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Criminal’s letters leave San Diego woman in fear

Sent from Patton State Hospital by a patient with a criminal history of violence and psychiatric problems, the letter had an affectionate opening — “Dearest Suzanne” — and ended with a promise “to see you and be reunited as two common people soon.”

The woman who received the unwanted letter and a phone call in September from a man she’s never met appealed to officials at Patton for help. Instead she was told that the hospital in San Bernardino could not even confirm that the letter writer was a patient there.

Suzanne — who would speak only on condition that her last name not be used in this article — believes that the hospital, part of a state agency, is more concerned with safeguarding the privacy rights of a convicted felon than in protecting, or even warning, a member of the public.

Documents: Read the handwritten letters

The executive director of the hospital, where the criminal justice system sends felons for treatment, said he is sympathetic but that his hands are tied by federal privacy regulations for hospitals. Also, the hospital is guided by the settlement of a 2006 lawsuit alleging that patients were not being treated properly.

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“I don’t want my name ending up on a law,” said Suzanne, referring to the practice of adding victims’ names to laws meant to protect the public, such as the recently passed Chelsea’s Law, named for Chelsea King, the San Diego teenager raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender.

According to records in San Diego County Superior Court, the writer of the letter, Brent Edward Knauer, 57, pleaded guilty in 1997 to felony robbery and was given a two-year prison sentence. An additional charge of causing great bodily injury to a person older than 60 was dropped.

Because violence was attached to the conviction, Knauer was evaluated at the end of his prison sentence. He was judged to be a “mentally disordered offender.”

Many such offenders are sent to Patton for one-year commitments. Each year a court must decide whether it is safe for the person to be released.

Knauer has received a string of one-year commitments, with San Diego County prosecutors arguing each time that he remains dangerous. The latest hearing was Aug. 6, when Knauer was given another one-year commitment to Patton.

“He is still very much a danger,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Greenberg.

Suzanne, a professional employee at a large San Diego concern, said she is not easily frightened. And, so far, she has declined to take measures such as moving, changing her phone number or going to court to seek a restraining order.

“I shouldn’t have to do this,” she said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

As a single woman living alone, she preferred for years not to have her address in the phone directory. Then she switched phone service providers and her name and number inadvertently appeared in the book.

“I just happened to find the new addition [sic] of the San Diego white pages in the Patton State Hospital West Compound Library today,” Knauer’s first letter to Suzanne said. The letter ends: “I love you!”

When Suzanne first called, hospital employees said they could not tell her what Knauer was convicted of or when he might be released. Nor could they keep him from writing more letters or making collect phone calls, they said.

Without confirming that he is a patient, hospital employees, speaking on a theoretical basis, said that when they receive a complaint like Suzanne’s, it is forwarded to caseworkers assigned to the patient. The patient is then advised that sending annoying letters could delay release from custody, she was told.

That gave Suzanne at least a modicum of relief.

Then came the second letter, with the opening “Hello sweetheart” and the closing “see yah later, real soon hopefully?”

And then a collect phone call was made to her house at 10:30 one Sunday night. Suzanne did not accept the call.

After The Times requested an interview with the hospital director to discuss Suzanne’s complaint, a hospital spokeswoman phoned her, asked for a copy of the letter and promised to be of greater assistance.

Patton State Hospital has 1,500 patients — most of them committed to the hospital by the judicial system for psychiatric treatment. Among its patients are sex offenders, although such offenders who are judged to be violent are sent to the state hospital in Coalinga.

Patton and three other state mental hospitals were sued by the federal government in 2006 for violating the civil rights of patients and are now implementing court-ordered reforms that emphasize patients’ rights and freedoms. Some employees have called the reforms too lax, noting that many patients have disorders that contribute to repeated criminal acts.

Octavio C. Luna, the hospital’s executive director, said state lawyers have advised him that Patton, as a hospital, not as a prison, is guided by the 1996 federal law that keeps all hospitals from giving out patients’ information without their consent. “We cannot go outside state law,” Luna said.

The hospital receives occasional complaints like the one made by Suzanne, Luna said. “We can only accept information,” he said. “We can’t tell you what we’ve done.... It’s a no-win situation.”

If someone makes a complaint to law enforcement, the response is different, but there are still limits, Luna said. He noted that several months ago the FBI was concerned about letters being written by a different patient hinting at possible terrorist activity.

Agents were allowed to interview that the patient, Luna said. But when they asked that the patient’s letter-writing and phone-calling privileges be terminated, they were told that it could not be done without a court order, he said.

“If a patient makes a direct threat in a letter, that is also different,” Luna said. A law covering threats has a provision that calls for warning the intended victim.

Knauer’s letters to Suzanne, while creepy, do not appear to carry an overt threat of violence. Rather, the letters are filled with details about horseback riding and people that Suzanne has never met or heard of.

Knauer cannot be released from the state hospital without a public court hearing, according to prosecutor Greenberg.

Suzanne hopes that someone will warn her if he is released. “I’m living one day at a time,” she said.

tony.perry@latimes.com


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