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.

"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."

But, he and others say, Christina's case isn't unique.

"Everything falls through the cracks," says Broward Circuit Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, who oversees a special court that offers treatment instead of punishment to the mentally ill. "All there is is cracks -- cracks and gulleys. It's a public health tragedy."

Courtney, who doesn't blame Lorusso for Christina's demise, says he regularly hears stories about homeless people whose lives are in jeopardy. Just the other day he received a phone call from an affluent woman in Connecticut who thought her son was living in South Florida. "I know him," Courtney says. "He's drinking himself to death." Unfortunately, he says, the homeless and others are allowed to kill themselves slowly and quietly. But if they bother the wrong people and are committed under the state's Baker Act, the remedy is only temporary. "We'll save you for 72 hours," Courtney says. "Then you're on your own."

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