By Dan Nienaber
---- — ST. PETER — A Stearns County social worker and staff at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter had differing views about whether Burton Ewing Jr. was ready for a third provisional release from the hospital's transition program, according to testimony Tuesday at the trial to determine if he was mentally ill when he attempted to murder his mother.
Ewing's mother, Marlys Olson, was in St. Peter on May 8, 2012, to attend a quarterly meeting with her son at the hospital. He had told her he was hopeful he would be released again, as he had been twice before a year and four months earlier. So they had planned to celebrate with a picnic and a shopping trip to Mankato. They had the picnic, but Ewing attempted to beat and stab his mother to death at Seven Mile Creek County Park before they made it to Mankato.
Ewing, 49, had been issued a day pass by the hospital for the outing with his mother. It was 14 years, almost to the day, after the May 7, 1998, incident that sent him to the hospital for treatment: He beat his sister to death with a claw hammer while visiting her at her Shoreview home.
That incident alone was one of the key reasons Roger Frie didn't think Ewing should be released into the community again. The Stearns County Human Services employee also said Ewing's two previous trips to the Cummings Care Center in Sauk Rapids showed Ewing wasn't ready for release. Both of those provisional releases, one in December 2010 and one in January 2011, resulted in Ewing being sent back to the security hospital after about two weeks in the supervised facility.
The first release ended voluntarily after Ewing realized his smoking habit was interfering with his medications, Frie said Tuesday while answering questions from Assistant Nicollet County Attorney James Dunn and one of Ewing's two defense attorneys, Stephne Ferrazzano. Ewing was found guilty of attempting to murder Olson during a quick first portion of the trial Monday before Nicollet County District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel. The second portion of the trial is for Ewing's attorneys to show their client was mentally ill, and didn't understand what he was doing, at the time of the incident.
Ewing's 2011 release from the hospital ended when his provisional release was revoked by staff. They were concerned he was becoming dangerous again because he was showing behaviors consistent with a relapse, Frie said. Ewing showed signs of paranoia, was becoming fascinated by letters and numbers, was stressed, and staff at the facility thought he might be hiding other symptoms because he was lying about his smoking.
So when the possibility of Ewing being released again was discussed on May 8, 2012, Frie said he wanted to move slowly. He also said the only type of release he would approve would be to a facility with more intense supervision than what was available at Cummings Care Center. Dunn asked Frie why he was so apprehensive about Ewing being released.
“One, it was what he did the first time to get in the hospital,” Frie said. “And he had been out twice before and it only lasted 30 or 40 days for both times. Why would we do it again?”
Ferrazzano also raised questions about whether Ewing should have been released from the hospital for an outing with his mother. He cited other relapse symptoms while he questioned Ewing's psychiatric nurse practitioner, Malinda Henderson, and one of his nurses, Eileen Hering, in the Forensic Transitions Program. Henderson said she supported Ewing's hopes for another provisional release.
The symptoms Ferrazzano addressed came from a document he described as Ewing's “relapse prevention plan.” They had been logged by hospital staff during the month before Olson was attacked, Ferrazzano said. They included having trouble getting to sleep, back pain, incidents of anger and becoming impatient with future plans. Another key factor that could lead to a relapse was the anniversary of Ewing's sister's death, the plan said.
Each of those symptoms were indicators Ewing's mental health could be deteriorating, which is described as decompensation by hospital staff, Ferrazzano said. Ewing had taken sleeping medication 19 times during April, the documents said. He had taken pain killers five times for back pain. During a meeting in April to discuss Ewing's progress and the upcoming quarterly meeting, Ewing became angry and swore at Hering. She had just told him his plans for release were going to be delayed.
“When all of those stressers are present, there is a risk of decompensation, right?” Ferrazzano asked Henderson.
“Yes,” she said.
“And if that decompensation isn't stopped in time, it can lead to a full-blown psychosis, correct?”
It didn't come up during Tuesday's hearing, but Nicollet County sheriff's deputies reported finding newspaper clippings about Ewing's sister's murder in a duffel bag he brought with him during the outing with his mother. The bag also contained clothing and food, and Ewing had attempted to close his bank account at the hospital that day. After his arrest, he told deputies he planned to flee in his mother's car or drive to Ramsey County, where Shoreview is located, and turn himself in.
Henderson testified she didn't see any psychotic symptoms when she met with Ewing on May 3, 2012, five days before the stabbing. Frie and Hering both said they didn't see any of those symptoms, either, during their meeting a few hours before the incident.
Dunn also asked Hering to describe a letter she received from Ewing in January. She said the letter included an apology for his paranoia the day after the attack on his mother. Ewing had called Hering on May 9, 2012, and asked her to bring his glasses, a drug handbook and his Bible to the Nicollet County Jail.
Dunn also had Hering read a short note that she said was in parenthesis after the apology.
“Let's not bullsh**,” the note said. “It was attempted murder.”