Blood on their hands

Page 6 of 8

That afternoon, hospital social worker Shari Rodriguez spoke briefly and separately on the phone to Anita Watson and Mauricia Aviles.

She later suggested in hospital notations and in a civil deposition that the Aviles women had reassessed their position on Rodney's continued confinement.

From Rodriguez's notes: "[Mauricia] was minimizing everything . . .She feels it was just drug-induced, messed up his mind, caused him to react like this. He didn't make the threats. He broke a lamp . . .She did not want to pursue the petition [for lengthy court-ordered treatment]."

Rodriguez later admitted that she had become convinced Rodney "was not a mental-health patient," but had been adversely affected by a cocaine-induced psychosis. For sure, she said, Rodney didn't belong in the psych unit.

One reason that the Aviles were fixating on Rodney's possible drug abuse lay in the positive results of his first drug test. It's not clear if anyone had told them about the negative results of the second test.

Also, blaming illegal drugs somehow seemed more palatable to the family than having to face the stigma that one of their own was suffering from an organic mental illness.

Shari Rodriguez also claimed Anita Watson told her that she, too, wouldn't testify at Rodney's upcoming commitment hearing. Watson later denied saying any such thing.

Carmen Tallebas had a far different recollection than Rodriguez of her mother's five-minute conversation with the social worker. She'd been at a mall with Mauricia when Rodriguez had called on a cell phone, and had listened to her mom's side of the conversation:

"My mom said after they hung up the phone that Rodney was ready to come home if she wanted him to come home. And my mom said, `Well, if you think he's ready to come home, yeah, I want him home.' My mom wasn't afraid of Rodney. She didn't fear him or nothing. She was happy he was going to come home. We were all happy."

Even if the Aviles women said what Rodriguez claims they said, hospital officials should have known that having second thoughts in such situations is commonplace, especially with mothers, says a psychiatrist hired by the family for their lawsuit.

"This mother may have been ambivalent," Dr. Basil Bernstein testified in an October, 2002, deposition. "She may have . . .wanted Rodney home, wanted her son home, and, on the other hand, she didn't want Rodney home until he was ready to come home because deep down in herself [she] knew that there was something -- in quotes -- wrong."

Dr. Denham relied heavily on the accuracy of Shari Rodriguez's interaction with the two Aviles women when she decided to cut Rodney loose on June 23. Her own notes also suggest Mauricia told her by phone that morning that Rodney only needed treatment for drug abuse, not mental illness:

"I attempted to explain to [Mauricia] that I felt strongly there [was] other pathology perhaps underlying his drug use, and encouraged her to support the completion of the court-ordered process. She replied that she knew that was not the case because he had never had symptoms prior to using drugs."

But Denham was supposed to be the mental-health expert, not Mauricia Aviles, and she knew Rodney was a very sick young man. However, years later, Denham told lawyers in the civil case that she'd been in an untenable spot.

Under Arizona law, being psychotic isn't enough of a reason to commit someone involuntarily for extended treatment. Denham said Rodney had to meet four criteria to remain involuntarily committed, including having two witnesses willing to testify to his "dangerous or disabled behavior."

Without Anita and Mauricia's testimony, she claimed, a judge would have dismissed the case and immediately released Rodney. A Phoenix attorney hired as an expert witness by Maricopa County agreed with Denham in his own deposition.

But plaintiff's expert, Dr. Bernstein, points out that Denham fully intended to support Rodney's continued stay at the hospital until being told of the family's alleged change of heart.

"The clinical crux," Bernstein testified, "is that if Rodney needed to be in the hospital, it was not directly related to his mother and sister testifying."

In other words, it had been Dr. Denham's duty to ensure Rodney's continued hospitalization.

Dr. Denham wrote in her last note before releasing Rodney on June 23: "It is probable that patient has some underlying pathology -- as his affect is impaired, he is isolative and his delusions persisted for a significant period of time after cocaine left his system. Actually, although he is no longer agitated and bizarre, his delusions are still present."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin