Civil rights violation will cost ASH (and you) a grand

February 19, 2008



Two Atascadero State Hospital employees violated a patient’s Constitutional rights in 2004, a federal judge ruled in December.

Melissa A. Roper and Michael C. Groom were found to have made “a substantial departure from professional judgment, practice and standards” and thus were responsible for injuries suffered by Theodric Van Smith in two separate assaults on him by other patients.

U.S. Central District Judge S. James Otero awarded Smith $1,000, on Dec. 10; Smith said this week he hasn’t yet been paid.

Peggy Phaklides, the hospital’s litigation manager for the case, suggested the monetary award will eventually become the responsibility of ASH.

“When someone sues the hospital, they name people, but they are actually suing the facility. It is the policy they are suing, but they have to put a name to it. It’s complicated,” said Phaklides. She said the issue was under discussion at ASH, and that she needed to clear further comment with superiors at the California Department of Mental Health in Sacramento.

Roper is an eight-year ASH employee and a unit supervisor. Groom, whom the court papers describe as a licensed clinical social worker, has been at the institution for 14 years. Phaklides confirmed that at least one, Roper, is still employed at ASH, and is “a very good employee.” Other sources said Groom, too, remains at ASH.

According to court documents, Smith was known by ASH personnel, including Roper and Groom, to have assisted law enforcement as a prosecution witness in the successful conviction of two guards at Pelican Bay State Prison. Those guards were eventually found guilty of coordinating attacks on prisoners with the assistance of Aryan Brotherhood gang members.  Smith, a patient at ASH starting in 2001 in the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) program, said he required medical treatment after both attacks. He now is at Coalinga’s new state hospital.

Under federal law, mental hospital officials may be liable to patients if they demonstrate “conscious indifference to patients’ safety.” Judge Otero’s decision noted, “In response to known threats to [patients’] safety, state officials may not act (or fail to act) with conscious indifference, but must take steps consistent with professional standards, to prevent harm to patients.”

Smith told the court that he had learned of death threats directed toward him after receiving a letter from Del Norte County Senior Dep. Dist. Atty. James Fallman. The letter read in part: “Because you were a witness in the case of the People v. Jose Garcia, I have reason to believe your life is in danger. This is true because another witness in the case named Billy Boyd was murdered at Pelican Bay because he also testified in the case.”

Fallman, who did testify on Smith’s behalf against ASH, also wrote in his 2002 letter to Smith that “I am hoping that Atascadero State Hospital will provide you with the most sensitive and protective environment that they possibly can, because your safety needs are real and I will so testify if anything happens to you.”

Fallman trailed his correspondence with “numerous” logged telephone calls to ASH expressing his concern that Smith was in mortal danger, Judge Otero wrote in his decision. Other law enforcement personnel involved with the Pelican Bay case sent letters, also.

Smith was first attacked in February 2003 by a patient not identified in court papers. According to the document, Smith informed staff at ASH that the attack was retaliation for his law enforcement cooperation, and that he remained in grave danger.

During ensuing months, alleged Smith, his predicament was ignored by Roper and Groom, even though they were aware of the danger posed to him. Roper and Groom denied this in depositions, but the court ruled against them.

Then, in July 2004, Smith was ambushed and beaten by Rick Hazeltine, a patient who called Smith a “snitch” and “rat” during the attack. Court documents said Judge Otero was “disinclined to believe” Hazeltine’s testimony when he denied at trial that his attack had anything to do with the Pelican Bay prosecutions.

While Smith’s lawsuit was winding through the courts, in April 2006, several semi-nude, erotic photographs of Roper which she had placed on an Internet modeling site called “” began circulating throughout the hospital. One of the photos, identifying her as “Missy,” showed her sitting on a toilet commode that fellow staffers said was located in the ASH facility. In another, she was wearing red panties and holding her forearm across her bare breasts.

The photos created a stir because Roper is a mental health professional whose patients have violent sexual histories.

As a unit supervisor, Roper is a senior member of the ASH group that determines the regimen of treatment, therapy and psychological counseling offered to individual offenders. This is called the “Interdisciplinary Treatment Team (ITT) and is comprised of the unit supervisor, a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, and recreational therapist. In her role as unit supervisor, Roper has the authority to penalize patients and by so doing threaten them with longer incarceration if patients even appear to be having sexual thoughts about staff.

Barrie Hafler, then the public information officer at ASH, said at the time that the Web postings “present no legal or personal violation. There is nothing we can do. This is a personal issue as long as she conducts herself appropriately at work… which she does.”

As for Smith, he said he’s still worried about his safety, adding, “It’s not about the money. I just think they should be treating people better.”

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By: Anonymous on 2/20/08 [Delete]

$1,000! I guess the judge sent a message about the value of sex offenders lives & rights. I think he has always been in far more danger from his inmates over his crimes rather than for his testimony against prison guards.

By: Anonymous on 2/20/08 [Delete]

As I recall, Blackburn wrote all those ASH stories for NT.

By: Anonymous on 2/19/08 [Delete]

Wasn't this story originally in New Times? I mean, the original feature story about the ASH employee doing provocative poses. How come they haven't followed up on this? Asleep at the wheel once more. Too much roller derby, I guess. I'm bad!

By: Anonymous on 2/19/08 [Delete]

I just saved the taxpayers multiple thousands of dollars. The real crime is the lawyers who brought this lawsuit. Don't you all think that it is funny that those lawyers banking on a big settlement just got screwed. A thousand dollars! Maybe in 1826 that was a huge sum. Today, I can't drive to the east coast on that amount

By: Anonymous on 2/19/08 [Delete]

Ya got a loons at ASH who should be inside and not on the other side of the fence! All those loon tax trough feeders. They even have a member of hezbulla working at ASH! Run with that story if you dare!

It's sad…In many cases these whacks need to outright fired! Including that rerrorist sympathiser.

Privatize all Gov't services and this crap won't happen!

By: Anonymous on 2/19/08 [Delete]

Is this a typo? $1,000, 1k, one thousand dollars?

That comes to less than two cents per person. I am sure it cost more to have the case looked at.

By: Anonymous on 2/19/08 [Delete]

I love it. Government workers misbehave and we end up paying the bill. Next time I get sued I'm going ask my company if they'll pay for me.

Member Opinions:

By: Anonymous on 3/4/08 [Delete]

Just because a person is guilty of a heinous crime does not negate the wrongs perpetrated on him. It was a good thing to testify against the guards and he should have been protected while at ASH. He should also never be released. What a bunch of neanderthals.

By: Anonymous on 2/24/08 [Delete]

He should be back in Pelican Bay, but since he took down a couple guards, he got transfered to ASH and put in a program that can release him.

Believe me when I tell you, this is a done deal. He made the deal for his testimony. He will be released and will re-offend.

2 dead and raped in exchage 2 guards fired. Not worth the trade off. Keep an eye on this one

By: Anonymous on 2/24/08 [Delete]

Smith has been transfered out of ASH to another hospital. I think this would be a good story for this paper to pursue. He should never be back on the streets. Just ask the mother of the two boys he attacked. They are both dead. One he murdered and the other committed suicide.

By: Anonymous on 2/24/08 [Delete]

I read the story about "the boy in the chimney". It would appear that Smith will get out of ASH because while he raped a young man and ran him over with his car the youth lived. That was 22 years ago. But what Smith did that he got away with was to rape and kill the brother of his victim 8 years earlier. He won't admit it but he told the victim who lived that he would kill him just like he killed his brother (and then raped and ran him over). Also Smith was a house guest at the time the "Boy in the Chimney " went missing. He should never get out of ASH. I wonder if people can take up a cause to stop his release? Is there any release date on the horizon?

By: Anonymous on 2/21/08 [Delete]

I recognized Theodric

Van Smith's name from a story printed in the L.A. Times called "The Boy in The Chimney" about one of his purported victims: a mentally-retarded 14 yr. old African American he supposedly kidnapped, raped and murdered. Why doesn't anyone do a story about why he isn't prosecuted for this 1977 murder? Readers: Google 'Boy in the Chimney' and be prepared for a gruesome story. This is the guy the judge believed?

By: Anonymous on 2/21/08 [Delete]

They need to post ASH with the shark attack signs that they put up at the beach. What they really need to do is put a bounty on these sicko's who file these cases. Actions like these that are permitted by our society are the worst. The judge should probably have put the attorney's in ASH for the weekend and then see what kind of cases they go after they were able to walk again.

By: Anonymous on 2/20/08 [Delete]

Glad to hear that, thanks for explaining. I will repeat. This guy will end up back on the streets. is it worth it?

By: Anonymous on 2/20/08 [Delete]

I wasn't being facious. I meant exactly what I said. The judge sent a message and I agree. The guy had a case but the two beatings and his life wasn't worth more than 1K. Hey the judge had to give him something too bad it wasn't $1.00

By: Anonymous on 2/20/08 [Delete]

So you believe violent sex offenders deserve rights?

Do you have any idea how many victims it takes to be labeled Sexually Violent Predator (SVP)?

He was in Pelican Bay. This is where we house the worst of the worst. Ususlly they end up there because they committed violent crimes while in prison.

He is likely at ASH and in a program that will eventuall get him released (cured of his disease) that makes him commit violent sexual crimes, because he got a deal to testify against the guards. Maybe he can move in next door to you!

Educate youself before posting ignorant statements.