A Homeless Homicide

A stoned driver killed Christina Van Huffel in his Mercedes. The mental-health system let her die.

Richard Courtney vividly remembers the day he met Christina Van Huffel, the day the stage was set for the homeless woman's death. She was sitting in her usual spot on a bench outside Publix at the Ramblewood Square Shopping Center in Coral Springs. "She was filthy dirty, covered with grime," he recalls. "She was really smelly. She was wearing several layers of clothes, and her hair was all matted like it hadn't been washed in years. She was pretty crazy. She was hallucinating a bit."

But more than anything he remembers her piercing blue eyes. "You could see that, under the mental illness, there was a good person, a person who really had intelligence and wanted to be connected," says Courtney, a formerly homeless man who now helps others get off the streets.

When Christina refused to go to a shelter, psychologists from Henderson Mental Health Center agreed she be taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation under the state's Baker Act. Minutes before she was whisked away to University Hospital, Courtney decided he wanted one more chance to help her. Convinced he could persuade Christina to enter a residential treatment program, he asked that hospital officials call him before she was released. He never saw her again.

Despite the urging of Coral Springs police, nurses in the hospital's psychiatric unit never called Courtney. When Christina's 72-hour, state-ordered commitment ended in late March, the woman was loaded into a van and dropped off at an address on Oakland Park Boulevard.

Less than two months later, she was dead, killed by a Mercedes-Benz as she crossed Federal Highway in Lighthouse Point. There was no evidence the driver, Neal Lorusso, tried to stop. Lorusso, a 31-year-old Sunrise man who earns a living buying and selling stock with money his family made from a malpractice lawsuit, declined to comment for this story. Although he admitted to police he smoked two joints just hours before the crash and a test found traces of Valium in his blood, no charges were filed against him.

In fact, in an 89-page report that details Christina's final moments, the Broward Sheriff's Office blamed her for the collision. Had she used a nearby crosswalk, Det. Matthew Gorman concluded, she might be alive today.

So ended an 11-year odyssey that took Christina from South Bend, Indiana, to Kauai, Hawaii, to San Francisco, California, to Coral Springs, where she became an unsightly fixture in the neatly clipped slice of suburbia. When it began she was a 32-year-old, college-educated commercial artist. When it ended she was just one of thousands of faceless misfits ignored by those who are supposed to help them.

Gorman insists there simply wasn't enough evidence to charge Lorusso with a traffic violation, much less a crime. "We had a witness who was walking behind her," Gorman says. "She was talking to herself and waving her hands. She was a schizophrenic."

Lorusso, on the other hand, was cooperative, Gorman adds. Sure, he had a lousy driving record. He had been in two other accidents in the last four years but wasn't charged in either. He had been caught speeding four times since 1998 and was cited twice for driving without a seat belt and once for driving without headlights. His driver's license was suspended twice, most recently in February for not attending court-ordered driving school.

Then there were the drugs. "Did I see signs of impairment?" Gorman asks rhetorically. "I saw watery, bloodshot eyes."

Given Christina's past, her behavior just minutes before the accident, and the difficulty of proving that either the marijuana or Valium had compromised Lorusso's driving ability, Gorman contends he had no choice but to let Lorusso off. (Lorusso declined to comment for this story.)

To Christina's parents, Hilde and Joseph Van Huffel, Gorman's report was final proof of the lesson they have learned since the youngest of their three children fell apart 11 years ago: No one cares about the mentally ill. "They're the forgotten people," Hilde Van Huffel says from her home in South Bend.

If her daughter, once a high-school honor student full of promise, had been a housewife, a teacher, or some other so-called contributing member of society, her death wouldn't have been dismissed so lightly, Hilde Van Huffel comments. Further, she says, if Christina had gotten treatment, she wouldn't have ended up confused, frightened, and alone on a dark stretch of Federal Highway. Six weeks before the crash, she was in the state's mental-health system. But it spit her back out.

The part of Gorman's report that most stings Hilde and Joseph Van Huffel is the claim they hadn't seen their daughter in ten years. "That's simply not true," she says. The Van Huffels followed their daughter across the country. They racked up thousands of dollars in long-distance telephone calls. They are financially and emotionally spent.

Hilde Van Huffel, who was born in Germany 75 years ago and worked as an office manager at Notre Dame University for 22 years, can't talk about Christina without crying. Joseph Van Huffel, who watched the advertising agency he built crumble as he worried about his daughter, spends his days poring over Gorman's report, searching for a lawyer who will help him find someone to blame for Christina's death.

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