Experts point to hypothyroidism as likely cause of bizarre Prosser kidnapping case

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 16, 2013 

A Prosser man likely was suffering the effects of an underactive thyroid gland when he claimed to be an officer and "arrested" two men at gunpoint because he thought they were videotaping him at a funeral, mental health experts said Friday.

Rodolfo Hurtado's "bizarre psychotic-like behavior" last April can be attributed to hypothyroidism, said Richland psychologist Philip Barnard.

It was during a two-month commitment to Eastern State Hospital over the summer that physicians diagnosed Hurtado with the medical condition.

Research has shown that people with hypothyroidism can experience hallucinations, delusions and paranoid thoughts, Barnard testified during an all-day hearing in Benton County Superior Court.

That -- along with some history of drug use and the possibility of schizophrenia -- is what contributed to or caused Hurtado's psychosis when he handcuffed the men and tried to take them to the Prosser Police Department for interrogation, experts said.

Hurtado, 27, might have intended on April 13 to take the men into custody for questioning, but he was unable to tell right from wrong because he was insane at the time, the judge ruled. On Friday, Hurtado entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Hurtado was charged with two counts each of first-degree kidnapping and second-degree assault. Each charge included the allegation that a handgun, a .38-caliber revolver, was used.

Even though Judge Robert Swisher signed a motion to acquit Hurtado, the man had to admit to the allegations that landed him in court.

An insanity plea often triggers an immediate commitment to a state mental health facility, where the person can be held up to the maximum sentence for their crime.

Hurtado told the court he knew he was looking at "15-plus years." However, the type of felony he is charged with could result in a life term.

At issue is whether Hurtado is so dangerous and poses such a threat to others that he should be sent away to the Medical Lake facility, or if he can remain free to live with his parents in Prosser while continuing treatment and being supervised by a state agency.

Swisher seemed ready to rule Friday after hearing testimony from Barnard, psychologist Nathan Henry from Eastern State Hospital, Kennewick psychologist Kenneth Cole and Heather McClure, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Sunnyside.

Swisher questioned how he's supposed to keep watch over Hurtado when there is no "compliance docket" or "therapeutic court."

"This is a serious, serious offense. A man armed with a .38 took custody of two people," Swisher said.

Noting that his first thought must be for the safety of the citizens, Swisher said he is concerned about what may happen to Hurtado in a month, six months or even a year.

"What we see routinely is people get on these (prescribed) drugs, they feel good and, no one wants to take drugs, so they get off of them. Nobody likes to take drugs," he said. "And I'm not blaming him. It's natural, and it happens routinely."

Swisher agreed to delay his decision until March 7 so the defense can find out if the state Department of Corrections will add Hurtado to their "probation list" and check on him frequently and give regular reports to the court.

Chad McAteer, a community forensic social worker at Eastern, testified for the defense Friday, saying he monitors people for the state who have been freed from custody after an insanity plea.

Defense lawyer Sal Mendoza Jr. argued his client shouldn't be locked up in a hospital, where the earliest he'd even be considered for release is a year.

"I don't believe that the alternative should be ... to toss him into a situation where he is going to be in custody for at least a year in order to determine what all the treating individuals now know -- that he is stable and he is flourishing in terms of counseling," Mendoza said. "I do not believe that this is the person we want to send to an uncertain situation over at Eastern."

Deputy Prosecutor Megan Whitmire requested the hearing to determine if Hurtado is a threat, but didn't have a recommendation and said she would leave it to the court to decide.

"This is a tough situation, I think, and as I sit here and look at Mr. Hurtado, he seems like a nice, young man with a bright future ahead of him ...," she said. "Mr. Mendoza and I have discussed this situation a number of times. The reason we're here today is, given the severity of this incident, I was not willing to agree that he be released on conditions."

Whitmire said she doesn't feel comfortable agreeing to set him free, yet she also doesn't like the idea of sending him to the hospital for a long period of time.

"I think we all want whatever is best for Mr. Hurtado to make him well," she said. "That is clearly in the community's best interest and in his best interest."

Hurtado's plea means he no longer can legally own a gun.

Mendoza said all guns have been removed from the family's home, and added that his client will turn in his concealed pistol license to Prosser police.

Hurtado reportedly had been carrying a gun in April because he'd "been having problems with constant paranoia," and believed the government or the "Mexican Mafia" were planning to kill him.

While at the Prosser funeral for a friend's mother, he thought one of the victims was pointing a video camera at him and he became scared. When the man went to their van in the cemetery, Hurtado thought they were getting a gun to shoot him so he pulled out his revolver and claiming to be a law enforcement officer.

A friend who reportedly is a police officer in the Yakima Valley came to the aid of Hurtado, who said the men had arrest warrants. The friend pulled out two sets of handcuffs and placed the men in the back of his truck to take them to the station, court documents said.

It was on the drive that the friend became suspicious if it was a legitimate arrest because Hurtado would not answer his questions, documents said.

Prosser Sgt. Ed Blackburn was flagged down while on his way to the cemetery, and ended up taking Hurtado into custody. Hurtado told Blackburn he was "letting the wrong guys go," while also saying that he'd been scared and confused at the cemetery and had acted in self-defense.

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