Mental illness, Occupy protest figure into Berkeley hills homicide

On Saturday night, a 67-year-old resident in the Berkeley hills was beaten to death outside his home in a neighborhood described as an affluent area. Police have arrested a 23-year-old man, whom they found nearby 15 minutes after responding to the attack.

Two very hot-button issues have emerged in the case.  The first is that the suspect, Daniel Jordan Dewitt, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, his mother told the Oakland Tribune. The second is that police didn’t respond to a first phone call made from the victim,  Peter Cukor, because officers were tied up in monitoring an Occupy protest that was moving from Oakland into Berkeley. 

Comments are streaming into a story on the case posted on the Berkeleyside blog.

With DeWitt’s mother saying she had tried but failed for four years to get her son checked into a long-term mental health facility, debate has erupted over the nation’s broken mental health system and the rights and wrongs of institutionalizing people with mental illness. 

“I can’t tell you how many times he has been in and out of the hospital,” Candy Dewitt told the Oakland Tribune. She said her son didn’t appear to suffer any mental health problems as he attended Alameda High School and played football. But around the time he was 18, he started to show symptoms. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He would go into the hospital, respond well to medication and then get released, Candy DeWitt said. Once out of the hospital, he did what a fair number of people with mental illnesses do — he stopped taking his meds.

“Our system is such that they go in, they shove them full of all kinds of antipsychotics and put them back out on the street again,” DeWitt told KTVU Channel 2.

The other touchy subject comes from Berkeley police saying they received a call from the victim’s hillside address in northeastern Berkeley at 8:45 p.m.  In a statement, Berkeley police Capt. Michael Meehan said the department received a report of a suspicious person possibly trespassing. “The caller reported an encounter with an unknown person “hanging around” his property, and asked that an officer be sent to investigate.

Because of concerns about “the potential for violence” associated with a protest march moving from Oakland into Berkeley, the department would only respond to criminal, in-progress emergency calls, Meehan said.

A “source familiar with the case” told the Tribune that Cukor and his wife arrived home, found the suspect near their garage, asking to see a woman. They told the suspect there was no one there by that name and asked him to leave. Berkeley police Lt. Andrew Greenwood said the victim called the non-emergency line and “calmly reported” an encounter with a strange person on his property.

Cukor apparently walked to a nearby fire station, possibly to summon medical help for the trespasser. Firefighters were out on a call. When Cukor returned to his property, he was pushed to the ground, dragged into some bushes and severely beaten.

At 9 p.m., Meehan said, an officer offered to respond to one of two pending “suspicious circumstances” calls. One of those was the call made from Cukor. The officer’s offer was declined because the call wasn’t deemed an in-progress emergency call, Meehan said. Two minutes later, at approximately 9:02 p.m., Berkeley police received a phone call reporting an attack in progress.

Within a minute, officers were dispatched and drove to the crime scene with their emergency lights and sirens going. Paramedics arrived and treated Cukor but he later died.

With regard to the claim by police that their officers were tied up, save for in-progress emergency calls, one Berkeleyside reader bemoaned the department’s readiness to point fingers at the Occupy movement.

 “If we’re going to point fingers at Occupy,” wrote another. “Why not also point fingers at the folks who cut California’s mental health budget last year?”


2 thoughts on “Mental illness, Occupy protest figure into Berkeley hills homicide

  1. Not all schizophrenics are violent. My brother is one, and he benefits from the board-and-care system where he gets regular therapy and is kept on his meds. He is living a relatively productive life.

    I also know some who have more aggressive tendencies, and neither the board-and-care system, long term hospitalization or incarceration in the penal system is an appropriate place for them.

    Sadly, we have no place for individuals who would benefit from therapy and meds but have difficulty living in social group situations.


  2. Thanks Anonymous 12:16 for your reminder that, really,most people with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are not violent.

    The mother of the suspect sounds like she was up against a reality that a lot of family members of mentally ill patients deal with. The illness debilitates these patients enough that they can't live on their own. They do need to be in some kind of residential program, such as the board-and-care you describe, that provides structure and monitors medication compliance.

    I'm glad your brother has found such a place.

    The suspect in this case will wind up in the prison system, unless he is one of those rare defendants whose can be resolved with a not-guilty-by-reason-insanity-plea.

    It also sounds like the victim recognized this trespasser was in trouble, and went to get him help at the fire station. It's so tragic for all involved.


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