The Fear of Living Dangerously

Victory Living Programs is supposed to teach mentally disabled clients how to live independently -- not to live in terror.

After having his hand broken in three places by a mop handle, Darin Militello decided a month ago that it was time he came up with a survival plan. Mulling it over he decided the best way to play it safe would be to avoid risks altogether. So from now on, he says, "I just stay in my room. I don't show my face. I don't go outside. I don't leave unless I have to."

The apartment complex in which Militello lives, the place he calls "the hellhole" -- otherwise known as the Dania campus of Victory Living Programs, Inc. (VLP) -- is just getting too dangerous these days.

Militello is one of 24 men currently residing on this "campus," actually a small, 12-unit apartment compound in Dania. The complex is owned and operated by VLP for the purpose of providing a safe environment for teaching mentally retarded men the life-management skills they'll need to survive on their own.

Mildly retarded himself, Militello is nevertheless one of the highest-functioning and most articulate VLP residents. And he is concerned with not only his own safety but the safety of those residents whose severe retardation renders them most vulnerable to abuse or harm. To him the problem is simple: "[VLP management] is bringing some very bad cases in here, and they're not checking them out."

Although he seems sincere in his concern for his defenseless neighbors, Militello doesn't realize that his own presence at VLP represents part of the very problem he describes. Militello came to VLP by way of the Broward County courts, having been assigned in January after pleading guilty to a charge of sexual assault. He must wear an ankle monitoring device 24 hours a day and cannot leave the premises without permission and accompaniment.

Over the last two years, a growing chorus of family members and social workers have been complaining that VLP has neglected its responsibility to protect its more helpless residents. The program, they say, has proved itself too willing to admit individuals who exhibit mental illnesses or behavioral problems and -- most ominously -- individuals who have violent or criminal backgrounds. To place such people side by side with others whose severe retardation renders them childlike and trustingly naive, these critics allege, is to build a bomb with a short fuse.

Late one night in the spring of 1997, the bomb exploded.
Larry Baker, a 41-year-old mentally retarded man who has lived at VLP since 1995, is relatively low functioning by VLP standards and was not placed there by the courts for violent or criminal behavior. He's also schizophrenic, yet he nevertheless seems well liked by his fellow residents on the campus. "He's a bit off the wall," says Richard Quarterman, who lives in his own VLP apartment nearby, "but everybody likes Larry."

Not so Johnny Potts, one of Baker's alleged kidnappers. Potts had come to VLP as a 21-year-old straight out of a foster home. He had spent almost his entire childhood under the supervision of the juvenile court, says a Division of Children and Families (DCF) staffer who has read his agency case file. Potts has a history fraught with violence against authority figures and others, this staffer says. "He had built up a history as a troublemaker."

Nothing seemed to change after Potts arrived on campus at VLP. "Oh, yeah, that Potts, he was always yelling, always running around screaming. He was a bad influence," says resident Quarterman, in an opinion echoed by other residents.

In a deposition VLP resident Arthur Priceman stated, "Well (Potts) has a short fuse, similar to mine, and gets mad when he doesn't get what he wants when he wants it. So he'd knock a bench over and get mad and, you know, cuss people out and take on anybody that gets in his way." For his part Militello says he knew there was something wrong with Potts the day he met him. "That guy was definitely a fruitcake," he says. "The first day, he kept hammering on my door, again and again and again, just to show me a radio."

None of this was news to VLP management at the time. Harry Thomas, VLP assistant director, said in a deposition that Potts was "OK, but when he has these incidents and he's acting up, he's really tough to deal with." And a former VLP staffer who didn't want to be identified in this story says Potts was "a holy terror," adding that he seemed to intimidate some less-experienced staffers. "He's the only client I ever knew, they'd give him beer and money just for being good. Of course, then he would act up just to make sure he got all these things." A VLP administrator denies that staffers ever bribed residents with beer or money.

Sometime during the night of May 30, 1997, Potts apparently lost all control. With another new VLP resident named Israel Belhomme in tow, Potts allegedly broke into Larry Baker's apartment, tied him hand and foot to his bed with belts, and proceeded to bite Baker's arms, burn him with cigarettes, and fondle him sexually, according to court records. Belhomme also allegedly took part in the assault.

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