Stagner not the threat he was, doctors maintain |

Stagner not the threat he was, doctors maintain

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The man who gunned down seven people in Rifle 11 years ago, killing four, is no longer the threat to society that he was in 2001, according to the doctors in charge of his therapy at a state mental hospital.

But in an all-day hearing Thursday, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bryan said Steven Michael Stagner has shown signs of continuing mental illness during his 11 years at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP).

And no one can guarantee he will not snap and kill again if he is allowed off the Pueblo grounds for supervised day trips, Bryan stated, winning reluctant agreement from Dr. Elissa Ball, a forensic psychiatrist at CMHIP.

That exchange, along with considerable other testimony, came in the hearing before District Judge Denise Lynch to determine whether Stagner can be allowed to occasionally leave the grounds of the mental hospital under the supervision of hospital personnel. The outings are meant to reintegrate him back into society.

Closing arguments by Bryan and Public Defender Tina Fang are scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 19, and the judge said she will make her decision at a later date.

Stagner, 53, has been confined at the mental institution since June 26, 2002, over a shooting rampage in Rifle on July 4, 2001, that left four people dead and three others wounded. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but the judge in the case ruled that he had committed the crimes as charged, including murder and attempted murder.

For about the last five years of Stagner’s time at Pueblo, according to Ball and her associate, Dr. Robin McCann, he has been given the freedom to roam the institution’s 200-acre grounds, which is without walls or fences to keep patients confined.

Stagner had to apply for that privilege three times before his treatment team gave him the green light, testified McCann. That team is made up of 25 or more nurses, psychiatrists, social workers and others, she said.

Since gaining the on-grounds unsupervised privilege, she said, Stagner has not made any attempt to escape, and he has not demonstrated any anti-social or violent behavior in his entire time at Pueblo.

Stagner “has been very consistent about his remorse. He feels he needs to pay back in any way he can for what he did,” McCann said.

In fact, she said, he has not pushed to receive any special privileges.

“He doesn’t feel entitled for the privileges at all,” she said. So the hospital has applied for permission to take him on the off-grounds trips, and his treatment team believes it does not pose a risk, McCann told the court.

“Our paramount concern is community safety,” McCann testified concerning the request. “We don’t want any bad outcomes, at all.”

In Stagner’s case, she said, “His risk or likelihood of re-offending is low.”

But Ball later admitted, under questioning by Bryan, that Stagner’s status in technical terms is “moderate” in terms of the risk that he could become violent again, even though she and McCann consider him ready to be allowed off the grounds under supervision.

Both doctors said he has exhibited occasional warning signs that his mental health was declining and required medicinal intervention.

These included inappropriate religious remarks to other patients, flirtatious behavior toward women, and other more innocuous breaches of the hospital’s rules of conduct.

But an obsession that he was the reincarnated Archangel Michael was at least part of the bizarre behavior Stagner displayed on the night of the shootings, meaning any religious-related behavior is seen as potentially alarming by his doctors.

McCann likened the world of a high-security mental hospital to a social “deep freeze,” where patients lose their ability to function in society.

The only way to avoid that, she said, is to gradually reintroduce patients to society.

If a patient has no chance to interact with the outside world, she said, they can become hopeless and suicidal. In that condition, Stagner could feel “he’s got nothing to lose” by harming himself or others.

She stressed that, on the outings, Stagner would always be within the line of sight of a hospital staff member, who would carry a two-way radio to call for help should trouble arise. The supervising staff members do not carry weapons of any kind, she said.

The day trips, according to the doctors, could be for any number of purposes.

Stagner, whom McCann described as “a devoutly religious man” who has stopped drinking and taking the illicit drugs that contributed to his insanity, has asked to be able to attend AA or NA meetings on the outside, among other activities.

He also could go to the movies, walk in a park, or take part in other recreational activities such as fishing, the doctors testified.

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