Administrators of the Suffolk County-funded Veterans Place homeless shelter in Yaphank, where a resident allegedly bludgeoned his roommate in July, were repeatedly warned that the alleged attacker had severe emotional problems that staffers were not equipped to handle, according to several former employees and residents.
Michael Hunter was arrested and charged with attempted murder in the July 17 beating of his sleeping roommate with a bolt-cutting tool in a room they shared at the shelter, a converted motel on Mill Road in the central Suffolk County community.
Hunter pleaded not guilty and was held without bail before a court-ordered psychological exam determined he was not fit to stand trial and he was ordered held at a “secure mental health facility,” according to a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice John Collins.
Hunter’s attorney, Michael Finkelstein, said his client, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, suffers from service-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
The victim, Brett Locke, suffered severe head trauma in the attack and was left in a coma, according to Suffolk prosecutors. Attempts to reach family members or others close to Locke were not successful.
On May 31, William Doane, then serving as a manager at the shelter, sent an e-mail to administrators expressing grave concern about Hunter’s “attitude and behavior,” which Doane said had “declined since his arrival.”
“Since he has arrived here, nothing has been done to get the care that he so obviously needs,” Doane wrote in the e-mail sent 47 days before the attack. “I have a responsibility to all of the residents here to ensure their care and well being ... I am worried about Mr. Hunter’s short-term and long-term well being.”
The shelter’s caseworker, Virginia Gunther, resigned over the incident, according to an email that, like Doane’s e-mail, was obtained by Newsday.
“I feel that our on-site observations were completely disregarded and upper management failed to provide Mr. Hunter with services that he so desperately needed,” Virginia Gunther wrote in an Aug. 1 email to the shelter’s management. “.... Consequently, a young Veteran, who with the proper professional care might have returned to a healthy independent state of being is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.”
Gunther’s e-mail said her objections to the shelter’s handling of Hunter were so strong that “it would be against my personal values to return.” Gunther acknowledged sending the email but declined to comment for this story.
The Veterans Place is a 23-bed facility run by United Veterans of Suffolk County, a subsidiary of The Association for Mental Health and Wellness, and receives funding from the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. Designated primarily for veterans, it also accepts a limited number of homeless non-veterans — like Locke — when space is available.
Michael Stoltz, head of United Veterans of Suffolk County, acknowledged that shelter administrators had received the emails from the two former staffers. And while he noted that privacy concerns limit what he could say, he defended the shelter’s procedures and said Hunter never gave indications that he was a threat.
“If someone exhibits or makes a statement that indicates they are a threat to themselves or others, we will make an immediate response,” Stoltz said.
Stoltz said because psychological difficulties are common in the homeless population, it should not be unexpected that an individual at the shelter would exhibit odd behaviors.
“But somebody’s got to try, and we wanted to help him,” Stoltz said. “When you’re dealing with mental health issues, there is no quick solution.”
“This was a tragic, horrible event, and a rarity,” Stoltz said.
Stoltz said the shelter works closely with other agencies, including the Suffolk County Department of Mental Hygiene and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to arrange off-site counseling for residents who arrive with various psychological problems. He said the shelter has the ability to call in a county-run mobile crisis-intervention team to handle mental health emergencies.
Stoltz said shelter managers typically discuss among themselves how to handle difficult clients and that Gunther’s concerns regarding Hunter had been included in their deliberations. He said conclusions are often reached despite dissenting viewpoints, as had been the case in discussions regarding Hunter.
“Part of our process is a risk-management process,” Stoltz said.
The Suffolk Department of Social Services pays the facility $82 per day for the first 90 days of each resident’s stay, according to shelter officials, and $492 per month for residents who stay longer. The shelter has received $190,000 in Temporary Housing Assistance per diem payments from the county in 2017, according to the Suffolk Department of Social Services.
DSS officials said the shelter is required to have staffers present 24 hours a day, to have a caseworker available to residents for eight hours per day and to notify the county of serious incidents that occur there.
John O’Neill, commissioner of the county Department of Social Services, said there have been no violent incidents of any kind at the facility since at least 2014, which is as far back as his records readily indicate.
“Anytime a serious incident like this occurs we take pause and look back at what we could have done differently,” O’Neill said. “In this case, we believe this is an isolated incident involving an individual with mental-health issues.”
O’Neill said that in the wake of the attack the county recommended that shelter caseworkers reassess residents more frequently to determine whether the shelter can handle any mental health issues that might occur. But he said such assessments are not an exact science, and shelter operators sometimes disagree among themselves about whether an individual should be allowed to stay.
Several former residents said other residents felt intimidated by Hunter, who they said refused to speak to anyone except to engage in hostile confrontations stemming from his disapproval of cigarette smoking.
James Bert, who lived at the shelter with Hunter until about two weeks before the attack, said Hunter would rarely speak to others except to berate shelter residents who smoked cigarettes in the yard outside the shelter. Bert said Hunter would take ashtrays left by residents in sitting areas outside their doors and throw them into the trash.
“Multiple people, including myself, on multiple occasions went to [shelter staffers] and said something is seriously wrong with Mr. Hunter, and that he shouldn’t be there,” said Bert, who said Hunter would take circuitous routes on the shelter’s grounds to avoid having to walk past fellow residents. “He never spoke with anyone.”
According to the U.S. Army, Hunter was enlisted from November 2008 until July 28, 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.
“He had such a carefree and happy personality that was contagious. Eventually he became paranoid, aggressive and flaky,” said Daniel Cashmar, a Newfield graduate who remained in touch with Hunter.
Cashmar said although Hunter mostly avoided speaking about his wartime experiences, he once told Cashmar of having left a gymnasium in Afghanistan after working out, just moments before it was destroyed in a rocket attack.
“It’s just that he completely changed as a person,” Cashmar said.
Hunter’s residency at the homeless shelter began when police brought him there May 12, said Finkelstein, who said police had been called to Hunter’s parents’ Coram home after Hunter had argued with them there.