Suspect in gas pump fire has mental illness, sought help - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Suspect in gas pump fire has mental illness, sought help

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A surveillance camera captured the Dec. 18, 2013 gas pump fire in Dubuque A surveillance camera captured the Dec. 18, 2013 gas pump fire in Dubuque
DUBUQUE (KWWL) - The man suspected of dousing a downtown Dubuque gas pump with fuel and setting it on fire did so as a cry for help, his fiancée says.

45-year-old Richard Huffman is currently in the Dubuque County jail on a charge of first degree arson. Late last year, his fiancée Donna Buhman said, Huffman did something very dangerous - as a cry for help.

On the night of Dec. 18, 2013, a surveillance camera at the Oky Doky gas station in downtown Dubuque caught a man dousing a gas pump in fuel and then setting it on fire.

Incredibly, despite the huge ball of flame that rose from the pump upon ignition, nobody - not even the suspect - was injured, and the flames damaged only that one pump.

Dubuque police say Huffman is the man in the video.

"He didn't want to do it," Buhman said Thursday afternoon at her Dubuque apartment. "I don't think he was in his right mind when he did it."

This was not Richard Huffman's first arrest. According to Iowa court records, he faced another first degree arson charge in 1998 and spent some 13 years in jail and psychiatric treatment facilities.

In late December of 2013, however, Huffman was desperate for psychiatric care, Buhman said. He went to Mercy Medical Center Dubuque and was not admitted, then went to the Dubuque police with an open can of beer and was not arrested.

"He did try to get help and it wasn't there," Buhman said.

It was after that, Buhman said, Huffman lit the Oky Doky gas pump on fire.

"He would never have done this, I don't think, if they would've gave him the help," Buhman said.

In response, Mercy Medical Center's psychiatric services director Sally Roy-Boynton said, "if someone is not admitted to the hospital, it is because they did not meet the criteria for admission, as assessed by a physician."

To be admitted, she said, a patient needs to be a serious danger to self or others, severely impaired related to the use of drugs or alcohol, psychotic, or under involuntary mental health or involuntary substance abuse papers signed by a judge.

Steve Sprengelmeyer is a licensed independent social worker in Dubuque and said Iowa ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to the number of inpatient psychiatric public hospital beds.

"What happens to the people who have imminent, pressing psychiatric symptoms? What happens to people that are suicidal? What happens to people that, in fact, are delusional at the time?" he posed. "They're probably going to be sent home. They may be told to re-start their medication, but if they haven't been taking it, then, probably, they aren't going to continue to take their medication."

He said although Iowa ranks almost dead last, nationwide, in the number of available beds, gaps and flaws in psychiatric care are a problem nationwide.

"At this point in time, in the United States, the majority of people with serious and chronic mental health issues are not in hospitals," Sprengelmeyer said. "They're in jails. They're in prisons. Or, in fact, they're on the streets."

He said for those fortunate enough to have a psychiatric inpatient bed, finding one close to home is not guaranteed.

"I've known of people to be taken to Sioux City, five-and-a-half-hour drive, because that's where there's an inpatient bed," Sprengelmeyer said.

Mercy Medical Center Dubuque used to have 24 psychiatric inpatient beds, Roy-Boynton said. When it moved its psychiatric services unit, that number dropped down to 17, comprised of 13 adult beds and four adolescent beds.

"When the new unit was planned, a thorough market analysis indicated that 17 beds were appropriate for the number of admissions," Roy-Boynton said. "However, since then, other facilities have closed and Mercy is taking more patients from across the state who present to other hospital ERs, rather than just patients from the Dubuque area."

Sprengelmeyer said when people with severe mental illness don't have access to the care they need, they are not the only ones impacted. He cited public mass shootings and said Dubuque's gas pump fire incident is another example of the effects of a flawed mental health system.
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