A Homeless Homicide

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

"We never knew a mentally ill person before this happened to Christina," says Hilde Van Huffel. And, she says, until 1989, there was no reason to suspect Christina would become one."She was a joy to raise," her mother says. "She was bright and beautiful." She attended Purdue University for four years, then dropped out to help her fiancé finish his master's degree. When he broke off the engagement, she moved back home.

Then, in the summer of 1989, while working as a commercial artist in South Bend, Christina was beaten, raped, and left in an alley for dead. Hilde Van Huffel believes her daughter's attacker was a former boyfriend, but no charges were ever filed.

Although Christina recovered physically from the attack, she was never the same. "She changed into a person we did not know," Hilde Van Huffel says. "At first she became depressed, frightened, and then paranoid. She was afraid to stay alone, was unable to sleep; she no longer functioned as the person she was."

A month after the attack, she disappeared. She was eventually picked up in Indianapolis, wandering in traffic. After two weeks in a psychiatric hospital, she returned home. But she refused to take her medication and was hospitalized again. When she was released, she visited her brother, Gary, a geological engineer in Idaho, subsequently went to San Francisco, and then, using credit cards, flew to Hawaii.

The Van Huffels didn't hear from Christina for two years. Then, in 1991, a social worker called from Hawaii and told them their daughter was considered "a homeless, mentally ill person." Twice the Van Huffels scraped together money to fly to Hawaii in attempts to persuade Christina to come home. Each time, she refused. Although she sporadically received treatment, her mental and physical condition deteriorated. Legally her parents could not force her to come home.

Then, one day in 1994, the Van Huffels received a phone call from another social worker. Christina had left Hawaii for San Francisco. It's unclear how Christina, who had been homeless for nearly five years, could have paid for the flight. Hilde Van Huffel suspects the state paid for the ticket as part of an effort to clean up its streets.

The Van Huffels sent fliers with Christina's picture on them to various police departments and homeless-assistance agencies in the San Francisco area. Eventually a police officer found her, and she was taken to a mental-health hospital. But when Hilde Van Huffel called, officials said they could keep her only 48 hours because she lacked insurance.

Soon Christina was wandering across the country. Occasionally she would call home. She phoned her parents from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then turned up at her brother Gary's house in Idaho. Gary Van Huffel tried to have her admitted to a psychiatric hospital but was told she would have to go voluntarily, Hilde Van Huffel relates. And the family would have to pay for treatment. It was an expense they couldn't afford.

In early 1996 Christina turned up in Coral Springs. During the next four years, she became an unlikely celebrity in the planned community, where homeless people are almost as rare as snowballs.

She often slept behind the U.S. Post Office on NW 94th Avenue, where her mother sent her mail by general delivery. She was also a frequent visitor to the strip shopping centers at the intersection of University and Ramblewood drives. "Most of my customers didn't like her," says Terry Frank, manager of the Rag Shop in the Maplewood Plaza. "They'd asked me to tell her to leave. But I said she had just as much right to be in here as anyone else. To me she was a victim of circumstance."

When her mother sent money, Christina would buy a bus pass. Scott Garfinkle, who owns Southern Fragrance, a perfume and variety store in the plaza, says he saw her as far away as Davie. Others remember spotting her in Fort Lauderdale and Tamarac.

When she didn't have cash, she would walk. "She covered mileage that was astounding," says Diana Vollmann, victim-services advocate at the Coral Springs Police Department. Vollmann regularly fielded calls from Christina's mother, people concerned about Christina's well-being, and others who wanted her out of town. Sometimes she even walked into traffic. So in March Vollmann called Courtney and officials at Henderson Mental Health Center.

Vollmann says she doesn't understand why hospital officials didn't call Courtney before they released Christina. Nor does she know why they believed a homeless woman had an address. "I asked them if they checked to see if she got inside, and they said, "That's not our responsibility,'" she says.

Hospital officials didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment. But Howard Finkelstein, a chief deputy assistant public defender who champions the rights of the mentally ill, said the hospital was responsible for assuring Christina had a safe place to go. "They're supposed to do discharge plans," he says of the provisions of the state's Baker Act. "If a mental-health professional releases a person without checking whether the person really lives at the address they've given... that mental-health professional needs to be certifiably committed."

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