Mother of Ashland murderer tried to have him committed
Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez's mother fought to get her son civilly committed, but she couldn't meet Oregon's high legal bar even though he threatened to kill himself and others.
On Nov. 6, 2016, Sabalsa-Mendez stabbed Avi Feldman, 20, to death during an Ashland house party on Strawberry Lane, fulfilling his mother's worst fears.
On Thursday, Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia found Sabalsa-Mendez guilty of murder except for insanity.
"I commit you to the care and custody of the Psychiatric Security Review Board for the rest of your life. You are a danger to yourself and others," Mejia said during the bench trial.
Sabalsa-Mendez will be taken to a secure state psychiatric facility.
Both the prosecution and defense said the murder might never have happened if Sabalsa-Mendez had been civilly committed and required to receive mental health care. His mental state was deteriorating under the onslaught of schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental illness that often causes delusions. The disease can be managed with medication.
"Our laws really need to be changed in some way to prevent this from happening," said Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Cromwell, who prosecuted the case.
Defense attorney Paul Moser said Sabalsa-Mendez's mother took every step she could, but Oregon's stringent requirements for commitment don't match up with real conditions on the ground.
Sabalsa-Mendez's mother went repeatedly to police and Jackson County Mental Health for help, according to court testimony.
"It's not a situation where she turned a blind eye," Cromwell said. "She knew he would do this."
But threats to commit suicide or murder are typically not enough to get someone committed. A person must purchase a weapon, for example, or have a history of violence, Cromwell said.
Sabalsa-Mendez hadn't been suffering from schizophrenia long enough to have a past pattern of violence, she said.
Five days before the murder, Sabalsa-Mendez's mother made him move out of her Ashland home because he refused to take his medication. He was living in a vehicle near Lithia Park, Cromwell said.
Unknown to his mother or mental health professionals, Sabalsa-Mendez purchased a knife, she said.
"He bought it for self-protection based on delusions people were after him," Cromwell said.
Feldman had been struggling with mental health issues himself, but was on medication, had stabilized and was living in an apartment. Generous and kindhearted, he reached out to Sabalsa-Mendez and invited him to the party, according to friends and family.
Soon after the murder, a friend of Feldman said Sabalsa-Mendez had been acting crazy — introducing himself at the party as "Marshal Law," then later jumping out and stabbing Feldman in a driveway while yelling, "Suicide!"
Ashland police arrested Sabalsa-Mendez, who was 22 at the time, without incident. A large knife was recovered at the scene.
The victim's father, Michael Feldman, said Sabalsa-Mendez's family tried to get him the care he needed, but the nation's mental health system is terrible. Michael Feldman said he hopes Sabalsa-Mendez remains confined in state custody for the rest of his life.
"I wish this upon nobody. Nobody should have to bury their child at such a young age," Michael Feldman said.
He described his son as someone who would give his bus ticket to someone else and provide people with food and clothing. He noted that more than 200 people attended his son's memorial service.
Michael Feldman thanked the Ashland community for all the support it has given him and his family.
The murder is not the first high-profile case in Ashland in which people have tried and failed to get someone committed.
Tighe O’Meara, who has since been promoted to chief of the Ashland Police Department, and a probation officer petitioned to have John Thiry committed to a mental institution after he started a 2010 fire than destroyed 11 Ashland houses and led to the death of a firefighter. Thiry also threw rocks at girls on a bike path and threatened to kill them.
The civil commitment petition failed because it failed to meet Oregon requirements.
To be committed in Oregon, a person must be dangerous to himself or herself or others, or be unable to provide for basic personal needs such as health and safety. Generally, a person must have recently threatened or attempted suicide or serious bodily injury, or have demonstrated a danger of substantial and imminent harm to others through a recent act, attempt or threat.
Thiry died in June after his physical and mental state deteriorated. He was believed to be schizophrenic, with his condition aggravated by chronic drug and alcohol use.
As for Sabalsa-Mendez's future, Cromwell said he could eventually be released from custody if his mental health improves enough that the Psychiatric Security Review Board determines he is no longer a threat.
"Or he could potentially stay for his lifetime," she said.
While under the board's jurisdiction, a person found guilty except for insanity can be committed to the Oregon State Hospital or conditionally released to a lower level of care, ranging from secure residential treatment facilities to independent living. People can be returned to the hospital if they violate the terms of their conditional release or have a mental status change that causes them to pose a risk of substantial danger to others, according to the board.
They also can be discharged if they are no longer mentally ill.
The board's primary focus is on public safety. Clients who have been reintegrated into the community have an adult recidivism rate of half of 1 percent, according to the board.