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Missing Retarded Teen-Ager Is Found : Disappearance: The 19-year-old walked 20 miles to Fillmore after his release from jail. He lived on handouts.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After surviving four days on handouts from strangers, a missing mentally retarded teen-ager arrested and then released from Ventura County Jail without his parents’ knowledge was reunited Wednesday morning with his family.

“Mommy, are you mad at me?” 19-year-old Eric Schimmel asked as his sobbing mother approached to embrace him at a sheriff’s station in Fillmore.

Schimmel, who has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, was found at 7:30 a.m. outside a Vons supermarket in Fillmore. For several days, Schimmel had hung out around the supermarket, viewed with sympathy by some and suspicion by others.

“He came in to buy a doughnut,” said Linda Lee, a counter clerk at Anne’s Donut Shop, one of those who was helpful to the lost teen-ager. “He just opened his palm and I had to take the 45 cents from his hand.”

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But employees at a nearby Carl’s Jr. where Schimmel sat silently for many hours during his ordeal said they thought he was casing the restaurant for a robbery. And a merchant who encountered him in a vacant lot Tuesday afternoon said he was prepared to pounce on Schimmel if provoked.

“He looked mentally retarded and I thought I would have to kick his ass if he made a move toward me,” said Bruce Cannistraci, owner of Fillmore Auto Parts.

Upon his release from jail in Ventura at 11:56 p.m. Friday, Schimmel said he walked 20 miles through the night along California 126 to Fillmore. His trek took him about a quarter of the 80-mile distance to his home in Frazier Park, a remote mountain community of 1,400 on the Ventura-Kern county border.

Schimmel, extremely shy and untalkative, broke into tears when reunited with his mother, hugging her and crying on her shoulder. When he saw the family station wagon, he climbed into the back seat, laid his head on his arms and wept quietly to himself.

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“It feels terrific to have him back,” said his mother, Linda Smith. “Now we can take him home.”

Schimmel was arrested Aug. 7 for climbing into a neighbor’s van that contained Tonka trucks and other toys. He was released just before midnight Friday, about seven hours after his parents were told that he was going to be held in the jail until an arraignment on Tuesday.

The Ventura County district attorney’s office still plans to have Schimmel arraigned Friday on charges of vehicle tampering, petty theft and loitering, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Brenda Andrade, who said Wednesday that an earlier charge of felony burglary against Schimmel has been dropped.

Andrade said she will seek a psychiatric assessment for Schimmel if his lawyer argues that Schimmel is not mentally competent to stand trial or that he had no intent to commit a crime.

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“If he qualifies for that, he doesn’t go to jail; he goes to an outpatient mental health program--presuming that he pleads guilty--so he can be supervised and he’s not victimizing innocent people through his actions,” Andrade said. “The deal is he gets the help he needs through mental health, and the public is protected.”

In the wake of Schimmel’s release and disappearance, the Sheriff’s Department is examining its policies on releasing prisoners, including the mentally ill or disabled, said Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce, who oversees the jail.

“We’re continuing to look at this situation and see what changes could be made, or how we could be handling it differently,” he said.

But he said the fact that Schimmel, who was picked up by a sheriff’s deputy after a caller complained of a suspicious person, was found unharmed shows the department was correct in believing he could take care of himself upon release.

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“As far as I can see, he handles himself fine,” Bryce said. “He was in good health. He had money in his pocket when they found him. I think we have a sound policy in dealing with the developmentally disabled.”

Jail officials said they were not aware Schimmel was mentally retarded until contacted the day after his arrest by one of his aunts, who asked that he not be placed with other inmates. But a deputy who then interviewed Schimmel reported that he was doing fine, so he was kept in a cell with another inmate in a communal unit that holds 24 prisoners.

“The questions we asked he answered intelligently--admittedly in some cases slowly,” Bryce said.

After hiking to Fillmore, Schimmel spent his time living like a transient, sitting for hours at a stretch outside the Vons supermarket and in the Carl’s Jr. restaurant, and sleeping in a nearby vacant parking lot.

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Before he was picked up by Sheriff’s Deputy John McGraw and reunited with his mother Wednesday, he survived mainly because of help from one benefactor who took a special interest in him, Manny Beltran, a 22-year-old supermarket clerk.

Beltran gave Schimmel $10, invited him back to his house to talk and tried without success to get help for him from a local assistance agency.

From Saturday through Tuesday, Schimmel went into Carl’s Jr., bought food and sat for hours in the same booth near the counter. Manager Phil Wagner said Schimmel was quiet and never bothered anyone.

“But we were getting suspicious,” Wagner said. “We thought he was casing us for a robbery.”

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Schimmel, who graduated from a Bakersfield High School special education class last year, has been developmentally disabled since an early age, his mother said. He has the problem-solving skills and spoken-word memory of a 3-year-old and the expressive vocabulary of an 11-year-old, according to state Education Department tests.

An Education Department report said Schimmel was abused as a child. His mother said the abuse came at the hands of her former husband.

By one neighbor’s account, Schimmel and his younger brother, Jayson, 15, are often left unsupervised in the backcountry town, free to ride off-road, three-wheeled motorcycles and throw rocks at passing cars.

“I don’t see how their parents let them get away with it,” said Al Winters, the owner of the Owl’s Barn bar and the man who initially called police when he spotted Schimmel rummaging through a vacationing neighbor’s van.

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Other neighbors, however, disputed that description of Schimmel and said he has caused no trouble around his Frazier Park neighborhood. They said they were astounded to hear that jail officials could not tell he was mentally disabled.

“I think he’s the nicest guy in the world,” said William E. Shillig, whose 11- and 13-year-old children play with Schimmel. “For me, it’s kind of like having another one of my boys around.”

Linda Smith acknowledged that she initially did not object to her son’s arrest. She said that he had not heeded her instructions to stay away from the neighbor’s van and that she thought he might learn a lesson if confined in a juvenile facility for a night.

She never expected that he would be confined in an adult jail, however, or that prosecutors would still be considering filing charges against him, she said.

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“Being out there alone the last few days has been very rough on him,” his mother said. “It’s been punishment enough.”

Times staff writer Mack Reed and correspondents Gerry Brailo Spencer and Paul Payne contributed to this story.


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