The Ventura County district attorney's office announced Friday it has decided to drop all charges against 19-year-old Eric Schimmel if a psychologist's examination substantiates that he is seriously disabled mentally.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Brenda C. Andrade said during a brief arraignment hearing in Municipal Court that the prosecutor would like to see Schimmel examined by a court-appointed mental-health professional to determine the level of his intelligence.
After the hearing, Andrade said the district attorney's office would "like to see him taken out of the criminal justice system completely. We're not out for blood.
"We don't want to put him in jail. We just want to get help for him."
Following Andrade's disclosure, defense attorney Mark S. Armijo of Santa Ana asked for a continuance of the arraignment hearing. He later said defense attorneys need time to examine law-enforcement reports on the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Schimmel Aug. 7 in the mountain community of Frazier Park on the Ventura-Kern county border.
Municipal Judge Art Gutierrez continued the hearing until Wednesday. At that time, defense attorneys will have an opportunity to agree to a mental evaluation of their client rather than face prosecution.
Schimmel's parents, Linda and Jeff Smith of Frazier Park, could not be reached for comment about the decision, which followed two meetings Thursday among Andrade, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury and his assistant chief deputy, Kevin McGee.
By that time, the arrest and release of Schimmel, which were followed by a frenzied search for the missing young man, had been widely publicized. So had a statement by Andrade Wednesday, after Schimmel had been found, that the district attorney planned to pursue charges against him.
But that decision was stayed Thursday.
"We have no interest in taking this case to a jury trial assuming his disability is as severe as reported," McGee said Friday.
Complicating the issue of whether to prosecute Schimmel, McGee said, was that it was all but impossible to determine from a sheriff's arrest report whether Schimmel had any mental problems.
"We would have liked to have had that kind of information," McGee said.
An examination of the report makes no mention of a mental disability problem that might attach to Schimmel. But Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce said Friday that the arresting deputy "was aware he was retarded."
Moreover, Bryce said that, armed with this information, deputies acted in a responsible, caring manner in both executing the arrest and making sure that Schimmel was incarcerated in a safe section of the County Jail.
"We've taken a real bath on this," he said of public reaction to reports suggesting the Sheriff's Department had acted irresponsibly in the arrest and jailing of Schimmel.
The reports "made us look like we were uncaring, and that wasn't the case," Bryce said.
Schimmel did not appear in court Friday.
Another defense attorney, Boyd Jensen, said Friday, "I would expect there would probably be some civil action taken" against Ventura County stemming from the Schimmel arrest.
Schimmel was arrested by sheriff's deputies and booked on suspicion of auto burglary, a felony, and prowling, a misdemeanor. He was apprehended after entering a neighbor's van, apparently without permission.
The seemingly routine arrest suddenly gained notoriety when, unbeknown to his parents, Schimmel was released from the Ventura County Jail on his own recognizance late the evening of Aug. 9.
Schimmel was located Wednesday in Fillmore, about 20 miles from Ventura. He was unharmed and had spent much of his time hanging out near a supermarket.
After Friday's hearing, Andrade said that if the defense agrees, a court-designated psychologist would examine Schimmel to determine his mental level. Then, she said, a report would be made to the court as to what type of counseling might be needed.
Schimmel's lawyers say state educational tests have shown that at age 16 Schimmel had the cognitive skills of a child between the ages of 4 and 7, and that his parents have described him as a teen-ager with the mental development of a 5-year-old.
Unless there is an unexpected evaluation that Schimmel has normal intelligence, Andrade said Friday that the charges now pending against him will be dismissed.
The prosecutor's basic problem, she said, was that "after reading the sheriff's report, I was left with the impression that the defendant had the capacity to commit these crimes." She said she "had no knowledge" he was mentally deficient.
Asked for comment, Bryce said the Sheriff's Department is reviewing arrest policies in an effort to prevent similar situations. With 20-20 hindsight, he said, deputies should have notified a government center equipped to interview individuals suspected of having a mental disability problem.
"Let them make the decisions," he said.
Bryce said, however, that notwithstanding a possible mental deficiency, Schimmel had been "a problem" in the Frazier Park community before he was caught inside the van.
"He needs some help or closer supervision," he said.
"I'm grateful it turned out the way it did and I hope they get some help for Eric," he added.