COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — A South Side man accused of threatening to burn down a day care center and kill the children inside is now sitting in the Cook County Jail — but his family said he needs help, not prison.
Keith King, 26, is autistic and normally well-mannered and sweet, his attorney said.
But at the time of the alleged threats, he wasn't taking his proper medication — and was still reeling from the closure of a mental health clinic where he was being treated, his family said.
King’s family said things went downhill for him since the Community Mental Health Council on 87th Street near Stony Island Avenue was shuttered last year after its state funding was cut.
In recent months, prosecutors said King has been incessantly calling and visiting a day care center in the 2100 block of East 83rd Street. He's called or visited more than 80 times, according to prosecutors and court records.
On voicemail messages, he said he would “burn and blow the day care down, kill [the owner] and the kids at the day care,” according to a police report.
King was charged with felony harassment after he left the threatening and obscene messages, Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Lorraine Scaduto said.
The day care owner reported him to the police. King's attorney, Herschel Rush, said the owner was probably the object of King’s misguided desire.
When King told his mother about making the phone calls about a month ago, she said she decided to check him into the hospital.
He was released a few days later — after doctors prescribed medication three times stronger than the dosage he had been taking to curb what his mother called “impulse-control problems.”
Keith and his mother went to the police station to explain that he hadn't been taking the proper medication when he made the threatening phone calls and that he wouldn't be making any more.
“He tried to do the right thing, and they locked him up,” King’s mother said. “Keith doesn’t belong in the penitentiary surrounded by murderers.”
He was arrested, charged with felony harassment and sent to jail this month. But King’s family and his attorney said he belongs in treatment, and that he would be “at home” if not for the crumbling mental system in Chicago.
“Keith doesn’t need to be locked up in a cage,” said King’s mother, who asked not to be identified.
She and King’s sister were in court earlier this month when a Cook County judge ordered King held without bail for violating the mental health probation he was sentenced to last year for aggravated battery of a “transportation employee.”
"He pinched the bus driver’s butt," said his attorney, Rush, adding that the felony charge stemmed from a “crush” King had on a CTA driver.
Rush, who represented King in the battery case, said he was shocked to learn what his client has been accused of doing this time around.
“He’s a sweet, kind person,” Rush said. “He calls me all the time; ‘Mr. Rush, Merry Christmas, Mr. Rush, Happy New Year.’ He remembers my birthday.”
There was a public outcry last year when mental health centers around the city were shuttered because of budget constraints. Some of the clinics were closed by the city.
King was being treated at a state-funded center, however. It shut down around the same time as the city clinics.
“I am told by mental health providers on Chicago's Southeast and Southwest side that since [the clinic] closed, nothing has replaced the infrastructure we provided,” said Dr. Carl Bell, a nationally renowned psychologist and the former director of the clinic where King was treated. “I have seen some of my patients wandering around the community due to the lack of programs.”
When the city closed mental health centers, protesters, including some from Occupy Chicago, were arrested after barricading themselves inside the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic using quick-dry cement and pipes.
Their efforts failed, and the clinic, along with five others around the city, shut down.
N'Dana Carter, 59, was among those arrested for the protest. She said the city’s decision has a direct impact on crime.
“There was a schizophrenic man who was part of our movement; he ended up murdering his best friend,” said Carter, who has struggled with severe bouts of depression throughout her life. “People are ending up in nursing homes, people are ending up in jail.”
While King regularly sees a new therapist, his attorney said he would not have strayed so off course if he was still receiving the level of services he benefited from at the South Side clinic.
“If the funding had not been cut, Keith wouldn’t even be in the system and [the taxpayer] wouldn’t be paying to incarcerate him,” Rush said.
Rush, who agreed to represent King pro bono, said he is afraid he will “get lost” in the criminal justice system, as he says people with mental illnesses commonly do.
“You basically fall into a dark hole,” he said.