Suspect Custody: When wanted suspects are in the hospital - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Suspect Custody: When wanted suspects are in the hospital

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DUBUQUE/CEDAR FALLS (KWWL) -- When wanted suspects are hospitalized, police are often waiting for discharge to make an arrest. To pick them up, authorities have to know when suspects are released, but those suspects still have patient privacy rights. Hospitals can't tell just anyone that information.

There is no set process in the state for how law enforcement should make that request and how hospitals should handle those requests. Policies vary by law enforcement agency and hospital. We looked at three recent cases involving three different suspects and three different hospitals. All were handled very differently.

Three cases with three suspects in the hospital. Following hospital discharge, all three were to face charges, from attempted murder, to assault, to vandalism and being involved in a police chase.

One was released and taken straight to jail. Another left and fled the state. One who was released is accused of shooting and killing Aplington Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas.

In Dubuque, Eddie Chest was wanted on first degree robbery, a weapons charge, and the attempted murder of a police lieutenant after the Knicker's Saloon robbery and shootout on December 3, 2009. He was hospitalized at Mercy Medical Center for gunshot wounds.

"In our opinion, and probably the opinion of the general public, that individual was a high risk that required full-time surveillance," Lt. Scott Baxter said.

Police guarded him around the clock. When released, authorities took him to jail. On lesser charges, lines can get blurry.

"There's no black or white answer for us in terms of yeah, we're going to stay at their bedside and monitor them or guard them, or allow the hospital to make that notification upon their release," Baxter said.

That's the other choice: Get the hospital to let police know when a suspect is ready to go, so police can arrest them right away.

That brings us to Geromey Gilliand. He was hospitalized after being shot at Dubuque Pawn on January 11, 2010, but was wanted on an earlier, related assault charge. After being treated in Iowa City, police weren't notified and Gilliand left the state. Police never requested notification.

"That was basically our fault. We were obviously overwhelmed with leads and follow-up investigation, and didn't get in contact with the hospital as soon as we should have," Baxter said.

In Dubuque, Baxter says they generally make a verbal request to hospitals for notification of release. Mercy Medical Center officials say verbal notification works, as do written requests or court orders.

In Cedar Falls, police say they always go through the courts, with a written court order. Covenant declined to discuss their policy of whether verbal and/or written requests are accepted.

Now, the Mark Becker case: He's accused of vandalizing a home, threatening a Cedar Falls man, and leading police on a chase ending in Butler County. After the chase, he was hospitalized at Covenant Medical Center.

The sheriff's office said it asked the county's mental health coordinator, who Covenant confirms is not a hospital official, to contact them when Becker was discharged. They weren't contacted. Becker was released. He then allegedly went on to kill his former football coach.

Where's the breakdown? Covenant says it did extensive research and was absolutely not asked to notify authorities. Butler County, the last agency involved, was first in line for Becker and who would have asked for notification, according to Cedar Falls Police. Butler County officials could not be reached for this update.

Had things ended in Cedar Falls that first night, the city's police chief says it may have been different.

"The crime he committed here was definitely out of the ordinary. It wasn't breaking into a home and steal something of value. It was very unusual...If we had apprehended him, and he would have gone to the hospital at that time, we would have certainly done a court order, but that's not saying... The charges in the other county were just traffic. There are a lot of circumstances there," Chief Jeff Olson said.

Asking for hospital notification is subjective, case by case; a decision each law enforcement agency must make in each case. Usually, police say that decision is based on factors like the severity of pending charges and threat to the community. It's a delicate decision, and Olson says it's nearly impossible to guess whether someone will commit another crime.

"There's no way to connect the crime he committed in Cedar Falls and the pursuit to what occurred following that. There's no way to make that connection ahead of time," Olson said.

This case had everyone looking at themselves: Could something, anything have been done differently?

"You want to make sure this never happens again, or even close to it happens again. So, you always look at your processes to make sure you did everything right or if there's anything you should change. This is just one of these circumstances where, how would you predict? How would you predict? There's just no way to do that," Olson said.

The Iowa Hospital Association says it is working with the Sheriff's Association to work to form a clear and uniform process for the entire state. A spokesperson with the Hospital Association says they believe a written court order should always be used because of federal patient privacy, or HIPAA, laws. He says state legislators could soon work on creating a suspect release notification law.

Becker and Chest remain in jail, while Gilliand recently posted bond. All three have yet to stand trial. Mark Becker's trial was set to begin Monday morning with jury selection. It's been postponed until Wednesday due to the impending snowstorm. We'll have gavel to gavel coverage from Butler County each day in our newscasts and online.

Online Reporter: Jamie Grey

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