Dangerous Minds

An alleged rape at a county psych ward has Maricopa County acting like a schizophrenic

Prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office say Justin Gregg raped Jennifer McAllister in June 2001, while the pair were patients at a county psychiatric hospital.

At the same time, lawyers for Maricopa County say McAllister is making the whole thing up.

Those attorneys are vigorously defending a lawsuit McAllister has filed against the county for allegedly allowing the assault to occur.

Now set to go to trial in late March, the criminal prosecution promises to be straightforward: Though scientific evidence against Gregg is scant, the Gilbert man confessed to the rape in a "confrontation call" with McAllister recorded by Mesa police a day after the alleged incident at the Desert Vista Behavioral Health Center.

The county's defense attorneys in the also-pending civil case are presenting another story altogether: They claim the rape never happened. Those lawyers, from the private Phoenix firm of Iafrate and Rai, point to the lack of physical evidence against Gregg, and that McAllister didn't report the alleged rape until the following day.

So far, the cost to county taxpayers just for the services of the Iafrate firm is nearly $108,000, according to records obtained under the state Public Records Law. That doesn't include the three expert witnesses hired by Iafrate for the case, the cost of the prosecution, the cost of keeping Justin Gregg in custody, and other expenses.

Gregg's prosecutor, Terry Jennings, would only shake his head in exasperation when asked about the propriety of lawyers employed by Maricopa County working at cross purposes in a case involving an alleged rape.

But the veteran Jennings knows firsthand that, remarkably, the county's civil attorneys have been sharing research, experts and case strategies with Justin Gregg's criminal-defense attorney. Their goal is to try to torpedo the prosecution against Gregg, which would bolster their defense of Maricopa County in the civil case. (Michele Iafrate would not comment on the McAllister/Gregg cases.)

Phil Hineman Jr., who is Gregg's criminal defense attorney, says he was elated when Maricopa County's civil defense team cozied up to him months ago.

"As an advocate for my client, I collect information wherever I can find it," Hineman says. "I think the case against Justin is extremely weak, and the stuff I've gotten from [the county's civil attorneys] certainly has helped us."

The underlying tensions that have evolved in the Gregg case raise a host of questions, according to four legal experts contacted by New Times for this story.

None of the experts had problems with Hineman accepting the aid of the county's civil defense team. And each of the experts – two former Superior Court judges and two other local attorneys – said the County Attorney's Office did the right thing in farming out the civil suit to private attorneys.

"So far, so good," says John Hannah, a Phoenix attorney who chairs a State Bar of Arizona ethics committee. "But after that comes the question of whether a county can or should take radically different positions in prosecuting a serious felony on the one hand, and defending the alleged wrongdoer on the other. They both can't be right."

The Desert Vista psychiatric hospital opened in mid-June 2001 on West Brown Road in Mesa. Publicity materials on Maricopa County's Web site say the 104-bed, two-story facility "specializes in the care of the most problematic psychiatric inpatients. Persons with major mental illness, who have a history of treatment resistance, violent behavior or complex medical/psychiatric illness, are the focus of the treatment center."

County officials also touted Desert Vista as a safer alternative to its patients and employees than the longtime psychiatric ward at the Maricopa Medical Center in central Phoenix.

But on the facility's first day of operation, a patient escaped and carjacked an employee. News of the escape outraged area residents, many of whom already had expressed their discomfort over having seriously mentally ill people – some of them violent and dangerous – living so nearby.

But the weaknesses of Desert Vista's security system were only beginning to reveal themselves. As recently as last March, for example, several employees at the facility sent a letter of concern about security there to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and others.

The letter said in part, "We all realize that working with psychiatric patients is a dangerous profession. [But] employees working with such patients should have as safe an environment to work in as is possible."

As depicted by the Desert Vista employees, that environment included inadequate numbers of overburdened staffers trying to cope with innately difficult patients, many of whom weren't taking their medications when admitted.

One troublesome patient was Justin Gregg, who was admitted to Desert Vista on June 23, 2001, for a court-ordered evaluation as to whether he posed a danger to himself and to others. Specifically, according to court documents, Gregg had been talking about killing his family, then himself, and was in a psychotic state brought on in part by his continued huffing of paint fumes and other household products.

Years earlier, according to his attorney Phil Hineman, doctors had diagnosed Gregg as a paranoid schizophrenic. Court records indicate he had many run-ins with the law, and was put on felony probation in 1998 on a marijuana-related conviction.

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