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VA workers train to deal with violent hospital clientele

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Published:   |   Updated: November 1, 2013 at 08:51 PM

Vincent Young, who had a history of domestic violence arrests and told friends he was dying of cancer, was one of the more than 100,000 veterans treated annually by the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System when he showed up at the St. Petersburg emergency room last week.

But at about 5 p.m. on Oct. 25, investigators say Young, 68, set off a series of events that made his visit unique.

He walked into the lobby of the emergency room carrying a backpack, said Special Agent Dave Couvertier with the FBI. Young then said he had a bomb, and when police with the Department of Veterans Affairs confronted him, Young brandished a knife and lunged at them, Couvertier said.

Hospital employees train for these types of situations at least four times a year, says the president of the union representing the hospital system's nearly 3,500 non-management personnel. Police and mental health professionals respond. And employees lock their doors and stay inside until the all-clear is given.

Trouble sometimes happens. There are nearly two disorderly conduct incidents every day and about one assault every 10 days across the Bay Pines system, the VA's fourth-busiest, according to records obtained by The Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“If this were a drill, the overhead paging system would have said that,” said Tatishka Musgrove, president of American Federation of Government Employees, Local 398.

This was no drill.

VA police shot and wounded Young. He was treated in the hospital and died there from his injuries.

The incident is the focus of two investigations, one by the FBI and one by the VA. Though it will be a while before the results are made public, there will likely be changes to hospital policy, said Musgrove.

Among other things, “there will probably be more police presence in the lobby,” she said.

This was the first incidence of deadly force at Bay Pines since it opened in 1933, according to Bay Pines pokesman Jason Dangel. There has never been one at Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, according to spokeswoman Karen Collins.

Nationwide, however, VA facilities are no stranger to deadly violence. There have been five cases where VA police have used lethal force since 2010, according to VA spokesman Randy Noller.

Musgrove said if any Bay Pines employees are worried about their safety, she is not aware.

“No one has expressed it directly to me,” she said.

****

To his neighbors and friends at Harbor Lights Club mobile home park, across the street from the veterans' hospital, Vincent Young only seemed to be troubled in retrospect, after his death. But Pinellas County Sheriff's reports paint a portrait of a man who fought with his wife until their divorce, and once had to be taken into custody for psychiatric evaluation under the state's Baker Act during their troubled marriage.

“He was very polite to everybody,” said his next-door neighbor Susan Tuskowski. “He was a very nice neighbor and he was just a private person.” Others described him as a hermit interested in fixing computers and making model airplanes that flew by remote control.

George “Gunny” Kenny, 63, another denizen of Harbor Lights, said he was Young's best friend.

Kenny's wife, Carole Langley-Kenny, said Young intimated he was dying of cancer during a brief encounter in September at a nearby Wawa convenience store, when she revealed she was on her way to see her daughter, who was dying of cancer, and that her nephew had recently died of cancer.

“Then he looked at me and said, 'Me, too,' ” she said. But Young didn't say what type of cancer he had, said Langley-Kenny, and she didn't press the issue because she had too much on her mind. Both she and her husband had noticed a recent precipitous drop in Young's weight, more than 100 pounds in seven months time.

“Talking to him, I felt it was terminal,” she said.

 

Young's wife Judi Young divorced him in 2007. The split came after a sometime rancorous relationship, according to sheriff's reports.

In 2005, Pinellas sheriff's deputies responded to a mobile home where the couple were living, in reference to a domestic disturbance. They found a broken bedroom door, and Young, drunk, on a side porch watching television. Judi told deputies Young was getting increasingly hostile over an upcoming “girls' vacation,” she was taking in Ohio without him, and that he had recently been sleeping in the guest room.

After she locked him out of the bedroom, he broke the bedroom door, Judi told deputies. Vince said she had broken it. Judi agreed to leave, to go to her daughter's place, and, since she did not claim she was in fear of her husband, no one was arrested.

In 2004, deputies found Young lying on his stomach in the driveway where he was living with his wife, extremely drunk and with cuts to his arms. His wife had barricaded herself inside a room and wouldn't come out until deputies arrived. She said he had been drinking all day watching football and that he gets difficult when he gets drunk, the sheriff's report states. He had tried breaking into the bedroom after she barricaded herself in it.

Judi said Young hadn't worked in a while, after he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery in 2003, in connection with an assault on her. She said he blamed his inability to find work on her.

Since deputies found Young with lacerations on his arms, likely caused by a box cutter -- he said he got them from fending off an attack from his wife — Young was taken into custody under the state's Baker Act, which allows someone to be held for 72 hours for a psychiatric evaluation.

****

Navy veteran Sam Brooks, 66 had come to Bay Pines with his wife Margaret, 65, to get his medications adjusted.

It was shortly before 5 p.m. Oct. 25.

Daniel Leding, one of the VA's doctors, had just come into a room off the emergency room lobby where Brooks was on an examining table when the couple heard the sound of an argument in the lobby.

“We heard a ruckus,” said Sam Brooks. “We heard a person say, 'put it down!' The other person cursed at him and said, 'don't bother me.'”

The argument got more heated, said Sam Brooks.

“I heard this other person say, 'put it down now!' Then he says, 'get on the floor, I am a federal marshal.' Then we heard rapid fire.”

Sam and Margaret Brooks said they heard four shots.

That's when Leding got the couple on the floor and used his body to shield them.

“We didn't know if there was a shooter going room to room,” said Sam Brooks. “This man was so heroic to shield us like that.”

After what seemed like forever, the crisis was over and the couple were led out through the lobby, where they could see Young, on his back, being worked on furiously by the hospital's medical staff, before he was eventually taken to the operating room.

****

Between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013, Bay Pines treated more than 103,500 patients, completed 1.3 million outpatient appointments, and admitted more than 10,200 patients at its primary medical center for inpatient specialty services, according to records obtained by The Tribune. Those figures include the Bay Pines VA Medical Center and outpatient clinics located in Bradenton, Cape Coral, Naples, Palm Harbor, Port Charlotte, Sarasota, Sebring and St. Petersburg.

There are 29 VA police officers in the Bay Pines system. Like all VA police, they go through an eight-week training course and receive about 100 hours of fire arms training, according to VA spokesman Noller.

The Bay Pines VA police investigated more than 3,000 incidents between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013, according to Uniform Crime Report figures obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

More than half — 1,885, were non-criminal, including responding to customer and patient assistance requests, false alarms, safety hazards, training events and vehicle accidents. The next biggest category, with 753 responses, were parking, moving and non-moving violations.

There were 594 police responses to disorderly conduct reports, according to the records, most of which were for complaints of disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, patient-to-employee threats and profanity or obscene language,

Officers investigated 70 larcenies, resulting in a loss of about $14,000 total.

Of the 39 responses to reported assaults, only one was for an aggravated assault — meaning a weapon, or an item intended to be used as a weapon was involved, according to Bay Pines spokesman Jason Dangel. Most of the offenders — 28 — were patients, according to the report, while most of the victims — 23 — were VA clinical employees.

Neither the FBI nor the VA would comment about the investigations into the Young shooting.

Musgrove, the union president, said the VA launched “a full-out investigation to see if anything could have been done differently.”

Each employee, said Musgrove, was talked to by the central office investigation team, and were offered the chance to seek counseling, if needed, through the employee assistance program.

Despite the shooting, Musgrove said the people she represents aren't working in a climate of fear.

“The majority of people do feel safe at work,” she said.

Sam and Margaret Brooks echoed that sentiment.

“I have no safety concerns at all,” said Sam Brooks.

haltman@tamaptrib.com

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