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Daughter of nuclear physicist who died by suicide in Va. jail sues government

Federal prison health facility refused to treat Christopher Lapp, and local psychiatrist discontinued his medications, lawsuit alleges

The Alexandria Detention Center is seen in 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
4 min

There wasn’t much dispute that Christopher Lapp was suffering from severe mental illness. The nuclear physicist from Great Falls, Va., had been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, court records show, and in November 2018 he walked into a Wells Fargo Bank, robbed a teller at gunpoint, then carjacked a woman outside the bank and drove away.

Arrested soon after the robbery, Lapp underwent more than two years of psychiatric treatment, and by early 2021 doctors at a federal medical center in Butner, N.C., declared he was competent to stand trial. He was transferred to the Alexandria jail and pleaded guilty. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ordered him back to Butner to ensure his recovery continued. But the Butner medical center defied the judge and refused to take Lapp back, and a psychiatrist in the Alexandria jail discontinued Lapp’s medications, court records show.

A month after the judge’s order, Lapp took his life in the Alexandria jail. He was 62.

His 16-year-old daughter on Thursday sued the federal government — encompassing the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Justice Department — for wrongful death, Lapp’s pain and suffering and other alleged violations in the months leading up to the nuclear physicist’s suicide. The suit also names as a defendant the psychiatrist, Dean Inouye, who discontinued his medication.

The government has not yet responded to the suit and the Bureau of Prisons on Saturday declined to comment. Inouye could not be located for comment.

Lapp’s death sparked an angry response from Ellis, who held a hearing in June 2021 and demanded to know why the Bureau of Prisons had defied him. “Dr. Lapp’s suicide is a tragedy that should not be repeated,” Ellis said. “I want to know how the ball was dropped.” Ellis acknowledged in court that “it’s my fault … I didn’t know” about the issue because Lapp’s attorney had filed notice of Butner’s refusal.

But he largely blamed federal prison officials for not taking Lapp back for treatment at Butner. “If I issue an order, you must obey it,” he told prison officials who participated in the hearing. “Nobody in the Bureau of Prisons should ever decide they don’t want to obey my order because they think it violates the law. I trump their view of the law.”

Judge faults federal prison system after suicide of Great Falls man

Ellis first ordered Lapp to be sent for a psychiatric evaluation in October 2019, and ruled Lapp was incompetent to stand trial in January 2020 based on a psychologist’s report that found him “delusional.” Lapp continued to receive psychotropic medication, and by February 2021 his doctors in Butner determined he was competent to stand trial. The lawsuit states that the forensic psychologist who assessed Lapp in Butner in February 2021 wrote that “it is imperative he be maintained on this [medication] regimen to prevent the likelihood of psychological decompensation.”

But the documents provided to the Alexandria jail by the medical facility in Butner, through the Marshals Service, contained little of Lapp’s history, the lawsuit alleges. An Alexandria official testified that the jail had never received records from Butner in the previous 10 years. At the jail, Inouye wrote that Lapp’s records “were not available for review,” and Inouye testified at the hearing that Lapp “was simply denying everything” regarding his mental health issues.

So, relying solely on his conversations with Lapp, Inouye discontinued the medications Lapp had been using in March 2021 and Lapp no longer received mental health treatment, the lawsuit alleges. At Lapp’s guilty plea in April 2021, Ellis ordered the physicist back to Butner for continued treatment, but the medical center refused to accept him, stating there was no legal authority to accept a prisoner after his plea. So Lapp stayed in Alexandria, and when his lawyer notified the court, Ellis said he didn’t see the notice and federal prosecutors took no action, records show.

A month later, Lapp left a note to his daughter, writing, “I am very sorry, but some bad people have been after me for a while. … It is better for everyone if I am not around so they can’t harm others.”