More Street Stories Tales from the Barking Muse

Wine Country 5150s or They’re Coming To Take Me Away*

By Gerry Goldshine

Mental health
Mental health

In his most recent ramblings, Hal has been talking about 5150s, so I thought I would continue the topic but from the perspective of a much smaller police department. There were times that it sure seemed like Petaluma, with a population of just over 33,000 in 1980, was the 5150 capital of the San Francisco Bay Area. From my very first call with Petaluma Police to the completion of my “rookie” year, I was convinced that the dispatchers had conspired to assign me every 5150 call the department received including one where the bipolar lady forgot all her English and would only speak in Italian.

(In 1983, one of my sergeants insisted that there was a giant tuning fork under the city. He might have been right–Thonie)

That first call came in while my FTO and I were still in morning briefing. Our sergeant wanted us to Petaluma Valley Hospital and relieve a graveyard shift officer, who had been standing by an injured suicidal man who was on a 5150 hold. The man, in his mid–twenties, and went by the name of Raincloud Mudball. I’ve only slightly changed the name that was on his Driver’s License. Bear in mind, this is the San Francisco Bay Area after all.  He had declared to those who would listen, that he was Jesus, or something like that. He was having the urge to visit his father in Heaven. In order to do this, he proceeded to strip off all his clothes and then flung his body at passing cars on Highway 101 until one inevitably hit him. Surprisingly, he sustained relatively minor injuries, considering a car going 55 MPH had struck him.  While he was being treated in the Emergency Room, Raincloud was completely lucid, refusing any pain medication or local anesthetic while the doctor stitched him back together. He even called his mother, who told us that her son was a schizophrenic and had obviously stopped taking his prescribed medications. Our job was to follow the ambulance carrying Raincloud to the psychiatric facility at Napa State Hospital just in case he got the urge to visit heaven again. It was our good fortune that he did not.


Patients in an Insane Asylum--February 1946, Ohio, USA
Patients in an Insane Asylum–February 1946, Ohio, USA

Back in the 1980s, all law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County took those being held under 5150 WIC to the county psychiatric facility in Santa Rosa, known as Oakcrest. While much smaller in size compared to the University of Southern California Medical Center’s psych ward, the attitudes of the people working at Oakcrest were similar to those Hal described. I got to know a lot of dedicated Psychiatric Technicians and some of the Psychiatrists. Sad to say, because of funding cuts, staffing shortages and an overload of patients, many of these dedicated people suffered from job burnout. Some of them no longer cared about what was best for the patients, while others made due the best they could but just went through the motions.

Far worse, were those arrogant techs and doctors who viewed police officers as ignorant, uneducated “jack-booted thugs” who couldn’t possibly have an intelligent inkling of what constituted mental illness. They were the ones “outraged” when it took four of us to bring in a combative person in the violent throes of some type of a mental breakdown. Usually, they would purposely delay us by rejecting the 5150 paperwork we had completed, either because they discovered some picayune mistake or because they just felt like it. They were also the ones who insisted we immediately remove the handcuffs from a “patient”. I learned the hard way before developing Hal’s mindset; the cuffs don’t come off until the combative patient is in a secured room, all the paperwork is approved and I’m on my out the door.

Unfortunately, many of these “patients” were released well before the 72-hour hold period had expired. Sometimes, this was a result of someone deciding that they were no longer a danger to themselves or others, based on a 5-10 minute intake interview. On other occasions, they simply walked out the front door because there had been insufficient staff on duty to watch over them. More than once did I discover that in the 20 to 30 minutes it took me to get back to Petaluma, someone had released a 5150 I had just taken to the facility or they had walked out the front door. It was frustrating, not only to me and other officers but to the subjects’ family as well. In many cases, the family had exhausted all means to get their loved one help and the 5150 hold was their last refuge.

In the case of a “walk-away”, sometimes the good folks at Oakcrest would actually take the time and notify the Santa Rosa Police or us. More often than not, they didn’t and before the individual could make their way back to Petaluma, their behavior would bring them to the attention of law enforcement in whatever jurisdiction in which they happened to be. That department would then have to initiate a completely new 5150 hold. Sadly, once and awhile an early release, regardless of how it came about, would have tragic consequences.

One October, about three or four days before Halloween, a very despondent man walked into the garden section of a local “Paymore” Drug Store. He opened a bottle of Malithion insecticide and proceeded to drink the contents. Fortunately, someone witnessed what he had done and had the store manager call 911. Police and Fire responded and took the man to the local hospital. In the Emergency Room, he told everyone that he had been trying to commit suicide, the reasons for which I no longer recall. I think most would agree that anyone doing what this guy had done, was in need of some serious mental health treatment. He obviously met the criteria for a 72-hour 5150 WIC hold, assuming that he survived, which to everyone’s surprise, he did. Before the day was over, he was well enough for an officer to take him to Oakcrest. However, someone at the facility, made the decision that downing a Malathion cocktail in a drug store was insufficient evidence that someone posed a danger to himself. They released him well short of the 72 hours.

Come Halloween night, at around 10 PM, dispatch sent Officer T and me to check the welfare of a male subject whose family had been unable to contact him; however, we were to call dispatch on the telephone before responding. Officer T and I met up near a payphone – this was in the dark times before cell phones. We learned that the man whose welfare we were supposed to check was the same individual who had swallowed the Malathion a few days earlier.

The man’s house was a run-down old Victorian with a large detached garage; both were completely dark. Naturally, there was no response to our knocking at the front door, which was locked. As we started around to the back of the house, several kids who were Trick or Treating asked us if the house was haunted. That’s how creepy the place looked. Luckily, the back door was unlocked. Being the smaller officer, I did not relish having to climb through a window. None of the lights inside worked and the “décor” was in a state that you would expect from someone seriously depressed. It was a two-story house and of course, every damn tread on the staircase creaked loudly with each step we made. I half expected to find Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Freddy Krueger or Bela Lugosi around one corner or another.

I can’t say we were tremendously relieved at finding nothing inside the house, because that still left the garage, which was even more dilapidated than the house. The back door to it was open with the obligatory cobwebs all around the frame. Stacks of boxes, scraps of lumber, furniture, auto parts and parts of old wooden shelving blocked the view from outside the door. Officer T discovered a light switch just inside the door but, as was the case inside the house, it didn’t work. As we made our way around inside and past one stack of boxes, we both looked at each other wide-eyed when we suddenly heard a long low creaking emanating from the darkened unseen depths of the garage. Finally, our flashlight beams played over the corpse of a man, hanging from the rafters by a rope tightly noosed around his neck. At his feet was a car battery and it was gruesomely evident that he had drank its liquid contents before hanging himself. Clearly, this man had really wanted to die.

Of course, this begs the question; would a longer stay at Oakcrest have prevented this from happening? For several years afterward, I thought so; however, with experience on the job, I gradually came to understand there are some people, whose minds are so broken, that no amount of psychiatric intervention is going to help. These people see death as the only solution and their only salvation.

I never did learn what ultimately happened Raincloud Mudball. Napa State Hospital has long since closed its doors. I hoped that once he regained an even keel, he continued to take his medications. At the risk of corniness, I like to think that the world is a much more colorful place with someone going by the name of Raincloud Mudball, in it.


*Apologies to: Napoleon XIV – They’re Coming to Take Me Away