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'Mental defect' plea allows veteran to avoid murder trial in death of roommate

Michael Hunter is led out of the Sixth

Michael Hunter is led out of the Sixth Precinct in Selden for arraignment at First District Court in Central Islip in July 2017. Credit: Newsday File/James Carbone

Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge John Collins on Friday accepted a plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” in the case of Michael Hunter, an Afghanistan war veteran who has been under psychiatric care in secure institutions since his 2017 arrest for fatally bludgeoning his 58-year-old roommate at a veterans shelter in Yaphank.

Hunter's attorney, Michael Finkelstein, said his client did not deny the fatal attack but said the 31-year-old Army veteran suffered from a “schizoaffective disorder” when he repeatedly struck roommate Brett Locke with a 14-inch metal bolt-cutting tool at The Veterans Place, a 23-bed facility run by United Veterans of Suffolk County in Yaphank.

Hunter, who did not leave the scene, told police he had been hired by "the government" to crusade against cigarette smoking, according to the plea arrangement, which was endorsed by both the defense and the prosecution.

Locke fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. Hunter was charged with second-degree murder after Locke died on Dec. 15, 2017, some five months after the attack.

Collins told Hunter he would be placed in a state mental hospital for an evaluation to determine whether he is still considered dangerous, and would remain there until he is no longer considered a danger. Hunter is due before Collins again in May, following an initial post-plea evaluation.

Hunter, 31, replied in monotones throughout the 30-minute courtroom hearing in Riverhead, answering Collins with an emotionless, “Yes, your honor.”

The plea arrangement was reached with the concordance of Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Kathleen Kearon, who said her office was persuaded by the conclusions of doctors who examined Hunter on behalf of his defense.

Hunter’s mother, Deborah Hunter, of Coram, said she appreciated that the plea arrangement would spare her son from a murder trial, but that psychological services must be made more available to help veterans who struggle with mental illness before they get in trouble.

“The military needs to do more when they release these soldiers,” she said.   

In the aftermath of the attack, employees and residents at the shelter told Newsday they had repeatedly expressed concern to management that Hunter was frequently confrontational, menacing, had psychological problems that were beyond the capacity of shelter staffers to rectify, and declined the shelter’s offers to arrange psychotherapy for him.

But United Veterans CEO Michael Stoltz said then that psychological problems are not unusual among homeless people, and that the agency arranges for mental health counseling for residents who accept it. Stoltz said then that Hunter was not considered a threat to himself or others.

The shelter receives per-diem funding for homeless clients placed by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. Designated primarily for veterans, it also accepts a limited number of homeless nonveterans —  like Locke —  when space is available.

According to the U.S. Army, Hunter was enlisted from November 2008 until his honorable discharge in 2012, and served in Afghanistan from May until December in 2011. His duties were as an information technology specialist, and he left the service with the rank of E-4.

Several friends who attended Newfield High School in Selden with Hunter said he had been an engaging, upbeat individual before his military service but was guarded and angry when he returned from overseas.

Daniel Cashmar, who attended Newfield High School with Hunter, said in 2017 that his friend once told him that a gym in which Hunter had been working out while stationed in Afghanistan was destroyed in a rocket attack just moments later.

Cashmar expresses sympathy for Hunter, saying that his friend had “completely changed” after returning from Afghanistan.

"He had such a carefree and happy personality that was contagious,” Cashmar said in 2017. “Eventually he became paranoid, aggressive and flaky.”

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