Think of it as a kind of Christmas miracle. That what should have happened actually happened. That a war-damaged veteran got the help he needed. That a terrifying scenario — an unhinged former soldier holed up with a cache of assault weapons and ammo — was defused.
What should have happened actually happened, despite irrational state laws governing mental health interventions, despite Florida’s fiscal neglect of mental health services.
The 26-year-old Iraq War vet, his reasoning bent by the stress and trauma of combat (and perhaps a brain injury), had barricaded himself in his two-story town house off 109th Avenue in Northwest Miami-Dade County, where he stewed in apocalyptic notions and insurrectionist paranoia. His relatives were terrified that as his mental state deteriorated, the potential for a deadly confrontation was escalating. They knew he kept a dreadful collection of firearms, a virtual armory, inside a town house not far from a school.
That the vet was in urgent need of mental health treatment seemed obvious. He had covered the interior walls of his home with bizarre drawings and portentous slogans: “Everyone must die.” He had tacked bullet-riddled firing range targets, black human silhouettes, on the wall. He raved that the nation was about to dissolve into some final explosion of chaotic violence. He had strategically placed his guns — police would later find 20 assault weapons and seven other firearms, along with more than 15,000 rounds of ammunition — arrayed near the home’s windows, ready to fend off the imagined final siege. (His town house complex is not far from the K-through-12 Miami Christian School.)
But none of these factors, given Florida’s mental health laws and miserly funding (last in the nation) of mental health services, would necessarily lead to real treatment. All too often, after the mentally ill are taken to one of the county’s overcrowded crisis stabilization centers, they’re out again in a few hours, said Habsi W. Kaba, who runs Miami-Dade’s crisis intervention program.
It could have happened with the vet. That it didn’t, that he was involuntarily committed to a Veteran’s Administration hospital after his Baker Act (mental health) hearing on Thursday, was serendipity. Like I said: a Christmas miracle.
On Dec. 17, after police (unaware of the weaponry inside) had twice gone knocking on the vet’s door with no response, one of his very worried relatives managed to reach the office of Steve Leifman. A lucky find. He was the county judge who designed Miami-Dade’s crisis intervention policies. Leifman, as much as anyone in the county, or in the state for that matter, has fought to fix Florida’s legal disregard and financial neglect of the mentally ill.
Leifman’s staff notified the Miami-Dade Police Department, which dispatched a negotiator with a specially trained SWAT team. The negotiator happened to be Det. Victor Milian. That, too, was serendipity. Milian, before joining the police force, had spent 26 years as a medic in the U.S. Army. “I’m familiar with these issues,” he told me. Milian said he was determined that wounded and damaged vets “get the help they need and deserve.” He made it pretty clear he thinks the nation has badly neglected those needs.