Crime

Before son’s gruesome crime, she turned to state’s mental health system. It didn’t help

Della Wright with a portrait of her son Jerome Wright, as a young boy, at her home in Miami.
Della Wright with a portrait of her son Jerome Wright, as a young boy, at her home in Miami. adiaz@miamiherald.com

For more than a decade, Della Wright repeatedly turned to police and civil courts to quell her son’s violent outbursts, which were fueled by drugs and severe schizophrenia.

A judge forced Jerome Wright into daily therapy. He stopped going. When Jerome wrecked their Liberty City house, cops forced him into repeated stays at psychiatric crisis units. Each time he returned, he stopped taking medications and disappeared into the bedroom for weeks.

Then, last fall, came the nightmarish conclusion. Miami-Dade police found the body of Jerome’s girlfriend rotting inside his bedroom closet, her belly ripped apart, her organs stuffed in a trash can outside. He told them he thought the corpse was a “blow-up doll” made of human flesh.

Della Wright’s struggles over nearly two decades underscore what experts say is a tragic reality in Florida: There are few resources for families, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, to get help in dealing with mentally ill relatives. Wright, 62, is a single retired security guard who lives on $951 a month in disability assistance, can no longer drive and is nearly blind.

“My son started to deteriorate really bad last year,” Wright said. “He wouldn’t shave. He wouldn’t take a bath. He started urinating in his room. I just did not know what to do. I didn’t know where to turn. My son needed professional help on a daily basis, and I couldn’t provide that for him. I tried.”

After the gruesome crime, she remains determined to be his protector. Even as her 32-year-old son was jailed, Wright this month grabbed her dog-earred bible, hobbled to the bus stop and traveled downtown to court. She convinced a civil judge to lift a restraining order against Jerome that she had previously sought to protect herself.

“I want to be his mother,” Wright told the judge. “He needs me right now. And I need him.”

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Della Wright with a portrait of her son Jerome Wright, as a young boy, at her home in Miami. She has been struggling to deal with her son's mental illness for decades before he was found with the mutilated remains of his girlfriend in their house. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

The violent turn in Jerome Wright’s case is extreme, but the inability of a poor family to find help or mental treatment isn’t unusual.

The Florida Department of Children and Families estimates that there are nearly 800,000 adults with serious mental illness in the state. The Miami-Dade court system has estimated that 9.1 percent of the county’s population has experienced a serious mental illness, with few getting long-lasting help through the public health system.

In the fiscal year ending in 2016, more than 190,000 people in the state were sent to psychiatric hospitals under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows police or medical personnel to involuntarily commit someone for up to 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves or others. That’s a number that has more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Florida’s woeful track record on mental-health care is well chronicled. The state ranks dead last among the states in spending on mental health, according to the most recent analysis by the Florida Policy Institute.

And with the jails housing so many mentally ill defendants, county authorities have been working for years to build a Mental Health Diversion Facility in Miami, one that might serve defendants such as Jerome — who had several minor brushes with the law before his latest arrest.

“We just don’t have the funding. We have a lousy continuum of care,” said Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, a longtime advocate for reforming how the criminal-justice system treats the mentally ill. “It’s really hard for family members to get the services they need. There is little long-term continuing care, monitoring to make sure people get their medications. People fall through the cracks.”

Jerome was one of those cases.

His mother, a Bahamian immigrant, worked as a nanny and housekeeper for lawyer Don Ryce and his wife, Claudine, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They lived in Coconut Grove. Wright cared for Don’s youngest children from an earlier marriage, Ted and Martha, then his newborn son.

That baby son: Jimmy Ryce, who was born around the same time as Jerome. The two babies played alongside each other.

“I’m sure there was no lack of love for Jerome. She had a great capacity for caring and giving,” Don Ryce recalled.

But neither boy escaped tragedy.

Jimmy, then 9 years old, vanished from a school bus in South Miami-Dade in 1995, sparking an extensive manhunt that ended when a handyman confessed to his gruesome murder. The crime horrified South Florida parents and spurred legislation allowing the state to indefinitely detain sexual predators.

“Jim was like my baby,” said Wright, who cared for the boy for the first couple years of his life. “That was like my family. The kids, and Mr. and Mrs. Ryce.”

In many ways, Wright’s need to protect her son was molded by Jimmy’s savage murder. “Mr. Ryce told me ‘Della, don’t you never leave Jerome alone,’ she recalled. “That stuck with me.”

Jerome’s childhood seemed normal. He got piggyback rides from his mom, played basketball at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School and said he wanted to be a gourmet chef.

The first inkling that something was wrong came when Jerome was about 14. One night, Jerome began hollering and screaming for no apparent reason. The episode was so bad that Wright, then a night-shift private security guard at a condo building, took him to work. After her shift, she drove him to a Citrus Health clinic, but not before he tried to take the wheel from her. Witnesses called 911.

“Police escorted me straight to the hospital,” Wright said.

The diagnosis baffled Wright. Schizophrenia. The disease was causing him to hear voices in his head. And he got no better.

At 15, he had his first brush with the law. That day, he refused to leave with his babysitter. His mother called police “to scare him.” He pushed a Miami cop and got charged with battery on a law-enforcement officer.

His probation was supposed to be for a year, but it got extended when he kept testing positive for marijuana. The court ordered him to Riverside Academy, a now-shuttered all-boys school in Tampa, where he completed a year-long program.

“He did well. That boy did well. They had psychiatrists and everything,” Wright said.

But back in Miami, Jerome fell back onto the streets. He dropped out of Northwestern High and was declared disabled because of his schizophrenia. At 19, he was arrested for buying cocaine outside a store near his home. As happened several times for his low-level arrests, Jerome got probation — but no mental-health treatment.

Jerome Wright BLOW UP DOLL
Jerome Wright is accused of mutilating the corpse of former girlfriend Deanna Clendinen. He has suffered from mental illness for decades. Miami-Dade police

At home, at his mother’s urging, Jerome tried with little luck to work labor jobs through a local pool. She took him to free classes at the Homeless Assistance Center, but he got booted when a teacher said he wasn’t doing his work. She even spent $18 on a study book for the G.E.D. It went unread.

His condition wasn’t always awful. A counselor for New Horizons Mental Health Center in Allapattah, which treated Jerome off and on since he was a teenager, began coming to the house, weekly for a couple years. “He was doing very good,” Wright said. “She was trying to steer him on the right road.”

But several years ago, the counselor stopped coming. Wright isn’t sure why. Calls from a reporter to the center went unanswered.

Jerome began to fall apart. The two fell into a tragic pattern. He erupted into fits of rage, punching holes in the walls, tearing off closet doors and chasing her through the house. She called police, then let him back in. Nine times in the past three years, they used the Baker Act to commit him to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations.

It is not unusual for people who have been Baker Acted to get worse after they are released, especially because they are only given medication for a week, according to mental-health experts.

“There is no step-down type of system, no hand holding. There is not enough case managers because there is not enough funding,” said Denise Llenera, a coordinator with Miami’s branch of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which runs support groups for families dealing with the diseases.

“There is no one to make sure you get to your next appointment, to make sure you get the meds you need. None of that is done. Many times, they don’t even call the family members to tell them they are being released.”

Tensions between mother and son got so unbearable that Wright twice petitioned a civil judge for a restraining order, each time dropping the effort. Last year, she said, she even took the train to the community health center, asking for a new counselor to visit Jerome at the house, with no luck.

Finally, in September 2015, a judge issued a permanent injunction barring Wright from coming within 500 feet of the house.

She let him back in anyway.

It was at their home that Jerome got arrested in March 2017 for beating his girlfriend, Deanna Clendinen, herself a chronic sufferer of mental illness who has been in and out of jail. Her relatives could not be reached for comment.

He beat her with an ashtray during sex. Jerome was not entered into any mental-health programs but got probation and was required to complete anger management classes.

And it was at the home that Jerome became sensational news in October, when his mother called Miami-Dade police to report a foul smell coming from one of the two bedrooms her son used inside the home on the 6200 block of Northwest 23rd Avenue.

Inside a closet, officers found Clendinen’s body covered in a heap of sheets and clothes. Her organs were found in a trash bin outside the home. Exactly how she died remains unknown. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office has not ruled on a cause or manner of death, and Jerome has not been charged with causing her death, only with abusing a human corpse.

According to a police report, he emerged from his room “naked and sweaty” — and insisted that whatever was in his room was not real but a “life-size blow-up doll in the closet, and that the doll is made from flesh.” He also told officer he hadn’t seen Clendinen in five months.

A court-appointed doctor later noted that Jerome “seemed genuinely unaware of her whereabouts or death.”

Jerome may never stand trial. Last month, a judge declared him mentally incompetent — so he is rehabilitating at a secure South Florida psychiatric hospital. If his lawyers can prove he didn’t know right from wrong at the time of the crime, he could be declared not guilty by reason of insanity.

For now, he calls his mother three to four times a day, sometime just to say hello before going to classes about understanding the legal system. He sounds stable and content, although with complaints about the food. That prompted Wright to send him her last $50, so he could buy extra snacks.

“It’s not a lot. I sent it anyway,” Wright said. “I needed that but I don’t want him to be hungry.”

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