Insane killer's escape highlights failed policies

By the Herald editorial staff

It sounds like one of those preposterous "slasher" films teens like so much -- filled not so much with character or plot but with plenty of gore.

An insane killer, Phillip Arnold Paul, 47, a psychotic killer being held at Eastern State Hospital, escaped from state custody at a county fair last week.

Yep, a county fair.

That combination of words, "Insane killer escapes at county fair" is so melodramatic and grotesque that it nearly is impossible to believe.

Yet it is true.

Fortunately for fairgoers and society in general, Paul is back in state custody.

Let's hope -- no, let's insist -- that he stay there.

"He's locked down in a very secure area of the hospital under constant supervision," said Susan Dreyfus, head of the state Department of Social and Health Services, which has overall responsibility for state mental facilities.

The hospital administrator and CEO, Hal Wilson, announced his resignation Wednesday. He had insisted the mental hospital did everything according to state-approved policies and procedures.

Paul had been held at Eastern for the 1987 strangling and slashing of 78-year-old Ruth Mottley in Sunnyside. He then doused her body with gasoline and buried the remains in the retired educator's own flower garden.

Earlier this month, a judge rejected Paul's request to move into a residential facility in downtown Spokane. He remains a danger to society, the judge ruled.

Shortly after the decision, Paul disappeared into a crowd at the Spokane County Interstate Fair during a trip with 30 fellow patients.

It wasn't his first venture outside the hospital.

In 1990, Paul escaped custody and injured a deputy after he was caught near Fishtrap, the Spokesman-Review newspaper reported.

After that, he was allowed out of the hospital on school days to attend classes at Spokane Falls Community College.

Over the years, he petitioned and won conditional release to a downtown Spokane facility, called The Carlyle, twice.

During one such release, he fathered a child.

A more recent release (before his escape on his "field" trip) ended in January after his mental condition reportedly deteriorated.

College, days off, trips to the fair, it makes the mind of even sane people spin.

(Not only did hospital personnel take 30 mental patients to the fair, they also waited two hours before notifying law enforcement authorities that an escaped killer was on the loose.)

He was caught, relatively peacefully, after a buddy he had conned into giving him a lift later saw the news coverage and told authorities where to look for him.

There's a local aside worth mentioning about this case.

Some complaints have been registered in the past few weeks about the upgrading of security at the Benton-Franklin County Fair & Rodeo.

Yes, security officers this year were armed.

The fair administration tells us that some folks were not giving the previous contractor's employees due respect.

With gang activity on the increase, according to local law enforcement, and bizarre mental hospital rules that allow the criminally insane to go on outings, maybe the fair deserves credit for anticipating problems.

You can bet they won't be saying, "Yep, the more the merrier," if Eastern State Hospital asks if we'd like some insane killers to come see the kids'fair entries.