Public housing seniors saw attack take place. Who was watching to prevent it happening?
Mark Fula arrived at the Christmas party for residents of the Harry S. Truman Apartments public housing development clutching a wad of old scratch tickets. He sat on the floor near a soda machine in the community room and started laughing. A Cambridge Housing Authority staff member invited Fula to sit on a chair, and the young man threw down the tickets, sat on the chair, and kept laughing while he “shoveled food into his mouth,” one tenant said.
His neighbors at the 125-unit building in East Cambridge – tenants 60 and over and some younger, disabled residents like Fula – noticed the strange behavior. “Staff noticed” too, a resident recalled, but no one did anything to respond, and Fula eventually left and returned to his third-floor apartment. It was the beginning of a terrifying night for Fula’s girlfriend, another woman who lived in a nearby apartment, and an unknown number of residents who heard the screams and howls inside and outside the building late that night.
Fula, 27, now stands charged with domestic assault, assault with a dangerous weapon and strangulation. According to police, he tried to strangle his 32-year-old girlfriend in his apartment around 11 p.m. Dec. 18, beating her head on the linoleum floor. Then Fula, naked, allegedly dragged her by the hair through the hallway and elevator and out the front door, along the way kicking a 50-year-old neighbor who tried to intervene. Police called to the building arrived outside and arrested him.
Gaps in guardianship
As the case works its way through the system, facts in legal files, laws and policies raise questions about how well courts and government agencies protect mentally ill adults and those who live among them. Advocates say the guardianship system in Massachusetts in particular has serious gaps: In Fula’s case, the guardian appointed by a court to monitor Fula and ensure he took prescribed psychiatric drugs had not filed an annual report since 2012. The Middlesex Probate and Family Court, which has a system to catch such lapses and remind the guardian to file a report, inexplicably did not. The case had been impounded in 2010, yet the file was available to anyone who wrote a name and case number in a register on the clerk’s desk.
Besides that, privacy and anti-discrimination laws can prevent those who deal with people with mental illness from knowing important information.
“The system is broken,” said Tami Dristiliaris, the attorney who represented Fula when a guardian was appointed for him in 2010 and who works as a guardian for others. “There’s no tag to say, ‘This is my guardian’” when mentally ill people go to the emergency room, get arrested or face other challenges where they need help, she said.
“Mark’s a nice person. I’m sorry he got in trouble,” Dristiliaris said. “I think he would be best suited to a group home.”
Treated like any other tenant
The judge who appointed Fula’s guardian had made a similar observation. Citing evidence presented to the Probate and Family Court, he wrote in 2010: “He has been able to stabilize in programs, but once discharged, he again becomes aggressive and misuses his medications.” And in 2012, when Fula’s guardian last filed an annual report with the court, Fula was in a group home for mentally ill adults in Cambridge.
But on Dec. 18, Fula was not in a setting that offered support from staff, but in public housing where he was treated like any other tenant – though it’s not known whether he was getting, or had refused, services from outside. Fula moved into the low-income housing development in July 2017. The housing authority reserves 13.5 percent of units in buildings housing people over 60 for younger disabled tenants, including those with a psychiatric disability.
Does the authority assess applicants with mental illness to ensure they have the support to live successfully in public housing? No, and the housing authority shouldn’t do anything of the sort, executive director Mike Johnston said. Not only is such a policy against the law, “it is the very definition of discrimination for CHA to apply a different set of screening procedures to someone that has a disability,” Johnston said in an email.
“We are confident that we fulfilled our duties to both the residents of the development and the particular individual consistent with the law and our own policies,” he said.
No reports in file for six years
In 2010 the state Department of Mental Health went to court to have Fula declared an “incapacitated person,” someone who has a “clinically diagnosed condition” that prevents the person from making decisions that “affects their physical health, safety or self-care,” according to a definition on the state government website. Under state law, a guardian can make some or all decisions for an incapacitated person. At the time, Fula was 18.
David Blumenthal, a Brookline lawyer, was named by a Middlesex Probate and Family Court judge as Fula’s guardian for the purpose of overseeing his psychiatric medications. Blumenthal’s LinkedIn page says he is experienced in “guardianship law for adults with mental health issues” as well as other legal practice areas: real estate and landlord-tenant law, family law and will and estate administration.
A 2009 state law that reformed the Probate and Family Court system required guardians to file “care plans” for clients within 60 days of appointment and submit annual reports. Blumenthal filed the care plan and two annual reports for 2011 and 2012. The latter document, filed June 4, 2012, said Fula was taking his medication and doing well in the group home where he had been living since March. He hoped to earn a high school equivalency test or complete vocational training, the report said.
The file contained no annual reports after then. (That does not mean Blumenthal stopped carrying out his other responsibilities as guardian; just that there’s no way for the court to tell what he did).
No knowledge of arrests
Contacted by phone last week, Blumenthal said he remains Fula’s guardian and last talked to his client “a few months ago.” He didn’t know Fula was arrested Dec. 18 and wasn’t aware Fula had been arrested in January 2018 and faces charges in Woburn District Court of larceny and breaking and entering. He learned of those arrests “from you,” he told the reporter.
Blumenthal stopped providing information when asked about the missing annual reports. “I’m not prepared to discuss what I did or didn’t do,” he said. How was Fula doing when Blumenthal last spoke with him? “I won’t respond to any questions about my client,” Blumenthal said.
Some of Fula’s neighbors, interviewed in the community room at Truman Apartments, said they hadn’t feared the young man. “He had his issues but he was not threatening,” one said. But “he was not himself” when he started seeing a girlfriend, she said.
Girlfriend moves in
The girlfriend, Janey Arruda, soon moved in with Fula, although CHA rules prohibited it. Residents said they complained to managers at the development but nothing changed. Johnston said staff at his agency couldn’t find any record of a complaint.
Arruda told police she had been living with Fula for six months. She said Fula told her he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that he wasn’t taking his psychiatric medications prescribed for him and was drinking and smoking marijuana, the police report of his arrest said.
Fula was “hearing voices” but not behaving aggressively when Arruda came home from work to his apartment the evening of Dec. 18, she told police. Suddenly he attacked her, gripping her around her neck and banging her head on the floor, she said. She managed to extricate herself from his grasp and ran out of the apartment, but he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back inside.
Arrested outside building
Then he dragged her by her hair through the hallways, into the elevator, and out the front entrance, where he was arrested.
Residents recalled that Fula and Arruda had been arguing that evening and they heard doors slamming. Darnell Johnson, 50, said she was in her apartment when “the next thing I know I hear her scream, ‘Someone help me!’ I came out, saw them both naked, the next thing I know, I’m on the ground and he’s kicking me.”
Johnson said in an interview that Fula stopped kicking her when she asked him; the police report of her interview the night of the attack did not say that.
When police arrested Fula, he was “sweating profusely,” speaking gibberish and screaming so loudly it appeared he might stop breathing, the police report said. Emergency medical technicians at the scene had to inject him with ketamine, a heavy-duty anesthetic that is also abused by addicts, to calm him down enough to take him to Cambridge Hospital, the report said.
Arruda was taken to Mount Auburn Hospital. Police saw heavy scrapes and bruising on her skin, red marks and bruises on her neck and a swollen lip when they interviewed her that night in the emergency room, the police report said. She declined an offer of help to file a restraining order against Fula.
Johnson didn’t appear to have serious injuries and declined medical attention, the report said.
Officers found two clumps of Arruda’s hair in the hall and one in the elevator. Fula’s apartment was “completely trashed,” with furniture overturned and holes in the wall and bathroom door, the police report said.
The day after the assault, Fula was arraigned in Cambridge District Court and held without bail. He pleaded not guilty. Fula was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital to be evaluated for his competency to stand trial. His attorney, Thomas Belmonte, declined to comment because the case is “in active litigation,” he said in a phone message.
The Cambridge Housing Authority went to court Dec. 28 to obtain an order barring Fula from returning to Truman Apartments. A Cambridge District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction Jan. 3; a permanent order is pending.
What the public gets to know
At Middlesex Probate and Family Court, Register Tara DeCristofaro was surprised when a reporter told her of the file with the missing annual reports. She said she would investigate. After that, the record of Fula’s guardianship case no longer appeared on the court system’s public website for looking up cases. An attorney with greater access to court information also could not find the case.
Johnson, the neighbor who was allegedly assaulted, said it was frightening. Nevertheless, she and other residents said it doesn’t make them fear younger disabled tenants. “I still feel safe, but I don’t think this was the place for him,” Johnson said of Fula. Housing authority executive director Johnston said violent crime is very rare in elderly developments; staff could not remember a similar incident in at least six years, he said.
Residents who were interviewed said they wished authority staff would let them know what’s going on in Fula’s case. But Johnston, the agency’s executive director, said federal and state privacy laws forbid the agency from “disclosing personal information, and as such we do not update or inform the residents of the outcome of any legal actions CHA has taken against a particular resident.”
Lapses for court-appointed guardians are addressed in bill that would establish office for more oversight
Proposed legislation would establish an office in the court system that could set standards for court-appointed guardians and monitor their performance. The entity, which a bill calls an “office of adult decisional support services,” would for the first time collect information on guardian appointments and performance throughout the system.
The proposal calls for the office to “report on the adequacy of public and private resources” for guardianship and other forms of support in making decisions, particularly for poor people. It would also “develop oversight and accountability procedures” to prevent abuse or errors.
Wyn Gerhard, head of the Elder Law program at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the Probate and Family Court has tried to implement guardianship improvements mandated in the 2009 law that reformed the court, such as requiring guardians to file annual reports. “The court didn’t get funding to implement oversight,” she said.
Gerhard and other advocates who support the proposed legislation previously pushed unsuccessfully for a law establishing a public guardian service in Massachusetts, a state-funded office that could act as guardian for people with little money and no relatives willing to volunteer.
Guardians who approve psychiatric medications get paid $50 an hour by the court for up to 10 hours a year, scarcely a lucrative job. “People don’t want to do it,” said Tami Dristiliaris, a lawyer who has served as a guardian.
– Sue Reinert