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Charges dropped for Maryland mom in children’s disappearance

Catherine Hoggle, accused of killing her two youngest children in 2014, to be held under civil commitment

From left: Catherine Hoggle, Jacob Hoggle and Sarah Hoggle. (Montgomery County Police)

A Maryland judge dropped murder charges Wednesday against a Montgomery County woman who has been locked in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital since being accused of killing her two youngest children eight years ago.

Circuit Judge James Bonifant, citing laws that limit how long criminal charges can hang over a person deemed mentally unfit to participate in a trial, did not release Catherine Hoggle from confinement. He instead ordered her to remain held in a psychiatric hospital under Maryland’s civil commitment procedures.

“She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder,” Bonifant said from the bench. “She suffers from chronic symptoms of impaired judgment, poor insight, paranoia and disorganized thinking. Without the structure and stability of a hospital setting, she would be a danger to herself or others.”

The case drew national attention in September 2014, when Hoggle’s two youngest children — Jacob, 2, and Sarah, 3 — went missing shortly before she did. Hoggle was found by police four days later, but her children, despite massive searches, were never located. She was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in their deaths.

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Bonifant’s ruling comes after recent efforts by prosecutors to persuade the judge to reverse years of rulings and doctors’ opinions that Hoggle was incompetent and declare her fit for trial.

The judge on Wednesday spoke about the fundamental fairness of not putting people on trial who can’t adequately speak with their attorneys to help defend themselves. He cited legal principles going back to 1790, when a court held that “no man shall be called upon to make his defense at a time when his mind is in that situation as not to appear capable of doing so.”

Hoggle’s attorney, David Felsen, has long said his client’s thinking was far too delusional and tangential to discuss legal proceedings or participate in a trial.

“She is a profoundly ill woman. She has been an ill woman since 2012, 2013,” he said Wednesday. “She has taken medications of last resort for years, and she remains ill. And in the United States and in the state of Maryland, we don’t try people for anything, for any crime, if they can’t defend themselves.”

The ruling Wednesday changes the mechanism by which Hoggle will be held from a criminal commitment to a civil one, giving circuit judges and prosecutors little to no say over when she could be released. To the extent she is deemed a danger to herself or others, she would still be held. Her confinement probably will continue to be at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, Maryland’s most secure hospital.

Under the rules for civil commitments in Maryland, medical facilities — including the maximum-security Perkins institution — must demonstrate twice a year that a patient meets five criteria for continued hospitalization, said Carroll McCabe, chief of the mental health division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender: Patients must continue to have a mental disorder, need inpatient care, present a danger to themselves or others, be “unable or unwilling” to be voluntarily hospitalized and cannot be adequately treated in a less restrictive place.

At the hearings, patients like Hoggle have an attorney, state hospitals are represented by the attorney general’s office, and the decision is made by an administrative law judge, according to McCabe.

She has seen cases of onetime criminal defendants, moved into civil commitments, who remain held for up to 20 more years. “The fact that someone is civilly committed does not mean they are walking out of the hospital anytime soon,” McCabe said.

Were Hoggle to be released, nothing would keep prosecutors from refiling the case, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said.

“As long as I’m state’s attorney,” McCarthy said, “if she is ever deemed safe enough to be released, and gets out, I will recharge her with two counts of first-degree murder.”

It was on Sept. 8, 2014, that Troy Turner — Hoggle’s boyfriend at the time and the father of their three children — arrived at a Montgomery County police station in Germantown to report a bizarre sequence of events.

When he awoke in their apartment that morning, Hoggle and their two youngest children were missing. Hoggle returned a short time later in their minivan and said she had left the two at a new day care that she agreed to show Turner, he recalled. They drove around for several hours. Hoggle asked Turner to stop at a Chick-fil-A so she could get a drink. He did, and she walked in before slipping out another door and disappearing.

She was spotted four days later and arrested. Under questioning by detectives, she spoke only in vague terms about the children, at one point saying she had left them with an old friend identified only as “Erin.” Detectives brought in Turner to try to get Hoggle to say more, but that didn’t work. Police charged Hoggle with neglect and hindering before elevating the charges to murder.

Family implores mentally ill mother to tell them where she left her missing children

Turner organized search parties for his children and yearned to see Hoggle go to trial.

Bonifant permitted Turner to speak in court Wednesday — an occasion that turned emotional for both of them.

“I appreciate the fact that there is a process,” Turner told the judge. “I appreciate your fairness. I thank you for how you’ve been.”

“Mr. Turner, you couldn’t say a kinder thing to me, sir,” the judge said, clearly indicating that a devastated father was free to speak his mind.

Hoggle sat about 30 feet away, her face holding the same stoic bearing as it had during recent proceedings.

“However,” Turner said, “the system itself has failed my children. You have a woman over here who killed two kids.”

Turner has long asserted that the mother, whose IQ was once tested at 135, has avoided facing a jury by exaggerating the extent of her illness.

“This is a travesty,” he said. “And my kids are gone.”