Suspect, recently released from psychiatric facility, accused in stabbing at Md. Target

The woman who attacked shoppers with butcher knives at a Bethesda Nordstrom in 2005 stabbed a woman who was loading bags into her van outside a Target in Lanham on Tuesday, according to police and court papers.

The attack occurred two months after Antoinette Starks had been released from a Maryland psychiatric facility over prosecutors’ protests.

(Courtesy of Prince George's County Police) - Antoinette Starks

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Starks, 55, who has received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, was released into a group home in Bowie under the supervision of a state agency that monitors violent people with mental health issues.

The same program came under scrutiny this year when a man under its supervision was charged in the fatal shootings of his next-door neighbor in Olney and a stranger walking down the street.

“Both of these cases point to the need for us to sit down and talk about this process,” John McCarthy, Montgomery County’s top prosecutor, said Wednesday. “What’s going on here that is pushing these people out the door?”

Starks and Rohan Goodlett, the man charged in the Olney shootings, were both found not guilty by reason of insanity. Starks had been treated at a secure psychiatric hospital until she was deemed well enough to go back into the community. Goodlett had been released in a previous burglary case under the condition that he receive mental health treatment. In such cases, a judge must order the release.

Larry Fitch, director of forensic services for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that the stabbing Tuesday was tragic but that it was an anomaly in a program that generally works.

On Tuesday morning, just before 10, police said, Starks attacked a 39-year-old woman in an incident that echoed the Nordstrom case. As in that case, she is accused of wielding knives bound by tape — producing a homemade double-blade weapon — and going after a stranger with no warning.

Starks repeatedly stabbed the woman, authorities said, as someone nearby ran for help and found an off-duty Prince George’s County police officer. Officers found Starks near a Home Depot parking lot, holding knives and refusing to heed their commands to stop, police said. An officer deployed a Taser, and Starks was taken into custody.

The woman who was stabbed was hospitalized, police said.

Six years ago, in a Nordstrom in a Montgomery shopping center, Starks vaulted over a customer service desk and tried to stab employees, who ran into an office, according to court accounts in a civil suit. She attacked a woman who was leaving a dressing room, stabbing her eight times until she stumbled away bleeding, then stabbed another woman from behind as the woman stepped onto an escalator.

An off-duty FBI agent who was at the mall pulled his service weapon and stopped Starks, who had been released from prison the day before after serving time for vandalizing cars and businesses.

Starks provided her account of the Nordstrom incident to mental health professionals, saying that her “sole purpose for buying the knives and stabbing the victims with the knives was to send a message to the people that have been stalking her and following her for many years,” a doctor wrote.

Starks was found not criminally responsible for the attack because of her paranoid schizophrenia and was ordered to stay at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a locked-down facility in Howard County. Over the years, according to court records, professionals who treated and evaluated her saw improvement.

“The patient works in the library, and does sewing in the laundry,” according to one report. “Her work ethic is very good.”

In November, Administrative Law Judge Una M. Perez recommended that Starks be released from Perkins, saying that she had been taking medication and had been free of symptoms of her mental disorder since 2007. Perez laid out conditions for her release, including staying at a group home, getting psychiatric treatment, taking medications and not possessing weapons. In an interview, Perez said that the criminal judge makes the final decision about release. She declined to comment further.

Montgomery prosecutors objected to the release.

“We continued to believe she was dangerous,” McCarthy said.

County Circuit Judge Nelson Rupp asked for more information. Perez returned with another report recommending release.

On Aug. 11, Rupp ordered that she be released.

“I think his hands were tied by the law,” McCarthy said. “He didn’t feel he had discretion. He delayed it as long as he could.”

Fitch said that officials would review Starks’s case but that the state’s efforts to re-introduce such arrestees into the community have been successful. Fewer than 3 percent of the people returned to their homes or a supervised program are re-arrested, he said.

The state “looked very closely at the program” after Goodlett’s arrest as well, Fitch said, and did not find a need to adjust procedures.

“In 18 years I have been in this work, we have never had two serious incidents like this. It is chance they occurred like this, and not to sound like a broken record, but the number of people re-arrested in this program is small,” Fitch said.

Starks was released into the Community Forensic Aftercare Program, which is supervised through the state health department. The program serves about 750 people with mental illness who have been accused of crimes and returned to local communities after being treated. Four social workers at the state level monitor reports on the treatment being provided at a local level under conditions spelled out by the court.

Fitch said patient confidentiality rules prevented him from discussing Starks’s case in detail. However, he said, she was being monitored, and her arrest “shocked the people at Perkins” hospital. “The program is operating the way it always has and was working.”

The two women Starks stabbed during the 2005 Nordstrom incident declined to comment. Lawyers who represented them in a civil suit against the retailer said that both women were angered by the new attack.

The system “on its face clearly is not as careful as it should be,” said lawyer Kenneth Trombly, who represented one of the Nordstrom victims. “Was she monitored? Was she taking her medication? Those are questions, but here we are again with this same person crafting an almost medieval tool with knives and going after someone. Let’s hope this is the last time.”

Starks was being held without bond Wednesday at the Prince George’s jail.

 
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