Eminent Psychiatrist Found Slain In Bethesda

By Martin Weil and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 4, 2006

A psychiatrist and federal health official who was nationally known for his work in schizophrenia was found slain in his private north Bethesda office yesterday, immediately after seeing a patient.

Police said they were questioning a 19-year-old man who appeared to be the only suspect in the death of Wayne S. Fenton, 53.

Fenton was seeing the patient, who was believed to be "very dangerous," because another psychiatrist was having trouble with him, said Tom Bernard, an entertainment industry executive who was a longtime friend of Fenton's.

The director of the National Institute of Mental Health, where Fenton was an associate director, called his killing particularly tragic.

"I can't convey to you the extent of this loss," said Thomas R. Insel, director of the principal federal agency responsible for mental-health research. "Not just for those of us who work at NIMH. This was a huge loss for the nation."

In addition to his NIMH work, Fenton saw patients, who included the severely disturbed, in a private practice he had in the 11500 block of Old Georgetown Road, and police said a man took his son there yesterday for a scheduled appointment.

Afterward, the father spotted his son outside the building "acting strangely," Montgomery County police said last night in a brief written statement. When the father went to check on Fenton, he saw that he was unconscious and he notified police, according to the statement.

Before officers arrived about 4:50 p.m., the 19-year-old had fled on foot, police said.

After getting a description from the father, police picked up the younger man at Luxmanor Road and Tilden Lane, about a block or two from Fenton's office.

Police called Fenton's death a homicide but said that the cause and manner of death had not been determined. The suspect's name had not been released late last night.

Those who knew Fenton described his death as devastating. He was an associate clinical director of the NIMH who was "in many ways my right hand," Insel said.

Fenton previously had been medical director of the old Chestnut Lodge hospital, a private psychiatric institution in Rockville.

"He was without question one of the nation's experts in schizophrenia," Insel said.

He said that Fenton concerned himself particularly with research aimed at making it possible for people with severe psychiatric illnesses to become functioning members of the community.

"This was a person making a huge contribution to the treatment of those with schizophrenia," he said. He added that the disease afflicts about 2.5 million Americans.

At NIMH, part of the National Institutes of Health, Fenton headed a division that administered grants, Insel said. In that work, he said, his colleague showed "real passion for making sure we were making discoveries that would make life better for people with schizophrenia."

Fenton was described several years ago as the author of textbook chapters and more than 50 scientific papers on matters that included diagnosis, treatment, outcome and service delivery for the mental illness.

In addition to his administrative and research work, Insel said Fenton was "a very accomplished clinician" who continued to see patients one-on-one evenings and weekends.

In private practice, Insel said, Fenton worked with people "who would be categorized as psychotic" and therefore subject to a disorder that could make them dangerous if not properly treated.

Dealing with such patients is "a risk one takes" in psychiatry, Insel said.

Fenton was "absolutely committed" to helping people with the most severe psychoses, Insel said.

After earning a bachelor's degree at Bard College and his medical degree at George Washington University, Fenton completed a psychiatric residency and fellowship in social and policy studies at Yale University.

While serving as NIMH's liaison to the American Psychiatric Association and World Psychiatric Association, Fenton had aided in the preparation of a standard manual of psychiatric diagnosis. He also was credited with helping to develop a neuroscience middle school curriculum.

Neighbors on Fenton's north Bethesda street said he lived with his wife and children in a Victorian-style house with a porch, on which he sometimes sat strumming a guitar and singing softly.

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