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California state hospital worker is slain on the job

Reporting from San Francisco

A 54-year-old psychiatric technician was killed Saturday at Napa State Hospital, allegedly by a patient, marking the first staff homicide in the state’s mental hospital system in two decades, officials say.

The body of Donna Gross of Concord was found at 6:10 p.m. on the fenced grounds behind the unit where she worked, sources said. Gross, who had worked at the hospital for 13 years, was described by staff members and one patient Sunday as kind and dedicated to her patients, many of whom were sent to the facility after committing crimes as a result of their mental illnesses.

Jess Willard Massey, 37, who has an “extensive criminal history,” was being held on suspicion of murder and robbery, a Napa County Sheriff’s Department statement said. He has been in the state hospital system since being declared “not guilty by reason of insanity” in 1997 in another case.

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A Department of Mental Health spokeswoman called the incident “tragic” and said in a statement that officials “are deeply saddened by the loss of a longtime employee.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging civil rights violations of patients at Napa and three other state mental hospitals. As the facilities work to improve conditions under a court mandated consent judgment, increasing violence has been a persistent concern systemwide.

“I’m sick to my stomach.... People have been saying that it’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed out here,” said one staff member, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.

Although severe assaults on staff members are not uncommon, Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Jennifer Turner said no staff member had been killed in the hospital system since a 1990 homicide at Atascadero State Hospital.

Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino sends staff on regular grounds patrols, said Brady Oppenheim, spokeswoman for the California Assn. of Psychiatric Technicians. Napa had no such program until it launched a more limited effort last Monday that is active four hours a day Monday through Friday, Turner said.

Gross was attacked outside, so her personal alarm would not have functioned, said Brad Leggs, the Napa State Hospital chapter president of the psychiatric technicians group.

He called Gross “a very decent person” and “a great advocate for the patients.” A patient in her unit described her as “a very sweet, very caring individual who went out of her way to help you. She wouldn’t harm a fly.”

lee.romney@latimes.com


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