BLOOMINGTON — After almost three days in a hospital emergency room while staff tried unsuccessfully to secure a bed for him in a psychiatric unit for veterans, a Bloomington man was transferred to what has become the community's de facto mental health facility — the McLean County jail.
Walter Bess, who has a history of mental illness and threatening behavior, was taken to Advocate BroMenn Medical Center May 28 by Bloomington police. Officers and crisis staff from the Center for Human Services responded to a woman's report that Bess threatened to kill her and any police officers who responded to her accusations that Bess had physically abused her over three days.
For the state, the question was when, not if, criminal charges would be filed against Bess, who was a Bloomington firefighter until his 2003 conviction on assault and intimidation charges.
Assistant State's Attorney Sheila Duncan said the timing of the decision to arrest Bess on Saturday came after discussions with hospital and CHS staff about his treatment and potential release from Advocate.
Bess was nearing the end of the 72 hours he could be involuntarily held for a mental health assessment before a court order was required to extend his stay if he was deemed to be an ongoing danger to others.
"You have to weigh the criminal act versus the mental illness. Sometimes, it's appropriate to send a person to jail if they represent a public safety risk as well," said Duncan.
Bess is charged with domestic battery, intimidation and unlawful restraint of the woman in several alleged disputes between May 25 and May 30. Dates of the alleged intimidation include Bess' time in the hospital because police reports were not specific about calls he made to the woman, said prosecutor Kelly Harms, who also worked on the case.
During Bess' stay, multiple staff calls were made to the Veterans Health Administration trying to secure one of 22 psychiatric beds at the VA hospital in Danville. Doug Shouse, spokesman for the VA Illiana Health Care System that provides services to 33,000 veterans in 34 counties in Illinois and Indiana, said mental health beds in Danville and a facility the VA partners with in West Lafayette, Ind. have been full lately.
A Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator will visit Bess this week at the jail, said Shouse, to determine how the agency can help him if he is released.
Bess joins a dozen other special needs inmates now held in the jail's booking area, said Sheriff Mike Emery. Jail data shows 28 percent of the jail's population receive mental health care, making the jail the county's largest residential provider.
Bess' mental health and criminal history is documented in a 2003 case in which he threatened his wife and the fire chief at the time with violence that made national headlines. Bess, now 45, received probation for intimidation, aggravated assault and marijuana production, but went to prison for five years after he violated terms of the probation.
He was diagnosed in 2003 with bipolar depression and a personality disorder.
At a bond hearing Monday on the new charges, Bess told a judge he has terminal cancer. He was held in lieu of $5,025 on the felony charges that could send him to prison for up to five years, if convicted.