KUNM

The APD Files: Len Fuentes And Mental Health

Feb 12, 2015

You’ve heard of James Boyd, the homeless man who was killed by Albuquerque police last year. But you might not have heard of Len Fuentes. He, too, was mentally ill when he brandished a knife and was shot and killed by APD.

Len Fuentes
Credit Sylvia Fuentes

Fuentes’ mom said she had found mental health care for her son, but it was three days too late.   

The 911 tape from Monday night, July 16, 2010, has two clear gunshots on it. Next on the tape—and on all the audio officers recorded during the incident—are the harsh, raw cries of Fuentes’ fiancée, Gwendolyn Dalton. It takes a long time for them to calm her down.

Later that night, she’s interviewed by a detective. She thought he'd been Tased, she explained. But then she realized what happened. "I started screaming 'Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him?' And no one would answer me," she said. "And I tried to run towards him, and the police grabbed me and put me on the ground and put their knee in my back. I was screaming for Len to look at me because I was on my stomach on the ground. I just wanted him to open his eyes and look at me, because he was moaning." 

He’d carried a steak knife in the waistband of his jeans, which police said he drew and used to threaten them, yelling for police to shoot him. 

"He’s schizophrenic, and bipolar with narcissistic tendencies," Dalton said. "That’s his diagnosis."

Sylvia Fuentes, Len's mom, says police killed her son when they didn't have to. She set up our meeting at the apartments where he died. She walked me through his death. 

She said her son loved his parents and was a bright kid. But around the age of 13 or 14, he started changing. He suddenly became introverted, got involved with drugs and attempted suicide. Len would disappear for days at a time, Sylvia said. She tried to put him in a psychiatric hospital, but they didn’t have enough beds. 

"And when they had the beds, I didn’t have the boy because he had run off again," she said. "So it was really hard to get him help."

Sylvia didn’t know Len was schizophrenic until he was incarcerated in California. Prison is where he was diagnosed, where a lot of people with mental illness are diagnosed. 

Len did eight years in Folsom Prison; a former fiancé died after he crashed his motorcycle with her riding on the back. He’d been on parole in Albuquerque for about a year before he was killed.

Sylvia said she was having a hard time getting him plugged into psychiatric services. But things were looking up, she remembered. He was going to move back in with her in a few days.

"And in three days was also going to be his first appointment with a psychiatrist," she said. "I had been trying to get one for him since he had gotten out of prison, and I never could."

It eats her up, this idea, that she didn’t get psychiatric health care figured out for Len in time.

About half of the adults with severe mental illness in the United States—3.9 million—are not receiving mental health care, according to The Treatment Advocacy Center.

And in the criminal justice system here there's a shortage of treatment options, says John Madrid. He’s a bail bondsman. "Case in point, I had a bond on Friday. His family wanted him out. I said, 'I will not bond him out until Monday, when his services kicked in.' "

A bondsman’s primary job is to make sure people show up in court. Madrid is not trained to deal with mentally ill people, but he has a lot of experience doing it. 

"You know, the family said they would take care of him," he said. "But it was safer for the situation for me to wait until Monday, so once he’s released the family can take him directly to his inpatient facility that he needed to be at."

Inmates might see a psychiatrist while they’re in jail or prison, get diagnosed like Len Fuentes and begin receiving care. But then they do their time, and they’re released with a 30-day supply of their medications. Outside, maybe they can’t find regular treatment. And so they come back, again and again, returning to their de facto mental health facility in the back of a squad car. Each pass through the system, there’s a chance for an altercation with police.

Arthur Pepin is the director of the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Commission. He says surveys show that on average, there’s a mental heath component to the criminal activity of two-thirds of the people detained at the jail here.

"What a lot of evidence shows that if you deal with the mental health issue, you avoid the criminality," he said. "And of course that better serves the state in terms of how much money they’re putting into the criminal justice system."

Pepin says the county has committed more than $1 million to creating transitional housing for mentally ill people so they don’t have to go to jail. And Republican Sen. Sander Rue has introduced legislation this session that would find alternatives for mentally ill inmates around the state. 

This story is the first in a series about APD shooting deaths and public health. It's part of KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project which is funded by the McCune Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.