
Goldstein pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to up to 23 years in prison for killing Webdale. After serving 19 years, he was released from prison and placed on parole last year.
Public outcry over that case and others caused state lawmakers to pass a law – known as Kendra’s Law – that allows families to demand court-ordered mental health care for a disturbed relative.
Because of such horror stories, many judges are reluctant to release patients who have had criminal acts in their past, said D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Center, a not-for-profit organization in New York City that advocates for better mental health treatment.
“Basically, no judge wants to risk releasing someone and having them become violent again,” Jaffe said. “Release is also often vigorously opposed by the victims and by the community.”
'On our guard'
Paladino – Sutherland’s high-profile landlord who ran for governor in 2010 – said he and his family "would be on our guard” if Sutherland is released.
“Is he dangerous now? I don’t know,” Paladino said. “I’m not a psychiatrist and I haven’t seen him since he was put away. I do believe that when he started that fire, he was a twisted, dangerous individual. He started a fire in a three-story building of apartments where 14 or 15 people were sleeping. Did he call 911? No, he nonchalantly walked away. Then, the police caught him.”
Paladino said he believes Sutherland was upset with him and his family because of a dispute over rent. He said Sutherland would sometimes make angry claims that he was “John Gotti’s son” when Paladino’s representatives tried to collect rent from him.
“I’m not saying he should be released, or shouldn’t be released. That’s for doctors to decide,” Paladino said. “But if he is released, I would be a little uncomfortable.”
Sutherland said the dispute about rent was over when the fire was started.
Wants life back
Al Sutherland, 77, a retired utility worker who lives in Orchard Park, has been watching these proceedings with a heavy heart. He is Bill Sutherland’s adoptive father.
He and his late wife, Linda, adopted Bill when he was five days old, after losing two babies of their own.
"My wife was told she couldn’t have any other children," Al Sutherland said. "We were very happy to have him.”
Al Sutherland said his son is, basically, a good person whose outspoken nature has always gotten him into trouble. He said his son dropped out of school at age 16.
“Bill is very intelligent, a very good person, and he’s never been violent,” Al Sutherland said. “But he’s always been very stubborn, always wanted to do things his way."
He said Sutherland has a “very high IQ” and “taught himself all about computers,” starting his own internet marketing business.
Al Sutherland said he strongly believes that his adopted son, if released into the community, would get a job, work hard and stay out of trouble.
“He’s been in these facilities for 19 years,” Al Sutherland said. “If he’s released, he will be an outpatient and I’m sure he will be watched very closely. He’s never talked about revenge toward anyone. He just wants to get his life back."