When you retire from your job, you're supposed to cart away your old coffee mug and the framed pictures of your grandkids and, of course, clean out your files. For psychiatrist Dr. Joel Klass, that has meant revisiting hundreds of disturbed Floridians, combing through the misdeeds of criminals, delving into the private lives of the state's patented brand of misfits and down-and-outers.

Lately, Klass, who shut down his practice last year, has been spending afternoons at his old office complex on Stirling Road, shredding old case histories. "After seven years, you're no longer required to keep files, and they take up so much space," he says. During his years in the psychiatry profession, Klass estimates he professionally evaluated 17,000 to 18,000 patients.

Devoting all of that time to examining South Florida's psychic underbelly gives Klass a unique grasp of the mental health of the region. There's something about the local population's rootlessness and impermanence that gives it its special warp, he says. The FOB immigrants, the economic refugees, snowbirds who have elected to stay, alienated natives — they have all turned our percolating three-county strip into a mental health lab.

Still looking as skinny and quick as a teenager, with casual faded jeans and old sneakers, the 64-year-old Klass sports a bouquet of ballpoint pens sprouting from the pocket of his long-sleeved shirt. Two thinning tufts of white hair bookend a bald pate, and occasionally, memory lapses will leave him hanging in midsentence, the right word just out of reach. Retirement, he explains, hasn't exactly agreed with him.

Tending to the mentally ill since 1977 has had its rewards, he says. Beyond monetary ones.

"Yeah," he says quietly, eyes toward the floor, the crow's feet at their corners creasing, "I miss it. I really miss working with children. It's been hard for me to stay away."

Klass is a well-respected (maybe even feared) court expert, an important voice in criminal trials, like that of young killer Lionel Tate (Klass was a witness for the defense). He was frequently appointed as an expert witness by judges who could count on him as a straight shooter. In truth, he says, he's seen it all. Almost.

Most of his old files made for uninteresting reading, he concedes. "It sounds exciting, but 99 percent of the cases are coughs, colds, and sore holes — the standard everyday phobias, anxiety, depression. But every now and then, your jaw just drops. And as proof of my advancing senility," he chuckles, "there were some I'd just totally forgotten about. I guess I didn't always give it much thought at the time. Only when I look back do I say, 'Wow. '"

That 1 percent continues to boggle his mind. There was, for example, what Klass terms "the weirdest case ever": The Chicken Lady. He slips into it like a comfortable pair of slippers, like an old joke he's told and retold since he was a kid.

A Pakistani couple had come in to see Klass for a counseling session. "She clearly didn't want to be there," he remembers. "He was compelling it, coercing her."

The problems began, the husband told Klass, when his wife decided she wanted a pet. "But everyone has a dog or a cat," she pointed out. "How about, to be different, we get a chicken?" Soon enough, a chicken joined the household. Then one day, she mentioned, "You know, people don't like to think about it, but chickens have to be slaughtered. It's a fact of life. Maybe we should learn how to do it."

As a younger psychiatrist, Klass was unprepared for the rest of the story. "Slowly but surely, she worked the chicken into their sexual routine," he says, still shocked. "She'd get her husband to decapitate a live chicken at a certain point." It didn't take long for the couple's bedroom to look like a slaughterhouse. "I'm sick and tired of changing the sheets!" the exasperated husband complained.

They were among Klass' first patients. "I was in training, and I went to one of my supervisors and said, 'Let me run a case by you.' Halfway through, I noticed his mouth was open too."

The couple, he recalls, never came back. "I had visions of her referring to him as Colonel Sanders," he says. "Turns out she was a sadist; she could only come by doing sadistic things."

Intensely private — he refused to be photographed for this story — Klass nonetheless ended up as a key player in some high-profile courtroom dramas. For example, as a judicially appointed expert witness, he testified in Lionel Tate's murder trial. A board member for the grievance committee of the Florida State Bar, as well as chairman of the psychiatry department at the Hollywood Medical Center and Memorial Hospital and president of the Broward County Psychiatric Society, Klass regularly got his hands dirty in the legal system's innards.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton