News Article Details

Tucson man accused of killing woman in apartment had history of mental illness, violence

Arizona Daily Star - 3/3/2019

March 03-- Mar. 3--The man implicated in the killing of a Tucson woman who had invited him into her apartment and fed him has a history of violence and mental illness, court documents show.

Robert J. Ocano, 22, is in jail on a $1 million bond after police say he attacked a 61-year-old woman who had let him into her south side apartment the previous day and gave him breakfast and a sandwich to take with him.

On Wednesday afternoon police say he returned to the apartment Lorraina Martinez Salas shared with her husband, leaving her in a pool of blood, according to court documents.

This wasn't the first time Ocano was arrested for a violent crime in the area, records show. In April 2017, he was arrested for assault and disorderly conduct less than a half-mile from where Martinez Salas was attacked.

There are at least three cases filed against Ocano in Tucson City Court since 2017 involving some type of charges for violence.

Ocano was arrested in October 2017 after allegedly grabbing a woman at an apartment complex laundry room, at the same place as the April arrest, according to documents filed at Superior Court, in a case originally filed at Tucson City Court.

This case was sent to Superior Court to assess his competence to go through court proceedings. He was deemed incompetent and unable to be restored to competency but not a threat to public safety. The charges against him were dropped, and he was released to local mental health facility La Frontera, records show.

He received violence-related charges in two incidents after that, both of which were dismissed. The reason they were dismissed has to do with Ocano's mental health history and the fact that, although his crimes involved some amount of violence, his behavior was deemed as mostly threats, says Allen Merritt, deputy city attorney.

Merritt says when a person is considered not competent to stand trial and unable to be restored to competency but is also not considered a threat to public safety, charges are generally dropped, but that this practice is a balancing act.

"(Ocano) made some threats that were disturbing ... but when the officers did their investigation, he didn't have the apparent ability to follow through on the threat," Merritt said.

Ocano has had nearly lifelong mental health issues. He was a client at the behavioral health center La Frontera from 2003, when he would have been only 7 years old, until 2015, then again in 2017 and after the charges from the laundry-room attack were dismissed, in April 2018, according to records filed at Superior Court. The records also say La Frontera considered him seriously mentally ill.

La Frontera CEO Dan Ranieri said that someone who is deemed incompetent by the courts but also not a public danger would just be treated like any other patient. They'd receive outpatient care that includes help with things like medication, housing, therapy and case management. Ranieri says if they believe a person to be a danger, La Frontera can take additional steps, but that most people with mental illness are not violent.

Statistics show that people with mental illness are actually slightly less violent than the general population, of which 4 percent are violent, says Clarke Romans, executive director for National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Arizona. People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, he said.

Romans said a problem with our current mental health system is there just aren't enough funds or providers, which allows some people to fall through the cracks who shouldn't be out in the community. Methods like assertive community treatment, or ACT, offer 24/7 support for people in need and have a much lower provider-to-client ratio than typical mental health clinics.

Romans say the ratio on an ACT team is one provider for 10 clients, while a typical case manager at a facility would be closer to one provider for 100 clients.

"Case managers, on a daily basis, have no idea what's going on with their client," he said.

He says that using more methods like ACT would pay for itself, with less incarceration, hospitalization and involvement with law enforcement, but it would take a bigger investment upfront. There's not a 100 percent success rate, he says, but it's much better than what we're doing now.

"What was the ultimate cost to the community?" he said about Martinez Salas' death. "What was the life worth of the person who died? And could we have handled it better?"

Romans says Tucson police officers who've had crisis intervention training are a valuable community resource and that people can ask for a CIT officer, who is trained to de-escalate a situation if dealing with a mental health crisis.

Sgt. Jason Winsky, who heads the Tucson Police Department Mental Health Support Team, says people can help someone suffering from a mental health crisis if it appears safe to do so.

As well, he said there are tools people can learn to better offer help, rather than inviting a person into their home. Both the Tucson Police Department and Arizona Complete Health Care offer Mental Health First Aid training to the community free of charge. TPD also has a 24/7 crisis response center to deal with people in mental crisis who may be dangerous.

"The Tucson Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff's Department both operate Mental Health Support Teams, and each team's detectives are constantly on the lookout for cases that may escalate into a violent act," Winsky said. "If community members see someone or know someone who could become dangerous, these cases should be referred to those law enforcement agencies."

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(c)2019 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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