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Suspect in NHP sergeant’s death awaits mental health treatment

Updated June 16, 2020 - 4:33 pm

The “behavior and wellbeing” of a mentally ill man accused of fatally shooting a Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant have deteriorated during his nearly three months in custody without access to mental health treatment, his lawyers allege.

“There’s no question he hasn’t had any treatment or medication since a week before he was arrested,” defense attorney Kirsty Pickering said of the suspect, who was released from a mental health facility in Las Vegas a week before the shooting. “With coronavirus, it made it harder to get what little treatment we have available in rural Nevada.”

John Dabritz, 66, was arrested March 27, about four hours after Sgt. Ben Jenkins was shot multiple times on a remote highway north of Ely. Authorities have said Jenkins had pulled over to check on a stopped motorist.

Dabritz faces capital punishment if convicted, and his attorneys intend to use the insanity defense at trial. Proceedings in the criminal case have been on hold since April 20, when Dabritz was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and treatment at Lakes Crossing Center, a maximum-security psychiatric facility in Sparks.

For more than a month following the court order, “daily phone calls and emails” from the man’s attorneys and a White Pine County jail sergeant to arrange the transfer went unanswered by the facility, according to court documents.

“To date, not one phone call or email has been answered or returned and Mr. Dabritz has not received a mental health diagnosis/capacity evaluation and treatment,” Pickering wrote in a court filing on May 26 requesting an immediate transfer to Lakes Crossing “whether or not the facility wishes to receive him.”

‘Held as a courtesy’

Unable to properly treat Dabritz’s worsening condition in the meantime, the White Pine County jail had the man transferred to Ely State Prison on May 22 for “safe keeping,” according to Pickering.

“While this housing situation may be a safe resolution for the jail, the fact is that Mr. Dabritz is still not being treated or medicated,” the motion for transfer states. “Ely State Prison is not required to treat Mr. Dabritz as he is technically not in their custody, but just being held as a courtesy.”

Because of restrictions on visitation at state prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Pickering and attorney Richard Sears also have not been able to visit their client.

As of Tuesday, Pickering said it remained unclear when Dabritz would be transferred, though she had finally heard from Lakes Crossing on Friday, the same day a Review-Journal reporter called the facility seeking comment on the delay.

Lakes Crossing has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

In support of presenting the insanity defense at trial, Pickering and Sears had Dabritz evaluated last month by an independent forensic psychiatrist “for a true probe into Mr. Dabritz’ actual competency and mental status” at the time of the killing.

Sears told the Review-Journal this week that he could not release medical information about Dabritz but said, “I can let you know that the psychiatrist said this gentleman needs mental health treatment as quickly as you can get it for him.”

History of mental illness

The suspect’s ex-wife, Haydee, previously told the Review-Journal that the man has long suffered from bipolar disorder and has a history of alcoholism. Just days before the fatal shooting, she said, he had sent her a series of strange and incoherent emails.

“It seemed like he had gone completely off the rails,” she said.

Since his arrest, authorities have linked Dabritz to a growing list of crimes, including a series of shootings in the Elko and Ely areas, as well as the detonation of an explosive device in Nye County thought to be related to anti-government extremism. He also had spent the weeks leading up to the fatal shooting on a paranoid quest to warn people of his theory that the coronavirus was spreading through the water and sewer systems, according to interviews with White Pine County locals.

His efforts eventually landed him at William Bee Ririe Hospital in Ely on a legal mental health hold before he was flown around March 14 to Desert Parkway Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Las Vegas. He was released March 20, court records show, a week before Jenkins was killed.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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