Longform

Jan Brewer's Response to Jared Loughner? Slash Services from an Already Beleaguered Mental-Health System

Editor's note: This story has been edited from its original version.


Here's a story about a mentally ill man with a gun in Tucson that you probably haven't heard.

On a Monday afternoon last October, Joseph Molina, 34, stopped traffic near the bus station in the city's downtown. Armed with a handgun, he attempted to carjack two vehicles — shooting at passengers — then fled in a Tucson Police Department cruiser after pointing the gun at an officer.

The officer shot Molina. Fatally wounded, he crashed the car into a city bus. No one else was injured.

Molina was pronounced dead at University Medical Center later that day, in the same facility where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in serious condition after she was shot in the head on January 8 by Jared Lee Loughner, the man charged with murdering six and injuring 12 others.

Along with the obvious comparisons, Jared Loughner and Joseph Molina had one important thing in common: At the time of their attacks, neither — as far as anyone can tell — was receiving mental-health services.

Hindsight is dangerous — tricky at best. It's easy to say Loughner desperately needed help, now that the pieces are falling together to create a portrait of a deeply disturbed young man.

No one needs hindsight in the case of Joseph Molina. He had a long record of serious criminal behavior and mental illness.

Last March, Molina racked up his seventh felony — the April 2009 aggravated assault of a bus driver with a drywall saw, considered a deadly weapon. No one was hurt in the bizarre episode; after the arrest, Molina told deputies he'd hijacked the bus to get to the police station because voices in his head had alerted him that two men were trying to kill him.

That incident happened within weeks after Molina's release from the Arizona Department of Corrections after completing a seven-year sentence on yet another aggravated-assault conviction. He was in and out of prison since 1994, when he turned 18.

What kind of mental-health treatment he received while incarcerated or in those brief periods when he was "free," basically to roam the streets of Tucson, is uncertain.

What is known is that court-appointed doctors diagnosed Molina as paranoid schizophrenic after the 2009 assault of the bus driver. A Pima County judge later found him "guilty except insane," which led to Molina's latest incarceration, this time at the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix instead of prison.

Court records show that Molina was said to be "stabilized" mentally within months after he was sent to the hospital, because of powerful psychotropic drugs and counseling.

ASH doctors deemed Molina "competent" enough to be released back into the criminal-justice system for disposition of the assault case.

Molina was taken to the Pima County Jail, but county prosecutors inexplicably fouled up. Authorities released him from custody within days with what his public defender later described as about five days of medication for his schizophrenia and a mental-health provider's street address for a "follow-up" consultation.

Reports show another incident after that: Police used pepper spray on Molina during a routine traffic stop. The cops booked him into county jail, but again, he was back on the streets.

And then he was dead.

Tucson Police Captain Michael Gillooly told the press, "A subject with numerous violent priors who spent numerous years in prison went on a rampage that could have taken the lives of many people in the downtown area."

Another way of putting it: Joseph Molina's death was what mental-health professionals call a preventable tragedy.

Were Jared Loughner's crimes a preventable tragedy?

As society at large ponders the question, here in Arizona we hardly have the luxury. Here — just days after a spree that now has its own logo, "TUCSON TRAGEDY," in bold red and black in the daily newspaper — it's apparently back to business as usual.

Tucson hosted a big gun show over the weekend. And in Phoenix, Governor Jan Brewer ended the week by announcing she wants to cut healthcare to 280,000 indigent Arizonans, including 5,200 seriously mentally ill adults, according to the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

That's on the heels of massive cutbacks over the past two years. Just last July, an estimated 3,000 seriously mentally ill people in Pima County alone lost almost all their services, including access to non-generic medication and caseworker supervision. Six months earlier, thousands deemed just "generally mentally ill" lost the bulk of their public funding.

A mental-healthcare crisis is gripping the nation, to be certain, with funding shortfalls everywhere. But Arizona already has been among the hardest hit, and now, Brewer — who made a name for herself decades ago as a champion of the mentally ill — wants to further reduce services in the state. For some of her healthcare cuts, she'll need permission from Washington to avoid triggering federal cuts in funding, and last Friday, she announced she'll ask for it.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin and Amy Silverman