Breakdown in mental-health care

If Reny Cabral had gotten the treatment he needed, would he be paralyzed today?

AFTER THE STORM<br>Their romance is over, but Torrie Gonzales and Reny Cabral still care for each other, and she is strongly opposed to his being punished further for the attack on her that led him to be jailed.

Their romance is over, but Torrie Gonzales and Reny Cabral still care for each other, and she is strongly opposed to his being punished further for the attack on her that led him to be jailed.

Photo By Leslie Layton

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This story was a joint production of the CN&R and ChicoSol, a bilingual news magazine. You can read it in both Spanish and English at

Click for a Los Angeles Times article and an accompanying slide show about Reny Cabral.

Early on a winter morning, in an isolation cell at the Glenn County Jail, 23-year-old Reynaldo “Reny” Cabral assumed a pose he had taken often as a lineman on the Orland High School football team. Then he charged head-first, slamming into a thin coat of rubberized material that covers the wall in what the jail deems its “safety cell.”

As he lay on the cell floor, he now remembers, he was stunned by the awareness that he was paralyzed. In a desperate effort to get rescued from his prison—not only the 5-by-8-foot cell, but also the prison created by his psychotic hallucinations and his fears that he’d be further harmed by officers who had already struck him with Taser darts—he had broken his neck.

He called for help, but it was hours—perhaps eight or more—before it came. Cabral stayed on the floor without moving, a former athlete now a quadriplegic.

Yet, the ramming helped in one way: When help came, as it eventually did, and the nature of his illness was understood, he finally got the psychiatric treatment his family had been seeking for the past several months.

Cabral now lives at his parents’ Orland home, remodeled at a cost of almost $60,000—financed by low-interest loans from Glenn County—to accommodate his wheelchair, while attorneys and judges and relatives and friends debate his destiny. Because of transportation difficulties, he rarely attends his court hearings.

Attorneys and judges will soon discuss whether he has recovered from his psychosis with the help of medication or whether he is a threat to the public. They will debate whether he should be punished for the attack on his girlfriend that landed him in jail, or whether his wheelchair sentence is punishment enough.

Glenn County Judge Donald Byrd is holding a hearing Friday (Dec. 14) at which he has asked attorneys to discuss two psychological evaluations filed with the court. A psychiatrist and a psychologist, both court appointed, have agreed that Cabral met the “legal definition of insanity” at the time of the attack, said Cabral’s attorney, Denny Latimer of Chico. At least one of them says he has recovered with treatment and presents no threat.

Nonetheless, Glenn County District Attorney Robert Holzapfel so far has refused to drop charges and continues to prosecute Cabral for attempted murder.

Cabral, his speech sometimes muffled by the effects of medication and the tracheotomy he underwent, has nevertheless become an articulate advocate for the mentally ill, who often land in jails or prisons because of a lack of treatment options. His story—published first in local papers and on Dec. 7 in the Los Angeles Times—is a compelling and dramatic example of the breakdown in mental-health care in California.

In Cabral’s case, there are at least two sides.

On one is a legion of relatives and friends, including former girlfriend Victoria “Torrie” Gonzales, who have asked that charges be dropped. Gonzales survived the Jan. 6, 2007, altercation with only minor injuries and attributes the attack to Cabral’s mental state, not strife in the relationship. She says law enforcement officers, who responded to a 9-1-1 call, misunderstood what had happened. In a report, they described it as a “lovers quarrel.”

On the other side is Holzapfel, whose office has charged Cabral with three felony counts of attempted murder in connection with the attack. Holzapfel’s office said Tuesday that the DA wouldn’t comment on the case, and Holzapfel has yet to explain his tough-minded insistence on the charges.

Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones said his officers followed department policy, even though they’re overwhelmed by the needs of inmates who are often mentally ill or disabled. Jones said jail officers requested medical help for Cabral when they became aware something was wrong at 11:10 a.m. Jan. 8.

Cabral says he injured himself many hours earlier and had called for help. Jail logs note that routine checks showed him lying on the floor. The jail has since equipped the safety cell with camera surveillance.

The Cabral family’s 10-month struggle to bring Reny home has had a successful if bittersweet conclusion, but now the family fears that a felony conviction—or even a temporary “placement"—could land the disabled man in one of the state’s dangerously overcrowded mental hospitals.

Cabral changed his innocent plea to not guilty by reason of insanity in August. But Latimer insists his client is innocent of attempted murder regardless of his mental state—that he clearly never intended to kill Gonzales.

Cabral began showing signs of mental distress around Thanksgiving 2005, Gonzales said, signs that grew frequent and more serious about one year later. The two shared a Chico apartment while Cabral studied at Butte College. At one point late last year, the Cabral family convinced Reny to seek help at a Chico emergency-care clinic.

Then came an extraordinary display of bizarre behavior. On Jan. 3, Cabral shaved his body, doused himself in kerosene, wrapped himself in cellophane and drove erratically through Bidwell Park. Chico police detained him on a 72-hour hold for a mental evaluation.

But the Butte County mental-health clinic released Cabral after holding him less than 10 hours. He was given a prescription, advised to seek family support when he needed it, and returned to his Orland home. Shortly after that, Cabral confessed he was hearing voices and had been ordered to sacrifice his girlfriend on his 23rd birthday to save humankind.

Family friend Julie Nasr of Chico tried to get him re-admitted to Chico’s 16-bed mental-health clinic. But without police involvement it was impossible for her to commit him.

On the morning of Jan. 6, Cabral’s birthday, Gonzales was making breakfast at Cabral’s family home in Orland, when he came up behind her, placed a dull paring knife to her neck, and choked her into unconsciousness. He choked her a couple times, at one point reviving her with CPR. He finally threw up his hands in confusion.

“He totally could have killed me,” Gonzales recently said, “he was so big and strong. He was trying to battle the voice in his head telling him to sacrifice me.”

After Cabral was booked into the Willows jail, Nasr and family members pleaded with jail staffers to have him visited by a psychiatrist and be required to take the anti-psychotic medication prescribed by the mental-health clinic. Cabral later said neither happened.

He said he was plagued by hallucinations at the jail and feared he would be raped by correctional officers.

Jail staffers complained that he was a difficult inmate, tossing feces, drinking enormous amounts of water, and dousing his cell with water or urine. They radioed Willows police for help in managing him. The officers in turn applied Taser shocks and pepper spray. Cabral was then moved to the safety cell.

Chico attorney Richard Molin has filed a claim against Glenn County on behalf of the Cabral family, arguing that jail officials failed to meet their legal obligation to provide psychiatric treatment and prompt medical care.

“They should have someone there to evaluate [inmates] when it’s needed,” Cabral said of the jail. “I definitely feel they could have done more. I hope this never happens again. Nobody should have to go through this.”

Reny’s older brother, Arturo Cabral Jr., says he sometimes wonders whether his brother would have been treated differently had he not been Latino, poor or had the last name Cabral. The Cabrals of Orland are distantly related to a Hamilton City man with the same last name who has had drug-related run-ins with the police, but they have had no contact with him.

Orland residents have written dozens of letters on Cabral’s behalf, remembering him as a generous and bright young man, an honor student who’d never been in trouble.

Cabral’s final gesture at the Chico convalescent home where he spent six months earlier this year was in keeping with the character they describe. He invited two elderly residents of the home—one a 94-year-old man who hadn’t seen a movie in years—on an outing to Tinseltown.

They took the B-line city bus equipped for the disabled and watched American Gangster.