Assisted Suicide

A county psychiatrist's indifferent treatment of a disturbed inmate leads to a courthouse hanging

Soon after that, the deputy testified, he'd heard Cervantes screaming and whistling from his courthouse cell.

By now, it was late morning.

Nearby at the jail, the Madison psychiatric team was meeting in its daily briefing. Drs. Joe Franzetti and Pam Drapeau attended the session, as did nurses and counselors.

Suicide victim Steve Cervantes, a few years before he died.
courtesy of Shannon Sintic
Suicide victim Steve Cervantes, a few years before he died.
Cervantes, Shannon Sintic and their firstborn, Nicholas.
courtesy of Shannon Sintic
Cervantes, Shannon Sintic and their firstborn, Nicholas.

According to Cervantes' medical chart and depositions, jail counselor Marlena Lopez recommended that the inmate be kept on suicide watch in the psychiatric unit, but in a less-restrictive pod.

But Dr. Franzetti overruled her.

"I remember Dr. Franzetti saying that [Cervantes was] stable, the depression had decreased," Lopez testified. "If the psychiatrist says general population, the consensus is general population."

Despite Franzetti's orders, a staffing note written in Cervantes' chart shortly after that May 14 meeting said the inmate should stay in the psychiatric unit, on suicide watch.

"There was obviously a communication breakdown with whoever wrote that particular staffing note and what I wanted to have occur," Franzetti testified.

About 12:40 p.m., Deputy Fausto and another deputy briefly checked on Cervantes, who had continued screaming from his cell. They said they'd told him the judge would be back on the bench at 1:30, and to try to take it easy until then.

A few minutes after that, a court bailiff on the eighth floor heard Cervantes pleading loudly for someone to get him a doctor.

Franzetti conceded in his deposition, "If I heard a patient screaming for an hour, I wouldn't consider that vague. That's a cry for help."

But the sheriff's deputies ignored the wails.

Deputy Fausto said about 1:10 p.m., he realized that Cervantes finally had quieted down.

At 2 p.m., he and a colleague went to the eighth floor to fetch the inmate for court.

Steve Cervantes was dead by then.

The courthouse suicide was the talk of downtown Phoenix, especially among county employees who work for the sheriff's office and for Correctional Health Services.

But Dr. Joe Franzetti has testified that, somehow, he didn't learn about Cervantes' death until much later.

"I think it was possibly weeks after the occasion," Franzetti said. "I don't remember. I was not told directly of his passing. . . . I believe there was a meeting, a general meeting, and that was brought to my attention."

"And after you heard that one of your patients died in the courthouse, did you ask any questions?" plaintiff's attorney David Don asked the doctor.

"I wasn't sure if it was somebody I knew at the time," he responded. "The name didn't ring a bell. [But] it didn't take long to figure out [he] was mine. I was the treating doctor."

Jail counselor Marlena Lopez spoke in her deposition of when she'd learned of his death:

"I think it was the same day. I remember very well that day. My supervisor called me at home and let me know what happened in the court. As a counselor, you start reviewing what you did, what did I do wrong, what I missed."

In the aftermath of Steve Cervantes' death, it would have seemed natural for jail authorities to assess what went wrong and to try to determine how to prevent it from happening in the future.

But no one in authority ever officially asked Dr. Franzetti about his treatment of Cervantes, or about his curious posthumous note stating that he'd just seen the patient and everything was fine.

In July 2003, CHS hired the doctor as a full-time county employee, ending his contract as an independent contractor.

That November, County Recorder's Office records show that Franzetti and his wife took out a $557,000 loan to buy a north Scottsdale home that sold for $1.25 million.

But last August, then-CHS medical director Patricia Crellin submitted a scathing annual evaluation of the doctor.

Dr. Crellin could have been writing about Franzetti's work with Cervantes when she wrote that he "completes adequate initial evaluation, but could improve the follow-up care. [He] needs to work on time management to improve the follow-up frequency for [patients]."

Crellin concluded that Franzetti needed "to work on keeping to schedules, attending key treatment meetings and departmental meetings. [He] needs to be more available to staff and clients."

Without specifying why, county officials fired Dr. Franzetti last February 16, according to his personnel file.

Currently, he is a central figure in three lawsuits. Two of them stem from the suicides of psych unit inmates Cervantes and Michael Thompson. The third concerns the self-maiming of former inmate Miguel Zaragoza, who blinded himself last year with a golf pencil while under Franzetti's care.

Despite his legal problems, Dr. Franzetti landed on his feet after the county fired him. He's working as an outpatient shrink for ValueOptions, a behavioral-health company that serves thousands in Maricopa County.

Now back in Illinois, Shannon Sintic found a job as a trainer for a telemarketing firm near Chicago. She and her children live near Steve Cervantes' final resting place, a cemetery near Blue Island, Illinois.

"I don't think that anyone in the jail actually planned for Steve to kill himself," Sintic says, "though it's hard to understand what happened there. What I do know is that doctor [Franzetti] sure didn't do his job to protect my guy."

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