Nikko Jenkins' pleas for help stymied - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:16 pm
Nikko Jenkins' pleas for help stymied

Nikko Jenkins made his pleas for help to prosecutors and judges, corrections officials and parole board members, and even a state senator.

Don't release me, he said in multiple letters. Send me to the Lincoln Regional Center. Give me treatment for my mental illness.

In one of his erratic letters, he attached a ripped-from-a-book definition of schizophrenia because, he said, his father and grandfather suffered from it.

He acknowledged the price of his request: more lost freedom.

“Why would an inmate so close to his freedom ... say, 'Hey throw me in the nutt (sic) house?” he wrote in a January 2010 letter. “I am fully acknowledging my mental illness and I am seeking help at all cost. Thank you.”

Now some are wondering why corrections officials didn't take Jenkins up on his repeated offers and seek to commit him. Under state law, authorities can commit people to mental health institutions such as the Lincoln Regional Center if they meet a two-pronged test: They suffer from mental illness, and they are dangerous to themselves or others.

Yet that process, known as a civil commitment, has rarely been used for any prisoner other than sex offenders.

It wasn't used in Jenkins' case. While corrections officials have said little about Jenkins' release, prison records obtained by The World-Herald indicate that experts doubted his claims of mental illness. One doctor believed that Jenkins at worst was anti-social — and, thus, wouldn't have been eligible for commitment, because that isn't something psychiatrists can treat.

Jenkins, who had told corrections officers of his “ongoing homicidal ideations,” was released from prison July 30.

Within two weeks of becoming a free man, authorities allege, Jenkins made good on his murderous murmurings.

He now sits in the Douglas County Jail, charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 11 slayings of Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz and Juan Uribe-Pena in South Omaha's Spring Lake Park; the Aug. 19 slaying of Curtis Bradford near 18th and Clark Streets; and the Aug. 21 slaying of Andrea Kruger at 168th and Fort Streets.

State senators say they are incredulous that more wasn't done to detain Jenkins. And they're intent on introducing legislation to make sure the department applies the same sort of rigor to reviewing prisoners with violent compulsions as they do to prisoners with sexual compulsions.

“There are so many points along the way where the department could have done something ... and yet they did not do what they could have to protect everybody,” said State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. “A law should not be required, but I'm going to offer some kind of legislation so that the department will know that they're required to use good judgment and common sense.”

Here is a look at whether Jenkins could have met the two prongs that would have been required for commitment, through the lens of interviews, newly obtained court transcripts, corrections records and Jenkins' own words.

Was he a danger?

Under state law, authorities would have had to establish that Jenkins presented a substantial risk to do significant harm.

That wouldn't have been difficult, experts said.

A prosecutor who used to specialize in civil commitments said attorneys have pointed to a person's mere promise not to eat as an indication he is a danger to himself.

In addition to the armed carjacking that landed Jenkins in prison, authorities had ample evidence of his violent tendencies based on his behavior behind bars: three assaults, including one of a prison guard; a riot he started; a knife he made out of a toilet brush.

And there were his own words. Jenkins described himself as a “mentally ill inmate ... with ongoing homicidal ideations ... refusing to take his medications.”

Corrections officials were concerned enough about Jenkins, said Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, that they alerted Omaha police and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office to his release date.

“Clearly, Nikko Jenkins was a danger,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said.

Was he mentally ill?

More specifically, did he suffer from a mental illness that would force a commitment so he could be treated?

The answer here isn't as clear.

During the past four years, Jenkins pounded a drumbeat that he was delusional.

2010

In a letter to Kleine in January 2010, Jenkins wrote that he was “fully acknowledging my mental illness.”

“I am being denied mental health treatment here in Tecumseh State Correctional instatution (sic). ... I am not stable because I have not been on medication. ... The facility (Tecumseh State Prison) was well aware threw (sic) documentation from mental health staff I was not taking medication as well as my mental health declining rapidly all of 2009.”

Prosecutors and psychiatrists were skeptical. At the time, Jenkins was trying to establish that he was insane when he assaulted a Tecumseh corrections officer in December 2009. Officers who witnessed the assault had described him calmly apologizing to them before he punched one of them in the jaw.

District Judge Gary Randall ordered a Lincoln Regional Center doctor to evaluate Jenkins.

In that interview, Jenkins said relatives sexually assaulted him as a child — and that he first went to a mental hospital when he was 8 or 9. He said his father and grandfather suffered from schizophrenia. He said a prison doctor had diagnosed him with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. He said he was prescribed medication but had stopped taking it.

He proclaimed himself an alpha male and said his actions were controlled by an Egyptian god named Ohpopsi, who commands him to hurt people, eat human brains and start a war “between the Christians and the Catholics.”

In a report to the court, Dr. Scott Moore, a state psychiatrist, concluded that Jenkins likely was making up the hallucinations to excuse his assault of the prison guard.

“He seems to be adding to his history whenever he senses that I may not be totally accepting of his story,” Moore wrote. “The descriptions that Mr. Jenkins gives me of his psychotic symptoms appear to me to be thought out and probably acquired from someone else. ... His thought process is normal without derailment and his thought content is not delusional. I think the possibility of psychotic illness is present but I do not think that it is a very good possibility.”

2011

In an April 2011 sentencing hearing over his assault of a Tecumseh corrections officer, Jenkins told Randall that he had asked the Nebraska Board of Parole to send him to the Lincoln Regional Center so he could “get the proper psychiatric treatment that I deserve before I'm reintegrated into society.”

That request was denied, along with his parole, he said.

So Jenkins turned to the judge.

“The only thing that I want to ask of the court is to somehow court-order me to get some form of mental health treatment before I'm released,” Jenkins said. “I'm only 24 years old but yet I've been incarcerated since I was 16. I never had no parole. I never had work release. You know I'm not just trying to just be thrown out into society, you know, without any kind of — you know what I mean, reintegrating to society. And I know that you have the jurisdiction to court-order me to mental health (treatment).”

Jenkins and his attorney said they had letters from a Douglas County Jail psychiatrist and nurse recommending that Jenkins go to the Lincoln Regional Center.

Randall informed Jenkins that he couldn't tell corrections what to do. But the judge promised to put his recommendations in an order.

“What it will say, Mr. Jenkins, is that the court has received evidence ... that the defendant has suffered from mental disorders for a long period of time and the court believes that such treatment would be of benefit to the defendant. That doesn't mean they have to do it. It just means I'm putting it on paper so that maybe they'll consider it.”

Upon his return to Tecumseh, Jenkins told prison staff that “he is a dangerous individual and is not very stable at this point,” his caseworker wrote.

The caseworker was skeptical.

“Inmate Jenkins has consistently expressed having ongoing homicidal ideations and has indicated that his past gang life will haunt him when he gets out,” she wrote in October 2011.

“Inmate Jenkins has been on my caseload for nearly three years and his behaviors are consistent. Inmate Jenkins attempts to manipulate other inmates into misbehaviors to help his 'causes' ... (and) has no regard for authority.”

2012

In 2012, Jenkins sent a disjointed letter to Chambers. As with letters to other officials, he wrote his nearly indiscernible words in geometric shapes, mentioned self-mutilation and said he was controlled by a deity.

Chambers said a family member or friend of Jenkins told him Jenkins' condition was deteriorating.

Chambers said he and Bob Houston, the state's corrections director, spoke at length. He said he talked to Houston about doing “what you can while you have him under your control.”

Chambers said he advised Houston: “If the whole job can't be done, seek the civil commitment.”

2013

This May, Jenkins' family sent a letter to Johnson County authorities asking for him to be committed, thinking he was still incarcerated there at the Tecumseh prison.

Jenkins, however, had been transferred to Lincoln. So Johnson County had no authority over him.

State law requires a person to be committed in the county where he resides or where he originally resided. Lancaster and Douglas County officials never received a commitment request from corrections.

This spring, Jenkins sent an erratic letter to a deputy Douglas County attorney. In addition to definitions of schizophrenia and psychosis, Jenkins scribbled nearly indecipherable, nonsensical run-on sentences. He also appeared to sketch out the serpent god he said was controlling his thoughts.

The attorney scanned images of the letter and emailed them to Houston.

Houston copied the email to his deputy directors, a mental health administrator and a social work supervisor involved in coordinating mental health services for prisoners' release.

“For your consideration as we prepare Jenkins for release,” Houston wrote. “Thanks, Bob.”

Two weeks before his release, Jenkins sent a nonsensical letter to Randall and another judge, complete with sentences in diamond shapes and photos of a girlfriend's tattoos. On the envelope he wrote that he protects “the kingdom” with “animalistic savage brutality.”

Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith has said Houston was aware of concerns about Jenkins. After speaking with Chambers, she said, Houston ordered him transferred from Tecumseh to the State Penitentiary in Lincoln so his case could be managed by the department's head social worker.

Corrections officials “indicated (Jenkins) had a problem that was behavioral, not psychotic or mental,” Chambers said.

Chambers said corrections could have made a case for commitment.

“Nikko Jenkins didn't need a social worker,” he said. “He needed psychiatric care.”

In prison records obtained by The World-Herald, corrections officials painted a different picture. They described Jenkins as a manipulator who screamed mental illness every time he was in trouble — whether in solitary confinement or in court.

Moore, the psychiatrist, said he wasn't convinced Jenkins had the major mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression — that can lead to commitment.

His diagnosis for Jenkins: that he was anti-social. Such a disorder, which often starts in the early teens, is marked by a person's defiance, manipulation of others, inability to empathize and lack of remorse.

Dr. Sidney Kauzlarich, a psychiatrist, has seen dozens of anti-social patients in his 17 years at the Douglas County Health Center. Kauzlarich — who emphasized that he has had no involvement in Jenkins' case — said being anti-social is a personality disorder, not a major mental illness.

Psychiatrists typically don't recommend commitments of people whose sole diagnosis is that they're anti-social. For one, a doctor has no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medication or treatment plan for someone who is anti-social.

“Some psychiatrists will tell you it's the most difficult to treat,” Kauzlarich said, “because the individual doesn't see the need for treatment.”

Brenda Beadle, the chief deputy Douglas County attorney who was in charge of civil commitments for three years, said she sometimes argued with psychiatrists to try to commit dangerous inmates with the disorder.

“He's anti-social — he doesn't belong in a hospital,” the doctor would tell Beadle. “He belongs in prison.”

In a mostly coherent 2010 letter decrying the Tecumseh prison, where he spent much of his time in segregation, Jenkins predicted what would happen if prisoners like him were denied treatment.

“Next (time) the same crooked mishandling of mentally ill violent inmates gives (someone) a chance to escape and kill, he will,” Jenkins said. “And then everyone will say, 'Why, how?' ”

Contact the writer: Todd Cooper

todd.cooper@owh.com    |   402-444-1275

Todd covers courts and legal issues for The World-Herald.

Contact the writer: Matt Wynn

matt.wynn@owh.com    |   402-444-3144    |  

Matt does document- and data-driven stories and builds things for the Web that leverage both.

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