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Missing Retarded Youth, Family Reunited : Disappearance: Teen-ager with the mental capacity of a 5-year-old is found 60 miles from home. He had existed on handouts after being released from jail on his own.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After surviving for four days on handouts from strangers, a missing mentally retarded teen-ager who was released from the Ventura County Jail without his parent’s knowledge was reunited with his family Tuesday morning.

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

Schimmel, whose mental capacity has been compared to that of a 5-year-old, was found at 7:30 a.m. outside a Vons supermarket in Fillmore, where he had remained for the last several days.

He was found and identified by sheriff’s officers responding to reports of a suspicious person.

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Shy and untalkative, the young man 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 cried quietly to himself.

“It feels terrific to have him back,” said his mother, Linda Smith.

Schimmel was arrested Aug. 7 near his home on charges that he broke into a neighbor’s van containing Tonka trucks and other toys. He was taken to the main adult jail in Ventura and released just before midnight Friday, about seven hours after his parents were told he would be held in jail until Tuesday.

After his release at 11:56 p.m., Schimmel walked 20 miles through the night along California 126 to the small farming town of Fillmore. His trek took him about a quarter of the 80 miles to his home in Frazier Park, a remote mountain community of 1,400 on the border of Ventura and Kern counties.

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He was aided by a a 22-year-old supermarket clerk and former seminary student, Manny Beltran, who gave Schimmel $10, offered him a home-cooked meal and a shower, and sought help for him from a local assistance agency.

The Ventura County district attorney’s office said it still plans to arraign Schimmel on Friday on charges of vehicle tampering, petty theft and loitering, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Brenda Andrade.

Andrade said she will seek a psychiatric assessment for Schimmel if his lawyer argues that the young man lacks the mental capacity to intentionally commit a crime.

“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.

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As a result of Schimmel’s release and subsequent disappearance, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department is examining its policies on releasing prisoners, said Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce.

But he said the fact that Schimmel was found unharmed shows that the department was correct in believing he could take care of himself.

Jail officials said they were not aware that Schimmel was retarded until they were contacted the day after his arrest by one of his aunts, who asked that he not be placed with other inmates.

Smith initially did not object to her son’s arrest, she said, because he had not heeded instructions to stay away from the neighbor’s van, which he had broken into two months earlier. But she criticized prosecutors for continuing to press charges.

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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 contributed to this story. Correspondents Paul Payne and Gerry Brailo Spencer also reported.


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