A life lived out on the margins

Sergeant Nathan White (centre) is assisted by Constable Brent Mitchell and Constable Amie Manning...
Sergeant Nathan White (centre) is assisted by Constable Brent Mitchell and Constable Amie Manning after being stabbed in the chin. Photo: Gregor Richardson
When a 21-year-old man robbed a liquor store wielding a pair of scissors, then stabbed a police officer who tried to arrest him, it was a new low point of a life lived in society’s margins with debilitating mental-health issues. Rob Kidd investigates what led to the "explosion of violence" and what his future holds.

When the court closed the book on Dean Suddens-Burgess he was surrounded by men in various shades of blue, wearing stab-proof vests.

The public gallery was as empty as the defendant’s eyes.

Pallid complexion, reddy-brown hair, wearing a bushman’s camouflage T-shirt; Corrections officers twice his size glanced at him from the corners of their eyes.

Suddens-Burgess was to be effectively sentenced to a maximum of seven years at Wakari Hospital following  "an unprovoked explosion of violence".

In February he robbed a central Dunedin liquor store and tried to stab the owner with a pair of scissors before a fracas with police left an officer with three facial wounds.

Twitchy staff in court had no idea whether another eruption was imminent.

For the 21-year-old in the dock, the faceless uniforms and frowning medical professionals had been a fixture in his life since he was 11 months old.

Red flags were raised about his excessively violent behaviour that far back, living in Timaru.

At 2, Suddens-Burgess was said to be exhibiting oppositional behaviour.

Four years later, more ominous-sounding diagnoses were heaped upon him — oppositional defiant disorder, disorganised attachment disorder.

The child needed constant care from a teacher aide at primary school and even then  outbursts  led to extended periods out of class.

Suddens-Burgess, the eldest of six children, was all but abandoned by his family.

His father spent most of those formative years in prison and by the age of 9  he was being shuffled between foster homes.

Nothing stuck.And  when he appeared in the Dunedin District Court last month, the only people at the hearing aside from him were those paid to be there.

Judge Michael Turner ordered Suddens-Burgess be held as a special patient — one of the most rigorous responses the court can impose. He will join a dozen other patients at Wakari Hospital under a strict regime of medication and supervision.

Super Liquor, in  Princes St, was robbed in broad daylight by a scissor-wielding man who tried to...
Super Liquor, in Princes St, was robbed in broad daylight by a scissor-wielding man who tried to stab the owner. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Recent guidelines noted the Director of Area Mental Health Services may go as far as to order Suddens-Burgess’ biometric data be collected.

That could include a photograph of a patient’s head and shoulders, fingerprints and an iris scan, to alleviate concerns of flight risk.

Restrictions on special patients’ movements are so stringent, any access to the hospital grounds (supervised or unsupervised) can  be approved only by the area director.

Any movement outside the premises requires sign-off from the national director.

Southern District Health Board consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr David Bathgate assessed Suddens-Burgess as a serious danger to  others.

The patient had fantasies of family gang connections, a "fascination with weapons" and did not believe he had a disability.

"Prior to the offending, the defendant’s lifestyle had been unstructured and he had never been subject to any level of compulsion for treatment of his issues,’ Dr Bathgate said.

"For a considerable period of time before the offending the level of support offered to the defendant was low."

Why?

Since 2012, Suddens-Burgess was a resident at Mount Cargill Trust, which offers a supported living environment for young people and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Manager Jane Booker issued a statement to the Otago Daily Times which said the trust had "robust processes to support and manage risks individuals may pose".

She refused to  be drawn into comment on the  case but said the facility managed risk in the "least restrictive manner".

"As a community disability service, the trust has no legal jurisdiction to impose supervision on an adult who may live with the service."

She would not say whether she was satisfied with the way the trust had dealt with Suddens-Burgess or if  any protocols had changed as a result.

Clearly, though, there were warning signs.

Between February 2016 and September 2017, Suddens-Burgess generated 24 incident reports for his behaviour — more than one a month.

He punched a staff member; there were  episodes featuring hidden knives; he was found carrying sharpened sticks in public and also frightened people by entering a property and refusing to leave.

Dean Suddens-Burgess is apprehended by police after being pepper-sprayed and twice tasered. Photo...
Dean Suddens-Burgess is apprehended by police after being pepper-sprayed and twice tasered. Photo: Gregor Richardson
In July 2017, the man came to the attention of police after walking into a Dunedin restaurant brandishing a knife.

Two months later he was apprehended for shoplifting and  held in custody after failing to give officers his real name.

Otago Coastal Area Commander Inspector Matenga Gray confirmed Suddens-Burgess received a pre-charge warning on both occasions.

"Mental health incidents can be among the most challenging and complex incidents police respond to," he said.

"It is very much a case-by-case basis whether to lay charges or not."

Had charges been laid, Suddens-Burgess may have been in the hands of mental-health services earlier.

And he would not have been dropped into town by a support worker on February 8.

Attack

Suddens-Burgess walked into Super Liquor at 3pm.

The foot traffic was heavy on the warm Dunedin day, store director Gurjeet Singh remembered.

The young man piling up beer, bourbon and snacks sounded no alarm bells for him.After rummaging in his pockets at the till, Suddens-Burgess pulled a pair of scissors from his jeans and thrust them towards the man’s neck.

Mr Singh told the ODT he stuck out his hand and halted the blade centimetres from him.

"It would have been straight into my neck."

His thoughts immediately turned to his wife,  seven months pregnant with their first child.

"As soon as he pulled a knife, all you can think of is your family," Mr Singh said.

Following a brief stand-off and repeated threats about  calling police, Suddens-Burgess bolted for the back of the shop and  out into Moray Pl.

Mr Singh eventually summoned the courage to follow and saw the armed robber still on the street, before  calling 111.

Sergeant Nathan White and Constable Amie Manning found Suddens-Burgess with the booze in Bond St.

With a history of responding violently to those in positions of authority, he again lashed out.

Const Manning ended up on the ground, showering the offender and Sgt White with pepper spray.

Then  Suddens-Burgess pulled out the scissors again and stabbed Sgt White  in the chin.

He was  subdued only  after being tasered twice.

Sgt White, who needed 15 stitches to close his  wounds, declined to be interviewed.

Judge Turner noted the seemingly random nature of the episode.

"While I accept that the defendant was not subject to an appropriate level of supervision in recent years, he was with a case-worker immediately before the offending. There were no signs at that point of what was about to unfold," he said.

"On the face of it the robbery was an unprovoked explosion of violence."

When quizzed about it, Suddens-Burgess said he had been aiming his weapon at the officer’s vest because he heard it was bullet-proof.

He had  shown no empathy for the plight of the victims and claimed  they  had attacked him.

Asked whether Suddens-Burgess’ mental-health issues changed his view of the situation, Mr Singh was unequivocal:  "I don’t feel sorry for him, that’s for sure."

Now what?

Dr Bathgate urged the court to impose a compulsory treatment order, which  would allow clinicians greater flexibility as to rehabilitation options.

But Judge Turner opted for the more rigid approach, making Suddens-Burgess a special patient.

Practically there would be little difference at first — he will be under constant supervision.But the court order puts a maximum term of seven years on the man’s special-patient status.

If that was to change before then, it would need sign-off from the Minister of Health and the Attorney-General.

Under a compulsory treatment order, Suddens-Burgess’ status could be altered by a responsible clinician alone.

"Given the level of risk, the unpredictable and unprovoked nature of the defendant’s violent outburst on this and earlier occasions, and his propensity for carrying weapons and violence, the defendant’s release to the community should not be left to a single clinician," the judge said.

If Suddens-Burgess has shown no signs of improvement after seven years he will continue to be held with compulsory status.

Southern DHB acting medical director of mental health, addictions and intellectual disabilities Dr Evan Mason said special patients had their own rooms and communal access to the rest of the ward.

"All special patients are managed in a medium-secure ward and are treated by a multidisciplinary team, with access to occupational therapy, social work and psychology," he said.

"While treatment is primarily focused on addressing mental health needs as well as offence-related work, we take a holistic approach to patient treatment and rehabilitation so that all assessed needs are addressed."

Since he was  transferred to Wakari Hospital in May, Suddens-Burgess’ aggressive tendencies had not abated.

He had been involved in four flashpoints,  one in which  he  wielded a metal bar as a weapon and two of which resulted in  him  being restrained and placed in seclusion.

How successful therapy would be was unknown.

With his fate determined by the court, security staff tentatively formed a tunnel, shepherding Suddens-Burgess towards the cells.

They had been told the 21-year-old had been anxious about the hearing.

With some gentle coaxing, he rose in the dock and walked slowly from the courtroom.

"I’m hungry," he said, as he walked through the door.

rob.kidd@odt.co.nz

 

Downward spiral

Dec 2012: Suddens-Burgess starts living at Mount Cargill Trust after foster-home options exhausted

Feb 2016 - Sept 2017: Behaviour, featuring weapons and violence, results in 24 "incident reports" at the trust

Jul 2017: Brandishes a knife in a restaurant, patrons call police

Sept 2017: Arrested for shoplifting and fails to give correct name and contact details. Held in police custody until they establish identity

Feb 2018: Robs liquor store, attacks two police officers

May 2018: Judge Dominic Flatley finds Suddens-Burgess unfit to stand trial, transferred to medium-secure intellectual disability psychiatric unit at Wakari Hospital from prison

Sept 2018: Judge Michael Turner makes him a special patient and will spend up to seven years in psychiatric care under that status

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