A mentally ill drifter with a history of sexual violence, Eric Fields stands accused of savagely raping an employee at a South Miami-Dade assisted living facility in June.
He is no stranger to the criminal justice system. Time and again, the system could not safeguard against his behavior — underscoring the challenges authorities face in dealing with sex offenders suffering from severe mental illness.
▪ Fields served little more than half of a 30-year prison term for raping a child relative in June 1988. Upon his release in 2005, Florida’s Department of Children and Families concluded that Fields could not be sent away indefinitely to a facility for violent sexual predators
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▪ In 2011, Fields attacked a woman on a street in suburban New York, bashing her head on the concrete and apparently trying to rape her. Despite his criminal history, he wound up serving only 10 months in jail.
▪ After a Miami arrest one year later, a judge ruled Fields was too mentally ill to ever stand trial but posed a “real and present threat” were he to be let out. After years in a secure state hospital, another judge ordered he be released; Fields was placed in a small family-run ALF in South Miami-Dade.
At that facility in June, Fields is alleged to have attacked an employee as she attended a laundry machine. She and a relative who serves as the home’s administrator told the Miami Herald that the mental-health agency tasked with placing Fields never informed them of the man’s violent, sex-offender past.
“I was told he was calm,” the ALF administrator said in an interview. “I would have never allowed him here to put anyone in danger — my family and or any of the other residents.”
The Miami Herald is not naming the facility because the victim still works there.
Fields, 47, is now awaiting trial for kidnapping and sexual battery with a deadly weapon causing serious injury. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steve Leifman, who spearheads mental health programs and reforms, said the bigger problem is that most ALFs are not equipped to deal with such a troubled population — leaving few options for where to put them.
“Putting someone with a serious mental illness and a proclivity for sexual violence into an ALF is probably not the appropriate thing to do,” said Leifman, who is not involved in Fields’ case. “There needs to be a specialized facility that knows how to handle people with these cases.”
Problems at Florida ALFs are not new. The Miami Herald in 2011 published a series, “Neglected to Death,” chronicling a litany of misconduct and shoddy conditions at facilities across the state. So far, lawmakers have failed to pass several proposed reforms.
In September, Miami-Dade police detectives arrested a schizophrenic man they say beat a woman to death inside a West Perrine ALF. He is awaiting trial.
In February, a fruit vendor living in a shed on the property of an Allapattah facility was stabbed to death by a mentally ill resident, who had been placed there by court order there while awaiting trial for kicking a police officer. The facility, New Greenview II, was shut down after a Miami Herald report on its long history of troubles.
But it is vexing for the courts to deal with criminal defendants whose mental illness is such that they can never stand trial for alleged crimes. The system deems them “non-restorable” — they will never be able to understand the court system or help a lawyer in preparing a defense.
By law, charges against a defendant who is mentally incompetent for five years, or is not restorable in the “foreseeable future,” can no longer be prosecuted.
The problem of finding a proper place for “non-restorable” criminal court defendants has frustrated even higher courts.
In September, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a Miami-Dade judge who ordered DCF to hold Carlos Zamora — a long-suffering schizophrenic unable to stand trial or even care for himself — in a “secure, locked” facility after he completed several years of treatment.
“We do not underestimate the predicament in which the trial judge found herself in this case,” the appeal court said in ruling that Zamora be released. The court noted the real problem is bigger. “The Legislature has not established a mental health program or service for individuals in [Zamora’s] situation.”
As for Fields, his criminal history was much more sinister.
Court records show Fields was arrested in June 1988 after a 10-year-old relative told police he commanded her to undress and lay on the floor before raping her.
He pleaded guilty to attempted sexual battery of a minor and was sentenced to 30 years in a Florida prison. But as is typical with cases from the 1980s, Fields did not serve his entire term — he was released after 17 years behind bars because of good behavior.
In Florida, violent sexual offenders are not always freed even after their prison sentence. They can be committed indefinitely to a special locked-down treatment center in Arcadia.
But a team of psychologists for DCF determined that Fields did not meet the criteria for civil commitment under the so-called Jimmy Ryce Act, according to public records. Documents do not indicate why, but it is not uncommon for people convicted in family abuse cases to not be committed.
Fields was released from prison in 2005. He drifted on the streets, eventually making his way up to Suffolk County, New York. In June 2011, police officers intervened after he pushed a woman on the street and began bashing her head on the concrete. He punched her in the eye, hit her with her own shoe and began stripping her clothes.
“I think that man was trying to rape me,” the 46-year-old woman wrote in a statement to Suffolk police. “I think he wanted to rape me.”
Detectives arrested Fields for rape and assault. But the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office said it did not have enough evidence to sustain those charges.
“The medical exam did not document ‘serious physical injury’ which is necessary to sustain the charge of felony assault. Cuts, bruises and a swollen eye were noted,” spokesman Robert Clifford told the Miami Herald. “As to the rape charge, the defendant did touch her breasts though no rape occurred.”
Fields pleaded guilty to reduced charges and served 10 months in jail.
One year later, Fields was back in Florida. Miami-Dade police detectives arrested him in February 2012 for failing to register as a sex offender. He was almost immediately declared incompetent to stand trial and sent to the Treasure Coast Treatment Center, which soon declared him “non-restorable.”
By October 2013, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O ordered him committed to DCF, but with some serious warnings.
“Mr. Fields is manifestly incapable of surviving alone, and without treatment, is likely to suffer from neglect or refuse to care for himself, and such neglect or refusal poses a real and present threat of substantial harm to his well being,” the judge wrote in an order.
He also warned that hospital records showed that Fields had been involved in “inappropriate sexual behaviors.” Fields was shipped off to the South Florida State Hospital, a secure, locked-down facility in Pembroke Pines for “long-term treatment.”
But by June, a different court — Tallahassee administrative judge Mary Li Creasy — ruled that Fields could no longer be held at the state hospital.
The hospital “did not prove, by clear and convincing evidence” that Fields could not be treated in a less restrictive place, she wrote in her order.
Exactly what evidence the judge relied upon remains shielded because of patient privacy laws. Reports generated by health professionals assessing Fields’ risk also remain private.
Back in criminal court, Judge de la O had to let Fields out. According to an audio transcript, he issued a stern warning to Fields to stay away from children and abide by the rules of the home.
The ALF administrator told the Miami Herald that a liaison with the South Florida Behavioral Network called her to place Fields at the six-resident home located in a blue-collar residential neighborhood in South Miami-Dade.
“He said he was very calm,” she said, adding that she was never told of Fields’ sexual-offender past.
The liaison could not be reached for comment. Fields was also to receive mental-health treatment from Community Health of South Florida, which declined comment because patient-privacy laws.
(The home also appears to be located within 2,500 feet of two parks, a violation of Miami-Dade County’s ordinance against sexual offenders. DCF said the site was approved by Miami-Dade Police.)
Field spent only three full days at the home, staying quietly in his room. On the fourth day, after eating lunch, the caretaker was attending to the laundry when Fields suddenly attacked her from behind — punching her until she was knocked out, according to a Miami-Dade police report.
Bruised and bloodied, the 54-year-old woman awoke in Fields’ bedroom as he raped her. “Help me, I’m dying!” she recalled screaming.
Two other residents soon found burst in and pulled Fields off of the woman, calling 911. He was immediately arrested.
The home shut down briefly. But the other patients — one of whom calls the victim “mom” — begged the family to reopen the facility.
“It makes me feel good,” the victim told the Miami Herald. “I understand that they shouldn’t have to pay for what someone else did.”