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Thursday, March 22, 2018

West Glendive man who attempted to set up a shootout with police committed to state mental health hospital

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

A West Glendive man accused of attempting to set up a deadly shootout with police in August 2016 was sentenced in District Court on Monday to an eight-year commitment to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services for mental health treatment.

District Judge Michael Hayworth handed down the sentence to Vicus T. Whittle, 38, after hearing arguments from both the prosecution and defense during Monday’s sentencing hearing. 

By the terms of a plea agreement between the defense and prosecution, Whittle was convicted on one count of assault on a peace officer for the scuffle he had with Dawson County Sheriff’s deputies during the Aug. 5, 2016 incident at his home which led to his arrest. Charges of assault with a weapon and criminal endangerment were dismissed. The two sides also agreed in the plea agreement that Whittle should be sent to a facility for mental health treatment, not to prison, with the only quibble being the term of commitment, with the prosecution asking for eight years and the defense team for four.

Defense attorney Eric Link argued for the four-year commitment, saying that his client has already spent 493 days in jail, that it was his first criminal offense other than traffic violations, that his client fears never being able to see his elderly South African parents again and that the entire incident surrounding Whittle’s arrest was “out-of-character” for him. 

Hayworth, however, rejected those arguments, noting that if he gave just a four-year commitment, then with credit for time served, that would be weaned down to a two-and-a-half year commitment in actual practice. Hayworth further noted that a DPHHS commitment is not the same as a prison sentence. He noted that doctors can release Whittle from the treatment facility whenever they see fit that he has recovered and that the DPHHS director conducts an annual review of all mental health commitments, meaning that Whittle has two different avenues to achieve release from actual custody if he shows progress in his treatment.

“A DPHHS commitment is not solely a commitment to Warm Springs (the state mental health facility),” Hayworth said in handing down the eight-year commitment. “Although it is a commitment of eight years, it does not mean eight years of placement, it means you will be monitored for that term. I’d fully expect that you will not be in DPHHS custody for the full term.”

Whittle declined to make any statement to the court when Hayworth asked.

One thing that became clear as the sentencing hearing went along was there seemed to be a consensus of opinion that no one wanted to see Whittle sent to prison for the charges and that those who knew him best — including one of the sheriff’s deputies he was convicted of assaulting — were adamant that he was a normally good  and even “happy-go-lucky” person who suffered a mental breakdown and snapped.

DCSO Deputy Brett Hoagland, who had taught Whittle in law enforcement courses at Dawson Community College and came to be friends with him, was one of the two deputies who scuffled with Whittle that day last August. (Hoagland was injured by a barb from a taser deployed by the other deputy to try and stop Whittle.) Hoagland said something changed in Whittle in the weeks leading up to the incident, noting “he wasn’t the same Vic,” but stressed his firm belief that Whittle is still a good person who just had a bad episode, saying Whittle “has a pure heart.”

“I would hate to see Vic go to any kind of prison,” Hoagland testified from the stand. “I think mental health treatment would be the best option. I think he can still be a productive member of society and he has a lot to offer.”

The other defense witnesses also said that the Whittle who was accused of preparing for a “suicide by cop” scenario — with his home allegedly stocked with loaded firearms placed strategically and other military-grade equipment readied in seeming preparation for a shootout with police — was not the person they knew.

Ronnie Beyl, Whittle’s brother-in-law from South Africa (Whittle is a South Africa native with dual citizenship) made the long trip to testify, saying when he visited Whittle just after his arrest last year, he didn’t seem like the same person he’d known all his life.

“I could see he wasn’t the same person we knew, wasn’t the same Vic,” Beyl said.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Dee Woolfston, who evaluated Whittle, said Whittle suffered from several mental illnesses at the time of his arrest. Woolfston diagnosed Whittle with three different serious mental disorders, including major depressive disorder, somatic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though he did not classify them as additional disorders, Woolfston also stated that Whittle showed signs of obsessive-compulsive personality traits and paranoid personality traits.

Woolfston identified several traumas which could have served to affect Whittle’s mental state. His divorce and ensuing financial difficulties in the months prior to the incident seem to have been the last straw according to testimony from Woolfston and Whittle’s friends and relatives, but there were several major traumatic experiences before that. 

Whittle suffered serious injuries, including head trauma, in a wreck while he was trucking in the Bakken oilfield which left him largely unable to work. Another factor which may have possibly played into his overall mental make-up is that he was adopted, Woolfston stated. Beyl stated in his testimony that Whittle was removed from his birth parents at age 2 by South African social services due to neglect. Finally, Woolfston noted that Whittle had served in South Africa’s armed forces prior to immigrating to the United States, where he saw active combat and was exposed to “extreme violence and death” and had several occasions to “fear for his life.”

Woolfston said the combination of traumas and mental disorders ultimately led Whittle to have what he called “in layman’s terms, a nervous breakdown,” adding that his military service and PTSD in particular likely contributed to him allegedly preparing his home like a fortress in an attempt to instigate a shootout with law enforcement.

“I believe he felt very vulnerable due to his military history ... and I think that’s why he was prepared for a so-called doomsday,” Woolfston said.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.



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