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What To Do About Mitchel: A Family's Struggle To Keep Their Mentally Ill Son Out Of Jail

Sherry and Marc Hunter sit on their couch.
Kelsie Moore / KUER
Sherry and Marc Hunter have spent much of the last decade trying to keep their mentally ill son safe and out of jail. His schizophrenia causes him to pinball between catatonia, depression and violence.

Sherry and Marc Hunter are a typical middle-class family in Spanish Fork, Utah. But, as parents, the Hunters have a constant worry that keeps them on their toes.

Their adult son, Mitchel Exceen, has been diagnosed with a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia. His illness is marked by delusions and violent outbursts, which he's been arrested for multiple times. He's even been arrested while in the care of physicians at mental health facilities.

"When they arrested him there he got beat up pretty bad because he fought 'em," Sherry Hunter said of one recent arrest at Provo Canyon Behavioral Hospital. "He got some pretty serious bruises and a big goose egg on his head. They took him down."

Across the country, about 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jail annually, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. But prosecuting these defendants is difficult because their illness often prevents them from truly understanding the charges against them — or even what they've done wrong.

Exceen has bounced from psychiatric hospitals to courtrooms to jail cells. In a July Facebook post, Hunter expressed fear that her oldest son was headed to jail for good, all for behavior that he can't control.

Her son, who is 33 years old, has lived at the Utah State Hospital in Provo on and off for five years. He's tried repeatedly to transition back to the community and to less-restrictive facilities. But she fears for her son's life when he becomes violent.

"When he's been in psychiatric units, if he has aggression, they call the police," Hunter said.

Mitchel Exceen with his dog on his lap.
Credit Courtsey Hunter Family
Exceen's family got him a therapy dog named Charles, pictured here.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization focused on access to mental health care, found that people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

Hunter said her son is actually a sweet person who cares about his family and his dog, Charles, who lives in the Hunter home.

Exceen's legal trouble began last summer after his doctor, who declined to be interviewed for this story, determined that he was well enough to be discharged from the Utah State Hospital. The Hunters were hopeful.

"He came in the kitchen and he gave me a hug and he goes, 'You know, I really love you, mom'" she said. "It's out of character for him to initiate a hug."

When he's been in psychiatric units, if he has aggression, they call the police.

But the family was quickly reminded of just how much their son needs the support and security of the state hospital.


"Later on that day, he started telling me there was somebody in his computer that was watching him," she said.

Exceen's delusions intensified. His case manager convinced him to go to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center for an evaluation. There he allegedly pinched a nurse's buttocks as she was drawing his blood. Provo Police arrested him in the psychiatric unit. He was charged with one count of sexual battery.

He sat in jail for a week until the Hunters were able to take him to another psychiatric hospital, Wasatch Mental Health. Exceen was there less than a day before he assaulted doctors. His mother was baffled.

"I'm like, 'Why isn't he in restraints?' What is wrong with you people? Why can't you understand that he has aggression?' He's in full-blown psychosis. I couldn't believe it," Hunter said. "They took him back to jail."

This time jail officials dropped him off in downtown Provo, where Hunter said Exceen took off his clothes and walked into a restaurant and called her.

It took several months to get Exceen back into the state hospital, however, because it was full. Hospital officials say they have 112 "forensic" beds - space for adult patients who were ordered there by a judge because they've been accused of committing a crime. And they have 152 beds for adults who have been civilly committed. The hospital this year asked the legislature to fund 24 more beds, but only received funding for 12.

Exceen now has a strict treatment plan on the civil side of the hospital. He also has an open criminal case to resolve.

Exceen is far from an anomaly in Utah. Provo Police say they come into contact with people who are mentally ill every day.

"More than just once a daily basis," said Nisha King, a sergeant with Provo Police. "I mean multiple times on each shift with different officers."

King said her department has had more than 300 documented encounters since January. The number of encounters has only increased in recent years.

Long-term mental health beds have all but disappeared over the last 50 years as the country moved away from holding people in psychiatric hospitals. But many healthcare providers say the promise made by policymakers to replace those beds with community-based services never really materialized. In turn, that has put law enforcement on the front lines of a mental health crisis.

Law enforcement has responded by offering police officers Crisis Intervention Training. CIT prepares officers to safely navigate interactions with the mentally ill.

"It's only offered twice a year, so as we have a lot of turnover and a lot of hiring. That's something that we're constantly looking for," King said.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, law enforcement agencies that require CIT report as much as an 80 percent decrease in officer injuries. But at this point, it's not required to become a police officer in Utah.

Mitchel Exceen wanted to be a police officer. But first, he enlisted in the military at age 18. That's when Marc Hunter, Exceen's step-father, believes the problems began.

"We learned that that age is about when schizophrenia starts rearing its ugly head in young male adults … right about that, late teens to early 20s," Hunter said. "And then probably the stress that he was going through in boot camp probably aggravated it as well."

Woman pointing at photos in an album.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Sherry Hunter flips through old pictures of her son Mitchel Exceen, including his official military photograph.

Exceen joined the Army in 2006, and after boot camp he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. But almost as soon as he arrived at the Army base, he went AWOL. The family later learned he'd traveled to Washington state, where he was living on the streets in Bellingham, near the Canadian border.

Exceen's biological father, who lived in Seattle at the time, bussed him down to Utah to live with Hunter, who had no idea that he was sick.

"I didn't recognize him," she said. "He had long hair. He was wearing two different shoes that didn't match. He smelled like he hadn't had a shower in at least a month. He was in really bad shape."

The Hunters found that they couldn't force him to take medication. Nor could they stop him from leaving the state. They reached a breaking point when Exceen took a bus in 2010 to Los Angeles, where he was arrested for trespassing on the red carpet during the Oscars, his mother said. Police transported him to a hospital in California, where Hunter said a doctor told her Exceen had one of the worst cases of schizophrenia she'd ever seen.

That's when the Hunters finally admitted him to the Utah State Hospital and became his legal guardians.

Sherry and Marc outside their home.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Sherry and Marc Hunter outside their home in Spanish Fork, Utah.

In a phone conversation from the Utah State Hospital, Mitchel Exceen spoke about his condition. He was heavily medicated and a little difficult to understand, but he said all he wants is to be carefree and on his own.

"It is still something that I would like to have in the future," he said. "I do understand that it won't happen for a while.

Exceen said he feels remorseful for the outbursts. But he's also confused about why they happen. He said he spends a lot of time reading about philosophy and psychology to learn about his condition.

Kip Landon, a clinical social worker with Wasatch Mental Health, said he was hopeful that Exceen would make a successful transition after his doctor discharged him from the state hospital last year.


Mitchel in his family's living room, smiling.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Mitchel Exceen, 33, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His symptoms sometimes cause him to behave violently, putting him contact with law enforcement.

"He did everything we needed him to do at the residential program to show us that he could probably step down to a lesser level of care," he said. "Our charge is to keep people in the least-restrictive environment possible while still making sure that they're stable and they're safe."

The Hunters had also hoped that Provo City would drop Exceen's case because of his mental state.

But it doesn't look like that's going to happen. There's a victim who wants justice - the phlebotomist, who accused Exceen of assaulting her. Moreover, a psychiatrist has found Exceen to be mentally competent, explaining that Exceen understands the facts in his case, but has a hard time applying them rationally.

Exceen's mother Sherry Hunter spoke this week after a court hearing on his case. She said she's frustrated her son is still being prosecuted.

"I'm not pleased," she said. "I wanted this to be over with."

Hunter said she wants her son to be in a safe, stable environment, where he can continue with his treatment.

But in a twist of irony, Exceen will now move through the criminal justice system and resolve his case as if he has no mental illness at all. All while being housed in a secure unit of a psychiatric hospital.


Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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