A 29-year-old Army veteran said by his attorney to be suffering from service-related PTSD pleaded not guilty to attempted murder in a Central Islip courtroom Tuesday, in connection with a nighttime beating the day before that left his roommate at a Yaphank shelter with a fractured skull.
Michael Hunter — who served in Afghanistan, his attorney said — is accused of repeatedly clubbing the sleeping victim with a heavy bolt cutter in a room the two men had shared since mid-May at a shelter for homeless veterans on Mill Road.
Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, said Hunter told police he had been angered by a previous altercation with the victim.
“Mr. Hunter made an oral admission that he wanted to kill the victim because the victim blew smoke in his face days earlier,” Clifford said.
Hunter’s attorney, Michael Finkelstein, said his client’s PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, left him vulnerable to psychological problems that were allowed to go unaddressed by veterans assistance programs.
“We are not downplaying the seriousness of the injuries, and our hearts go out to the victim and his family,” Finkelstein said, standing outside the courtroom in the First District Court after the arraignment. “But [Hunter] fought for his country, and his country is not fighting for him. His PTSD is real.”
Finkelstein temporarily waived Hunter’s right to ask for release on bail; he will remain in custody at the Suffolk jail in Riverhead pending a July 21 hearing.
The 58-year-old victim, who is not a veteran, was placed in the shelter by the county Department of Social Services. He was being treated at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in East Patchogue for cranial swelling stemming from what prosecutors termed a severe head injury.
Police have not identified the victim, but District Court Judge Jennifer Henry ordered Hunter to stay away from a man called Brett Locke. Finkelstein said Locke was the victim.
Asked by Judge Henry whether he understood the order of protection’s provisions, Hunter answered “yes.”
Finkelstein said Hunter grew up in Coram and had reached the Army rank of specialist. Members of Hunter’s family who attended the hearing were advised by Finkelstein not to be interviewed.
Mark Grossman, a spokesman for the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, a nonprofit that oversees the shelter, said all applicants for housing are evaluated in advance for their mental health needs. He said many such clients balk at accepting mental health services — offered off-site — but that he could not say whether Hunter had availed himself of them because of health privacy laws.
Veterans advocates say elevated rates of PTSD, depression and other mental disorders displayed by veterans returning from combat often leave them with feelings of uncontrolled rage and difficulty managing relationships.
According to a 2014 report by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Justice Outreach Program, half of all homeless veterans who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.