What Really Happened To Marvin Noble

by Mark Scaramella, October 24, 2007

Remember the Marvin Noble case? Noble was shot dead by Ukiah Police back in 1998 when he tried to walk back to his Ukiah apartment after the Mendocino Mental Health department dispatched the cops because he wouldn't take his Haldol. Noble, a 300-plus pound black man, was enrolled in California's "CONREP" (Conditional Release) program, an involuntary outpatient mental health program for people with psychiatric disabilities who enter the program through the criminal justice system. As a condition of his CONREP status, Noble was required to take monthly injections of Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication, and keep all of his appointments to the satisfaction of his Mental Health Department treatment supervisor. By July 16, 1998, Noble had missed one (1) group therapy appointment and was two days late for his injection. His tardiness turned out to be a capital offense.

A bizarre and inexcusable escalation of events ensued culminating in Noble's being shot and killed by Ukiah Police officers when Noble stabbed the police dog that had been sicced on him, the dog being regarded as the equivalent of a two-legged officer, hence gun shots to save a fellow officer.

The shooting occurred at the end of a grotesque death walk as Noble, routed from the Foster's Freeze on South State Street where he'd been peacefully sipping an ice tea on a hot July day, tried to get back to his nearby apartment at the corner of State Street and Gobbi. As the police, a cadre of whom surrounded him, repeatedly doused Noble with pepper spray, and police dogs lunged at the blinded man as he stumbled towards his home, Noble slowly, determinedly, walked on, the macabre procession witnessed by countless aghast onlookers both on the sidewalks and from their halted vehicles on State Street. It's about two long blocks from where Marvin enjoyed his last iced tea to his apartment. When the bizarre show disappeared into Marvin's apartment building the inevitable gun shots were soon heard, and the next anyone saw a wounded Officer Dog was carried out onto the sidewalk by his Ukiah Police handler. An ambulance appeared, and Officer Dog was rushed, sirens screaming, to a veterinarian where Officer Dog expired. Meanwhile, Marvin was breathing his last upstairs. Emergency medical people tried to save him but he was too seriously wounded. The next ambulance came for what was left of him. The police were later excoriated for their emergency services priorities that put Officer Dog first, Marvin second. But the police explained that moving the shot-up Marvin down the stairs to the ambulance would have finished him even faster than the futile labor by the paramedics to save him.

It was obvious that Noble's death was due to the Mental Health Department's failure to deal competently with his situation. Soon after Noble's death the State Department of Mental Health did an evaluation of the case and issued a report, but the County Supervisors and their then-CEO, Mike Scannell, blacked out almost all of the publicly-released version of the report, leaving the public to assume that the County had something serious to hide. A wrongful death civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court by Noble's family a few months after his death, but the ill-prepared suit, filed by Ukiah attorney Phil DeJong and San Francisco attorney Dennis Cunningham, was tossed by the federal court.

Unbeknownst to most Mendolanders (including us), a highly respected Oakland-based disability rights organization called Protection & Advocacy Inc. commissioned a study of the Noble killing in May of 2000. We ran across it by chance recently while looking into the Mental Health Department's recent budgetary problems. The very senior researchers, Paul B. Duryea and Colette I. Hughes, evaluated the Noble case and a similar death in Monterey County. Both of the experts have extensive law enforcement and mental health resumes. Their report was entitled "Precipitous Use of 5150 by Mental Health Ends in Shooting Deaths of Disabled Men."

Noble was put into the CONREP program, a sort of permanent parole from the state hospital system, after an episode about 17 years earlier in which he'd taken his ex-wife and his own children hostage. During the kidnap and ensuing standoff, Noble raped the former Mrs. Noble. He refused to come out with his hands up until he'd exhausted everyone, including the police, in the now familiar hostage situation. Noble was clearly a difficult case, but he'd managed to live out his subsequent heavily medicated 17 years without any further incident and was not considered to be a serious threat to anyone while in the CONREP program. But Noble didn't like the side effects of his meds and he didn't like some of the Mental Health department people who were paid to stay on top of his case. He had begun to balk at taking his Haldol. Because of Noble's clinical paranoia he was known to use bravado and intimidation at the drop of a hat as a defense mechanism. He'd regularly say things like, "You touch me, I'll kill you." But none of his therapists took him seriously. You say that to a cop and you've got a good chance of summary execution.

By July 16, 1998, according to the researchers, "Mr. Noble had missed one group therapy appointment and was two days late for his injection. Instead of exercising other options, such as further negotiations with Mr. Noble, mental health staff instructed the local police to pick up Mr. Noble and take him to the local psychiatric facility against his will. Although the issue of Mr. Noble's failure to comply with outpatient treatment requirements was clearly within mental health staff's scope of responsibility, CONREP program staff did not accompany the police."

Mr. Noble had been complaining that the Haldol made him fat and lazy, and that he'd had enough of it. He had begun to resist the medication regimen and refused to come in, telling his county workers, "I guess you'll have to send The Man out to get me." Mr. Noble's primary mental health worker at the time, Laurel Bleess, seems to have received the brunt of the blame for Mr. Noble's death, but she's more of a scapegoat than anything else. Ms. Bleess didn't run the lucrative Con-Rep program Noble was enrolled in at a large profit to Mendocino County, but she seems to have been the one shoved forward as Mental Health's sacrificial therapist, insofar as anybody anywhere has been held responsible for the Noble tragedy.

Until the Oakland-based group's comprehensive study, the public was not privy to the numerous government evaluations and reports surrounding the case. But the researchers quote those reports extensively and it's now quite clear why Mendo authorities didn't want to release their report at the time: Practically everything that could be done wrong was done wrong.

The Mental Health Department told the researchers that they didn't accompany the cops to pick up Mr. Noble for his med treatment because they said they believed their presence would make matters worse. (!) According to Mental Health's own explanation of the incident, "As a result of Marvin's statements about resisting and warning CONREP not to come get him, we decided that the presence of mental health clinicians would incense and inflame Marvin more and create more danger. Therefore a clinician did not accompany the police."

Trouble is, as the researchers point out, they had just been out looking for Mr. Noble to tell him to take his meds the previous day and obviously didn't think their presence would be a problem then. In addition, as it turns out, Mr. Noble's case was set to be reviewed by the court the day after he was shot. Mental Health could have easily brought up his failure to take his meds at the hearing; they would have then had the court order they needed to check Noble into a hospital facility.

Instead the cops were dispatched. "The usefulness of mental health staff going out with police to apprehend a patient would typically be determined by protocol (there was none)," reported the experts, "prior working relationships and training (none existed), and police decisions (whether to collaborate with mental health workers or to 'take charge'). One must note that the minute the patient produced a knife in the crowded restaurant, the role of the mental health worker would have ended and the encounter would have followed its course as a police matter. Instead of addressing the reasons underlying Mr. Noble's recent refusals of treatment or attempting to negotiate a less drastic solution by enlisting the assistance of family or friends, mental health personnel helped escalate these rather marginal and common mental health situations of treatment refusal into dangerous confrontations with the police."

According to the researchers, Mendocino County Mental Health had no reason to declare Mr. Noble 5150 and have the cops come to get him. He wasn't a danger to himself or others, and he wasn't unable to care for his basic needs. In addition, the researchers noted, the police are required to exercise their own independent judgment in these cases about whether the person is genuinely and objectively 5150. Mr. Noble was sitting in the Foster's Freeze drinking some iced tea when the cops arrived. He was not in a psychotic state.

The researchers faulted Mendo's Mental Health Department for declaring Noble 5150 and not accompanying the cops, and, secondarily blamed the cops as contributing factors for not exercising good judgment. The report concludes, "PAI's investigation found that mental health and law enforcement personnel acted precipitously and without adequate regard for their respective responsibilities under Section 5150. ...The intervention by mental health and law enforcement personnel helped to create the circumstances resulting in this death." Continuing, "It is evident that the overwhelming reason for involuntary hospitalization was [Mr. Noble's] refusal of treatment. This is a mental health matter, not one for law enforcement. Instead of working with Mr. Noble to address his recent refusal of medication, mental health staff chose the most expedient and potentially dangerous course available to them — calling the police."

"The most disturbing question regarding this case is why there was a rush to 5150 Mr. Noble on July 16, 1998. There is no substantial evidence that imminent hospitalization was necessary. In fact, during interviews with PAI investigators, one staff member noted that the use of Section 5150 was more expedient than following the Penal Code procedure for revoking Mr. Noble's outpatient treatment."

In a footnote to the report the experts put their finger on the basic problem at Mental Health: Then-Director Bob Wolf. "Note 10. In statements made to the press, the Mental Health Services Director (Bob Wolf) indicated that he could not discuss the specifics of Mr. Noble's case, but stated that his department 'will call police if it has reason to believe the patient is looking for or may cause trouble. ... It has to do with whether the person will cooperate,' the Mental Health Services Director said. 'In general, there's always room for improvement but I wouldn't say there's any blame in this incident. People did what they had to do.' These statements indicate a lack of understanding concerning what constitutes probable cause for a 5150 and under what circumstances the police should be called. That the patient may cause trouble or not cooperate is too vague and speculative to justify the intervention of law enforcement."

(The entire report by Protection & Advocacy Inc. is at www.pai-ca.org/pubs/701601.htm)

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