Police question killer's freedoms

John Violette at a hearing last year

February 13, 2012 3:06:14 PM PST
It was a case that shocked North Carolina and the country. On January 12, 2007, then 37-year-old John Patrick Violette stabbed and decapitated his 4-year-old daughter Katlin in their home on McKinnon Drive in Clayton.

The child's mother returned to find Katlin's bloody corpse lying in a hallway.

"I just got home from work and I walked through my door. And my daughter's in the middle of the hallway. My daughter's dead, and my husband's not here. I don't know what's happening," a frantic Amber Violette told a 911 operator.

Clayton Police Chief Glen Allen told ABC11 he'll never forget what he saw in the Violette home.

"I've been in law enforcement 30 years, and this is the most terrible homicide I've ever seen," Allen offered.

Police said the little girl's body was left in a trash can. Neighbors were stunned.

"They seemed like a very loving … they loved that little girl. They just doted over her, and they were very protective over her, and they just seemed like a normal family," offered neighbor Lori McCreary.

John Violette's vehicle was found at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and investigators learned he had taken a flight to Washington, D.C. U.S. marshals arrested him after police tracked his credit card to a hotel.

"From the time they entered the room, he seemed to be very confused, screaming, quoting Revelations from the Bible, and he continued to do that the whole time while he was in custody," recalled U.S. Marshal Tex Lindsey.

Violette did not fight extradition, and he was returned to North Carolina to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge. But that trial never took place. At a competency hearing one year after the murder, a judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

A psychiatrist testified Violette was insane when he stabbed his daughter to death and dismembered her body. Even Violette's wife took the stand to plead on his behalf.

Experts said he suffered from schizophrenia and psychosis, and testified Violette heard voices in his head - voices that told him his daughter was an evil spirit. Violette reportedly decapitated Katlin to keep the spirit from escaping.

He was committed to the Dorothea Dix state mental hospital - where he has been ever since.

Killer gets tastes of freedom

Now, five years after the gruesome killing of the 4-year-old child, Violette's case has reignited the age-old debate about whether violent mental patients are safe if they're on medication and in therapy. Mental health experts say some are, while others aren't so sure.

Chief Allen told ABC11 he reluctantly went along with Violette's commitment, but never believed that a man who could butcher his daughter, then calmly catch a flight to Washington and check into a hotel room, could be too crazy to know what he was doing - too crazy to stand trial.

"I thought his actions showed a criminal trying to get away. Crazy would have been staying there and waiting for someone," the Chief said.

Allen said he has deep concerns about allowing Violette to have any interaction with the public. But that's just what he gets at the hospital where he not only has access to the public but also sharp objects at Dix's Grill on the Hill - a state-run, patient staffed, restaurant that's open to anyone.

At a recent competency hearing, mental health experts updated a judge on Violette's progress. A social worker testified he had an incident in October.

"His thoughts started to escalate, that maybe this person would do something to harm him," explained a social worker. "It escalated. He talked to the nurses, but the next morning he was still anxious."

The hearing also determined what privileges Violette is allowed - such as working with knives in the Grill on the Hill's kitchen.

"He comes to us and asks if he can get the knife. He does what assignment he has to do. He cleans the knife and then returns it to us immediately," explained a supervisor.

"I just don't see putting that weapon back in his hand as therapy," Chief Allen offered.

Violette is also allowed to walk unescorted around the open Dorothea Dix campus, which is just down the street from Raleigh's popular Pullen Park.

"He demonstrates his skill and responsibility," explained a social worker.

"The public needs to be aware of what may happen," said Allen.

But despite the concerns voiced by police and prosecutors at the competency hearing, Violette has been allowed to continue his half-hour unescorted walks on the Dix campus. The judge even granted him new freedoms.

"Going to allow, very strict, very limited, off-campus privileges - one staff member to three patients and no greater than three hours. No overnight, fully monitored," ordered Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner.

Violette is now allowed three-hour field trips to the movies, the mall, or wherever an escort deems he and up to two other patients, and the public, could safely interact.

Violette has the support of his wife Amber who attended his recent competency hearing.

"Mrs. Violette, Amber, visits him almost daily," Violette's therapist told the judge.

Amber Violette declined to comment for this story.

When is a violent mental patient safe?

The debate over how to treat people who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the criminal justice system is not new.

Just last week, prosecutors and defense attorneys were sparring once again over similar liberties for John Hinckley Jr. - the man who shot President Ronald Reagan outside a hotel in 1981. Psychiatrists said Hinckley's mental illness is in remission and have allowed him extended trips away from his mental hospital.

Defense attorneys argued he should ultimately be allowed to live away from the hospital full time, but prosecutors said he needs more supervision, not less.

For the police chief who investigated Katlin Violette's death, allowing her killer any freedom is hard to fathom.

"I won't be convinced that he's any safer than the day he killed his daughter," Chief Allen offered. "I feel like if there's anyone left to be the voice of the voiceless - Kaitlin - it's up to us, and we need to make sure people remember."

ABC11 contacted the Department of Health and Human Services - which treats and supervises John Violette at Dorothea Dix, but it declined to comment due to patient confidentiality laws.

Violette's next competency hearing is in December, and he could one day be allowed to go free.

Chief Allen said he'll keep trying to convince the legal system not to let that happen.

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