Donald Thweatt wanted to tell his side of the story.
Time and again during the two-day trial, he passed notes to his attorney, Allen Harris. "Put me on the stand, Al," he wrote in oversized letters. Things were going well, and Harris had no intention of letting his client testify. Eventually, though, he relented, figuring everything would be fine if his client simply told the truth. And he did, telling jurors he was the real victim. "He did a wonderful job," Harris recalls.
Thweatt also smelled victory. "Al, before they deliberate, I'm already sure of my faith in the Lord and my subjective observation of your legal prowess," he wrote in another note. "They will find me innocent! Amen." In the end, Thweatt was proved right. Not guilty, the St. Louis County jury decreed.
Thweatt stood up and cried, "Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!" Judge Sandra Farragut-Hemphill told him to be quiet. For once, Thweatt did what he was told. He sat down and shut up.
But this was no small victory, considering that the accusers -- and alleged victims -- are correctional officers at the St. Louis County Jail. Thweatt's Feb. 22 acquittal on misdemeanor assault charges against a guard marked the second time he had beaten the rap in as many months. In January, a judge tossed a felony assault charge out of court. In that case, the alleged victim was a nurse at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, at Jefferson Barracks, who sustained a broken leg while helping restrain Thweatt, a man at once seriously scary and pitiful as a result of a brain injury that's left him a ward of the state and all alone in the world.
Thweatt still faces two counts of misdemeanor assault stemming from an alleged attack on two jail guards. But Thweatt isn't particularly worried. For one thing, he says he didn't do it. For another, the maximum penalty on each charge is 15 days.
Thweatt has been in jail for 15 months. How he got there and what it has taken to get him out forces a sad smile from Harris.
"He's a handful, but he's not a criminal," the lawyer says. "It's really a pathetic case. It's one of those I could get a jury crying.
"You don't get many of those."
Donald Thweatt always loved a uniform. When he was 4, he insisted on wearing a suit and bow tie to preschool. The youngest of five children, he was the general in backyard games of war with his brothers at the South St. Louis home where he grew up. "He was giving them orders and they'd be listening," recalls his father, Norman. "He was decked out in his military helmet and all that."
Thweatt made up his mind what he wanted to do at a young age and stuck to it. He joined the Civil Air Patrol in his early teens, quickly rising to a leadership position and helping with search-and-rescue operations. It was the same way after he graduated from Cleveland High School and joined the National Guard. He became an officer and transferred to the Army Reserve, where he soon made first lieutenant and convinced two uncles to enlist. "He was always leader of the squad," his dad says.
He could bench-press nearly 300 pounds and do 200 pushups. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had carved a career, married his high-school sweetheart and fathered a son. He was on the promotion list for captain. He held a diploma in computer science from St. Louis Community College and ran his own computer-consulting business while working full-time for a mortgage company.
"He was a good guy," recalls his father. "He was in pursuit of the dream, you know. He was very motivated. He was buying a home and he had two cars and he had a supervisory job in Chesterfield in a data-processing department -- he had several people under him. People liked him. He was the picture of health. He had no medical problems. He weighed something under 200 pounds, and all muscle."
Then Donald Thweatt was called up for Operation Desert Shield. And so he kissed his wife goodbye and headed to Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, as ordered.
Thweatt doesn't remember much about the accident on Aug. 5, 1990. He insists he was attacked by a group of enlisted men acting under orders from jealous officers who were angry that he had been picked for a choice command assignment. Far-fetched, perhaps, but one thing is certain: Thweatt's life would never be the same.
"It was a Sunday, and they had been to recreation," says his father, who tells the story he's read from Army reports. "I guess they were doing some drinking at the PX. It was after dark when they left. There were several [soldiers] in a Chevy Lumina van with a sliding door on it. They were riding back to the billet. They were going down this gravel road in Pennsylvania -- it's kind of hilly. It was a warm night, and they had the sliding door propped open. Don was on the center seat, right next to the sliding-door area. They came up to this T intersection. When the driver hit the brakes, he slid over the road and went off to the side a little bit before he regained control. In the meantime, the sliding door came sliding forward, and, with the left turn of the vehicle, Don had leaned that way. The sliding door hit him on the head, on the right temple. He said something like 'Damn, that hurt.'" And the men continued on their way.
"He went back to the billet and went to bed," the father says. "Even though he had a headache or whatever, he wasn't too concerned about it. He woke up sometime during the night and opened the nightstand drawer and vomited in it and complained about hurting. Whoever was on watch there that night said they kept an eye on him." Soldiers who found Thweatt unconscious in a hallway at 5:30 a.m. roused him, put him back to bed and periodically checked on him. By 10 a.m., they couldn't wake him, so he was taken to Scranton Community Medical Center.
The diagnosis was epidural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain. Surgeons saved his life with an emergency operation and listed him in guarded condition. "They told us he wasn't going to live," his mother, Ethel, says. "He was bleeding, and they couldn't stop it." Thweatt lay in a coma for a month and required a second operation to relieve pressure on his brain. His parents flew to Pennsylvania and sat by his bed for hours, reading the Bible aloud. But the damage was done.
Thweatt says he momentarily regained consciousness just as a helicopter crew prepared to take him from Scranton to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "I believe the rotors are what woke me up," he recalls. "Just as they set me to the floor of that chopper, I was able to see. My eyes opened, and I saw my wife in the cockpit of the chopper, sitting in the co-pilot's seat -- that broad was sitting in the co-pilot's seat. I took a glance at her for a couple of seconds. I went unconscious before the gurney hit the floor."
Doctors at Walter Reed concluded Thweatt was 100 percent disabled, so he was honorably discharged and shipped home. Thweatt says he has no memory of the Washington hospital. He remembers waking up on an airplane en route to Scott Air Force Base. "I was lying horizontal," he says. "They had me placed face-first to a window. And I remember waking up in flight and seeing clouds going by a window of an airplane. I didn't believe it. I thought I must be dreaming -- there's no reason in the world why I would be in a flight somewhere, lying down, looking out a window. So I slipped back into unconsciousness and stayed that way even upon landing at Scott."
A doctor at Jefferson Barracks was frank: Thweatt needed to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. "We didn't believe him," Norman Thweatt says. "He said, 'All of his problems are going to fall on your doorstep.' He also told us Don would have to find himself alone in the gutter before he'd bounce back."
When Thweatt was well enough to be released from the VA hospital in late 1990, he was sent to a head-injury-rehab program at Bethesda Hospital, near St. Louis University. He lasted less than two weeks before checking himself out. His parents picked him up as he walked down Grand Boulevard and took him to their house. He couldn't care for himself. His mother cleaned him after he went to the bathroom. He couldn't control his bladder. He wouldn't sleep alone. "He would take his mattress off the bed at night and he'd drag it into our bedroom, right alongside our bed," his father said. "He was afraid -- that was always his reason." But he never said what he feared. Thweatt also insisted that his parents watch late-night television with him until he fell asleep. "We'd have to take turns," his father says. "We'd take the mattress off the hide-a-bed and put it on the floor, because of his incontinence, and we wound up sleeping with him."
Thweatt also gained weight. At 5-foot-8, he now weighs about 400 pounds and says he's been as heavy as 630 pounds. Though county-jail records show he asks for seconds, Thweatt blames his obesity on a malfunctioning pituitary gland, damaged in the accident. "I'm not a glutton," he says.
Obesity, fear and incontinence paled in comparison with Thweatt's newly acquired temper. The former lieutenant no longer followed orders -- if he didn't want to do something, he just didn't do it. At the same time, he had no trouble demanding things from others. And things could get ugly in a hurry if Thweatt didn't get his way.
"When you come face-to-face and he's angry, it's terrible," his father says. "He just acts out so badly, people don't want to deal with him." One of the more frightening episodes came during a drive with his father in the Kimmswick area.
"He likes to ride around in a car," Norman Thweatt says. "I'll drive him around all day long if that's what it takes to keep him at peace. We were driving one Sunday, down Lemay Ferry Road. I didn't want to drive anymore, so I told him I was going to turn around and come home. He didn't want that. He wanted to ride some more. I made a U-turn and started to head back to St. Louis. Just as I did, he grabbed the steering wheel, and I wound up over in a parking lot. I said, 'Don, if you're going to act like that, I'm getting out right here. I'll call someone to come and get me.' He said, 'Go ahead. I ain't ready to go home.' So I got out. Well, this parking lot had a big sign out front and a stone base around it so cars don't hit it. He kept trying to hit me with the van, wanting me to get back in and drive some more. I got up on this stone base under the sign so he couldn't get me. He kept driving around in circles." Eventually Thweatt had to stop and back up, giving his father a chance to run across the road and take shelter between parked semi trailers, which offered better protection. He watched as his son drove to a nearby pay phone and made a call. "Well, he just kept sitting there," Norman Thweatt says. "Pretty soon, the police showed up. He told them some kind of story, and the fellow came over and grabbed me by the arm -- I thought he was going to handcuff me. He said, 'Is that your son over there?' I said, 'Yes, it is.' He said, 'You're trying to kill him?'" After speaking to a bystander who'd seen the whole thing, the police left -- Norman Thweatt wouldn't press charges against his son.
In 1994, Thweatt's wife divorced him, and the rest of his family eventually gave up on him. The hasp on the front screen door bears witness to the times he has turned violent, forcing his parents to get restraining orders. He broke all the windows in the house. He tossed a soda bottle through a closed window, injuring his mother. He kicked down the front door. An array of psychotropic drugs helped a little, his father says, but not much. His parents finally admitted they'd never be able to help their son after a 1995 evaluation by an Army doctor. "The patient is clearly incapable of any social adjustment at this time," the doctor wrote. "The patient is unable to settle down in a safe living situation and is living in his car."
"That just really clinched it," says his father, who twice assumed the role of legal guardian and had control of Thweatt's disability checks. "He's just too big and mean. I couldn't manage him." The stress has prompted Ethel Thweatt to seek psychiatric help. But his parents don't hesitate when asked whether they still love their son. "Oh, yes," answers Norman Thweatt, who keeps in his wallet a photograph of Donald taken before the accident. "It's like the whole family has a head trauma. Sometimes it's hard to function. He's got a bad mouth. He plays tricks on people. He manipulates them. We're in our 60s. I'm retired. It's too traumatizing to us. We've more or less turned our back on him. But we keep in touch to find out what's going on with his life, wherever he is."
Thweatt hasn't handled the rejection very well. He calls his parents criminals. "We just got an application for a life-insurance policy that we didn't order," Norman Thweatt says. "It came to my address. The name on it is 'Mr. Norm A. Criminl.' On the back, it says 'Mrs. Ethel S. Criminl.' Because we won't take his phone calls anymore, he's getting a message to us the way he can."
Is he dangerous? Norman Thweatt says he isn't qualified to answer that question. "Not intentionally," he offers. "But he does get out of control. It's because of behavior problems since the injury and his sheer size."
For the past decade, Thweatt has bounced among relatives, hospitals, residential care centers, apartments and the streets. Medical records show he's been admitted to various psychiatric facilities 35 times since 1991. He's also been arrested a dozen times for such offenses as assault, peace disturbance, and careless and imprudent driving. He has pleaded guilty to assaulting his parents and a police officer, according to medical records, which also show he has violated protection orders obtained by his ex-wife at least eight times. At one point, his father says, his son drove to Florida after being released from jail on bond, violating his bail conditions. He was picked up by police there and returned to St. Louis, but not before he bought a motorless boat for $200 and made plans to sail to Australia.
Thweatt isn't stupid. In 1994, he scored 86 of a possible 100 on an entrance examination for the Missouri Technical School, where he hoped to study computers. A more recent intelligence test, administered by a psychologist, placed him in the 93rd percentile, his attorney says. "Sometimes I think maybe we ought to just put him in an apartment and see what happens to him," says St. Louis public administrator Gerard A. Nester, who is Thweatt's legal guardian. "But I get real concerned about that, because the last time we did that, he attempted suicide." Left to his own devices, Thweatt can also be a pest. One stint in an apartment didn't last long. "He blew the trial period," Nester says. "He started knocking on all of his neighbor's doors, asking for rides to doctor appointments and rides to there and here. The other tenants said, 'We can't take this guy as a tenant.'"
Thweatt's path to jail started at a meeting at the Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital to decide his fate after he left the hospital. Thweatt, who cries as easily as he angers, became upset during the July 14, 1998, meeting, which was held when he was deemed ready for discharge. Thweatt says he left the room because he didn't want others to see him sob. According to a St. Louis County Police report, he was ordered to leave because he started yelling obscenities after being told he wouldn't be able to attend school when he left the hospital.
Whatever his reasons for leaving the meeting, Thweatt soon wanted to go back. A nurse told police that Thweatt opened the door, shouted obscenities, then rushed toward him and started swinging. The two sides agree there was a brief conversation at the doorway between Thweatt and the nurse, who stood in his way. "I started to go in," Thweatt recalls. "He said, 'You left the meeting. You're not going back in.' I said, 'Wait a minute: That's my meeting.'" Thweatt says he had started to walk past the nurse when he was tackled. Nurses threw him to the floor immediately, thanks in part to limited mobility on his left side, a byproduct of his head injury. "I was unable to support my weight," he says. A nurse sustained a broken leg during the scuffle. Thweatt says the injury occurred when she twisted her leg while trying to stop short of the melee. His attorney says Thweatt fell on the nurse's leg as he was taken down. "It was an accident," Harris says. "And if it wasn't an accident, it was other people who caused it."
Thweatt admits throwing a punch at a nurse as he fell to the floor -- he calls it "a last act of defiance" -- but says he never struck anyone. "He simply ducked, and I missed," he says.
Nothing much came of it, at least at first, even though the police officer who took the call classified the incident as an assault and reported that he would apply to the county prosecutor for arrest warrants. "There was a charge that was brought against Don shortly after the incident," Nester recalls. "The assault [charge] against the nurse originally was issued by the county counselor as a county-ordinance violation. That must not have materialized into anything -- it was either dismissed or it went away or it was referred to the prosecutor for further prosecution." Thweatt continued living at the Jefferson Barracks VA until late that year, when VA officials placed him in a residential care center in Illinois. "He went to this facility, which was a nursing facility that specialized in head-injury people, it claimed," Nester says. "It turned out to be a place with more elderly people than people Don's age. Then Don had behavioral problems there." Thweatt was subsequently sent to a locked residential center, also in Illinois, but he didn't last there, either. His medical records show he tried living with a brother before ending up back at the VA hospital in the spring of 1999.
"I believe he was at the VA until maybe the end of June or early July of '99," Nester says. "Then we tried him down at a home in Festus. You can come and go as you please, but they've got rules they want you to follow: Sign in, sign out. Make sure you're here at certain times so they can count heads. Don shows up with a $90 check from the VA representing the balance of his patient funds. Arrives on maybe a Thursday, goes across the street, opens a bank account, takes a taxicab from Festus to South County. Buys a computer, writes checks for it with all these new checks he's got now. Well, later Don claims that he thought the decimal point was one point over or something -- either he's lying or it's another example of the inability of his brain to process properly. We find out about it Friday afternoon. Monday morning, we have this big teleconference with people from the VA and the [home] administrator and Don and me. We all talk this thing out for an hour or so, come up with rules that Don is going to follow. The administrator says, 'We're going to write these up and Don's going to sign off on them.' Sounds great. 'Don, do you understand?' Of course, Don was very apologetic and saying, 'Jerry, I'm really sorry. I fucked up.' That was in the morning. By the afternoon, I got a call. Don was on his way back to the VA." The residential home had kicked him out.
Thweatt lived at Jefferson Barracks until late 1999, when he was hauled to jail and charged with felony assault for the confrontation with VA nurses that had taken place the previous year. Medical records suggest the charges may have been brought as a way to force Thweatt into a locked psychiatric hospital. "He is likely to engage in extremely dangerous or even criminal behavior which will result in his placement in the forensic system," wrote a psychiatrist who reviewed Thweatt's files and examined him at the VA hospital in September 1999. "It is rather amazing to note that despite several arrests and rather extremely dangerous behaviors, he has been allowed to escape the forensic route and has remained a civil patient. Unless formal charges are pressed and he indeed ends up pleading NGRI [not guilty by reason of insanity], it is unlikely that he could be directly transferred from a VA system into a forensic system at this time." Citing patient confidentiality, VA officials at Jefferson Barracks won't discuss Thweatt's case.
Even though he's been acquitted, the VA hospital won't take Thweatt back. "We have known and treated him for a long time," wrote Dr. Mohinder Partap, acting director of the hospital's mental-health service line, in a Feb. 16 letter to Nester. "He did not benefit from the care.... Mr. Thweatt needs a stable and structured situation for his mind to heal and stabilize and prevent harm to self and others. Our facility is not set up for such care."
Nor is the St. Louis County Jail.
Since Thweatt arrived at the jail on Dec. 1, 1999, he has amassed a file more than 3 inches thick. Thweatt lasted barely a week in the infirmary before being transferred to maximum security -- Harris accuses jailers of labeling him a malingerer. His stay in jail has cost county taxpayers at least $35,000 (a figure based on an average per-inmate cost of $75 a day) and likely considerably more, considering his behavior in the infirmary, the maximum-security unit and the supermax unit, where he has frequently been locked down 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
Thweatt was locked down on his second day in jail for refusing to take medication. Confining Thweatt to his infirmary cell didn't help. He urinated on himself and the floor and refused to clean his cell. On his sixth day in jail, he was written up for failing to put his clothes on so a nurse could record his vital signs. There wasn't much guards could do. "I don't give a shit about lockdown," he told a guard who told him to get dressed. "Now, get out of my room. I'm done talking to you." It was his 37th birthday. Jailers who had allowed him to call his mother a couple of hours earlier reported the conversation had left him emotional. His mother subsequently told the jail staff that she loved her son but didn't feel comfortable being alone with him.
Nine days after booking Thweatt, jailers transferred him to the maximum-security unit after he kept using the emergency-only button in his infirmary cell to ask for such things as a phone call and fresh underwear. He bounced between the infirmary and maximum security until Dec. 27, when his cussing and disregard for jail rules prompted guards to transfer him to the supermax unit, where he was locked down 23 hours a day and stripped of all privileges. He was Maced and put in a restraint chair after he fell, then swung at guards during the trip to supermax. By early January of last year, he was back in the infirmary, where he proved a constant drain on the staff. By way of his cell intercom, he asked a nurse her name, then cried, "Fuck you! I'm the man," according to jail disciplinary reports. He refused medication, then demanded it. Files show he raged for hours, refusing to get dressed, then yelling, crying, cursing and hyperventilating.
"It was reported to this officer by the medical staff that inmate Thweatt had pressed his intercom button and said that we are ignorant black niggers," one guard wrote. "This type of behavior by inmate Thweatt is constant and everyday. Even with lockdown time there seems to be no improvement in his behavior." The next day, Thweatt threatened a hunger strike if he wasn't taken off lockdown. But he ate dinner a few hours later and asked for more.
Two days later, jailers moved Thweatt out of the infirmary. In official reports, jailers say he refused to stop swearing and wouldn't get dressed when nurses came with his medication. "The nurse asked him to put his shirt on like he is supposed to," a guard reported. "He said, 'You don't want to look at my titties?' He continually said, 'Fuck you' to us.... I came to the cell [later in the day] and told him to prepare for the nurse. When we came back, he was completely naked with his butt facing us." In official jail jargon, the guard concluded Thweatt had committed three infractions: cursing, failure to comply with an officer's directive and engaging in sexual misconduct/homosexual activities. Thweatt went limp when guards arrived to take him to supermax. Once in the restraint chair, he began cursing and spat in a guard's face, according to reports. Guards initially left him in restraints once they reached supermax, where they put him in solitary confinement.
Even with just one hour a day out of his cell, Thweatt continued making trouble for jailers. He shut a food slot on the fingers of another inmate. He threw food trays. He suffered from a lack of showers, developing infections between skin folds as a result of accumulated sweat and other impurities. Hemorrhoids exacerbate the condition, he notes. "It's pretty nasty down there," Thweatt says, adding that he's gone as long as two weeks in jail without a shower. The jail has increased his showering privileges, he says, but it still isn't enough.
A shower-room encounter with guards on Feb. 7, 2000, led to a criminal charge. Shortly before taking his shower, Thweatt pulled down his boxers, bent over to show a guard his buttocks and invited him to kiss his ass -- he was upset because he wasn't allowed to use the telephone. A few minutes later, guards noticed water flooding the shower area -- Thweatt had apparently pulled a shower curtain down, resulting in a makeshift dam. "Fuck yourself," he said to a guard who ordered him to put the curtain back up. He refused orders to get out of the shower. He finally got up but insisted on keeping a chair he'd been sitting in. "Inmate Thweatt then stated it was his chair," reads a lieutenant's report. "He was told while on lockdown he could not have the chair in his cell. Inmate Thweatt then attempted to swing the chair at Officer Sullens and myself, who were both in closest proximity to him. This officer then fired one five-second burst of pepper Mace towards his eyes. Inmate Thweatt then rushed towards officer Sullens and myself, punching Officer Sullens in the area of his nose and glancing a blow across this reporting supervisor's face." Guards then restrained Thweatt in a chair and put him in a sally port. After three hours, they removed the restraints and placed him in his cell.
The matter didn't end there. Guard Michael Sullens was sent for X-rays of his face, according to jail reports. Prosecutors say he sustained a broken nose. And Thweatt was charged with misdemeanor assault.
Thweatt says he swung but never hit anyone -- it was another "last act of defiance" as he was taken to the floor, he says. He claims he's the victim and opens his mouth to prove it. He is missing a front tooth. He says guards broke several teeth loose by forcing his face into the shower floor while restraining him. One tooth finally fell out nearly a year later. His attorney says a dental examination confirmed the tooth was damaged in a traumatic injury. Assistant jail director Herbert Bernsen tells the Riverfront Times that he is unaware of any allegation that jailers broke Thweatt's teeth; nor have any other claims of abuse been corroborated, he says.
Mace had little long-term effect. Thweatt continued cussing, pressing intercom buttons and throwing food trays. He sang and banged on his cell walls. He sprayed water through his food slot at another inmate, who returned the favor. He spat in a social worker's face when told he needed to go back to his cell. Five days after the shower- room melee, he again created a flood while out of his cell for a walk. When guards, including Sullens, went to Thweatt's cell, they appear to have been afraid of him. "It was luck that I hit you, Officer Sullens, and you deserved every bit of it," Sullens wrote in his report. "Inmate Thweatt continued to roll on his bunk and slipped the cover off himself as if to get off the bunk. Capt. Riddle shot inmate Thweatt with a short burst of Mace, and the captain and this officer left the cell as fast as possible." Two weeks later, jailers Maced Thweatt again when he refused to come out of the shower, which was once again flooding. In mid-May, guards took away his recreation time. "All warnings given to this inmate hasn't helped at all," wrote a guard in May 13 report. "We continue to be called niggers, buckwheat, hang boy, etc. Inmate Thweatt's walk was taken by this officer due to the fear of having to deal with this inmate under these conditions."
Despite his misbehavior, jailers on June 7 decided to move Thweatt from the supermax unit back to the infirmary. Contrarian to the core, Thweatt didn't want to go. "Kiss my ass, I am not moving anywhere," he shouted at a captain. His tirade apparently worked. There is no record of Thweatt being moved out of the supermax unit, where a week later he was written up for refusing to surrender a sheet of 20 postal stamps, which are considered contraband. He also hoarded milk cartons, which are also contraband, and sometimes used them to toss water on guards. He stood naked outside his cell and refused orders to get dressed -- "I do it because I can, nigger," he told a guard. When he banged his belongings on the walls because he wasn't allowed to use the phone, guards removed him from his cell, stripped it empty, then put him back inside. Time and again, guards told him to leave the intercom alone. "I ... was met with a 'Fuck you, Burford,'" wrote a guard in a June 19 report documenting Thweatt's refusal to leave the intercom alone. "I recommend that Mr. Thweatt's exposure to supermax be extended." Extra time in solitary didn't help. On June 28, the profanities turned ominous. "I answered the intercom and subject yelled, 'Who is this?'" a guard reported. "I responded with 'May I help you?' Subject stated 'This must be Guyton. You fucking boy. Fuck you. You never give me anything. I am so tired of your fucking ass. If I ever get a chance, boy, I am going to place a major threat on your life. I could end your life. I will get the chance either in here or if I ever get out. I promise you got this coming."
After nine months of Thweatt, guards began writing behavior reports at the end of each shift on orders from a jail physician -- by then, Thweatt was back in the infirmary. He summoned jailers in the wee hours to request "a real pillow" or a drink of water. He threatened to kill guards, argued and threw coffee on other inmates. He refused to clean his cell. A relatively good day was chronicled in a single sentence: "Inmate Donald Thweatt, who is housed in the infirmary, was either sleeping, whining or banging on the door most of the day." Other days were tragic.
"Inmate Donald Thweatt was crying and because he had chosen to remain in his cell for most of the evening, I was curious as to the nature of his distress," wrote a guard on Oct. 4 after being summoned to Thweatt's cell by a nurse. "Interrupted by sobbings, he told me as he was laying on his bed that he had been thinking about all the events [in] his life and he had become afraid. I stayed and talked to him and eventually he stopped crying." A week later, the same guard again consoled Thweatt after finding him crying in his cell. "He told me he was extremely lonely, afraid and felt alienated," the guard reported. "He said he hasn't seen his mother in over a year and that he hasn't seen his ex-wife and son for many years. He also spoke of VA money that he felt was due him. All I could do was listen. Gradually, his sobbing subsided."
On Oct. 22, Thweatt again got into a scuffle that led to more criminal charges. In charging papers, prosecutors say Thweatt took a swing at a guard and spat in the face of another. Thweatt says he was listening to a religious radio broadcast when guards ordered him to take a shower. He says he didn't want to go right away, so a guard grabbed a cup he was holding, prompting a physical confrontation. He says he never struck anyone, and he denies spitting in the guard's face. He says the guard had his hand in his mouth and was pressing his index finger against his teeth. "He remembered all about my broken front teeth," Thweatt says. "I was saying, 'My teeth, my teeth, they're broken, my teeth.' I saw blood mixed with spit on the top of his hand. He was intentionally trying to hurt me -- if I could see the blood, he could see the blood. I thought, 'I'll gross him out.' So I spit as best I could." It amounted to little more than a stream of bloody drool across the guard's hand, Thweatt says, but it was enough for prosecutors to file a misdemeanor assault charge. They tacked on another for the missed punch.
Ethel and Norman Thweatt say their son's first attorney urged him to plead guilty to the felony assault charge, which could have landed him in prison for a long stretch or, more likely, a locked state mental hospital indefinitely. But Thweatt was steadfast: He was innocent, and he'd stay in jail as long as necessary to prove it. His parents, who attended his January trial, say they're proud of their son for standing up for his rights. "I always told him to tell the truth," his mother says. "I still love my son dearly. He's been 15 months in jail, being abused. They knocked his teeth out. It's just terrible. He shouldn't be in jail. I'm just thankful he's still alive." But jail has left its mark on Thweatt.
"It's definitely taken a toll on his mentality," his father says. "He's meaner. Now, he definitely wouldn't think much about hurting someone."
Thweatt, who pays his legal bills from VA and Social Security benefits that total nearly $3,100 a month, fired his first attorney and hired Harris, who prepared an insanity defense and hoped for the best. He got it. In January, Judge Melvyn Wade Wiesman acquitted Thweatt of the felony assault charge stemming from the Jefferson Barracks incident in 1998. The judge sent the jury home and issued a directed verdict as soon as the prosecution rested. Harris didn't even have to present a defense. Thweatt's parents cheered the verdict. "I knew it was unintentional," his father says. "I know those things happen. He's even hurt us occasionally."
County prosecutors also didn't get far with a jury, which last month acquitted Thweatt of assaulting Sullens in the jail's shower room. Their case had a number of holes. For one thing, prosecutors produced no medical records showing Sullens sustained any serious injury. For another, the guard looked perfectly fine in photographs taken four hours after the alleged assault. Indeed, photos of Sullens face ended up as defense exhibits during trial. Harris credits the lack of physical evidence for the acquittal.
The prosecutor's office won't offer any explanations for either acquittal. "We don't comment on that," says Don Schneider, aide to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. "We don't give up why we didn't get the job done. If the defendant wants a trial, we've got to try them all -- great cases, not-so-great cases. You've got to dress up for every game."
After the acquittal in February, the misdemeanor assault charges and a lack of bail money were the only reasons Thweatt was still behind bars. Two weeks ago, Schneider rejected any suggestion that prosecutors dismiss the pending charges on the grounds that Thweatt has already been punished enough. "I don't see how we can do that," Schneider says. "This is not malicious prosecution. This is trying to represent the people in the jail. I think we have to represent these jail folks. They shouldn't be abused. They're just trying to do a job. These jail people are citizens of this county. We've got to show them, 'Hey, you're important to us, too."
But even his keepers say Thweatt doesn't belong in the St. Louis County Jail.
"No," opines Bernsen, the assistant jail director. "It may be presumptuous of me to say where he should be, but some kind of institution that can handle his mental state as well as his aggression would be best. Certainly, if the court can find a suitable place for him to go and the place will take him, I'm sure they'll do that. We'd be anxious for that to happen. On the other hand, we're doing everything we can to take as good as care of him as possible."
As his last trial date nears, pressure mounts to find a more suitable home for Thweatt than jail. "Because he had a felony charge pending until January, there was no real strong effort to find another place for him to be until that was disposed of, " says Nester, who credits Harris with getting Thweatt transferred to two private psychiatric centers since his first acquittal. "He worked his connections," Nester says. But each time, the private centers returned Thweatt to jail after a few days, one because he refused to take psychotropic drugs, the other because he was simply too much trouble. "He kept saying, 'I'm going to sue you, I'm going to sue you,'" Harris says.
Thweatt's bail on the pending charges totals $200, but Nester, who controls the purse strings, won't give him the money. He thinks Thweatt may be dangerous to himself or others but admits he isn't sure. "I go back and forth," he says. "Sometimes I think the only place for him is a Fulton [State Mental Hospital]-like facility, which is a secured facility with specialized psychiatric services. I've got probably somewhere around 450 people I'm guardian for, and Don is the worst. I hate to say that about him, a living, breathing soul. He's the guy who requires more time than anyone else."
Committing Thweatt to a locked state psychiatric facility would require court action, but he hasn't yet been found guilty of a crime or done anything serious enough to get him admitted on a long-term basis. "I spoke with the state Department of Mental Health regional coordinator about Don's particular case," Nester says. "And he just doesn't have an answer for me. Frankly, one possibility is, we put Don in the community and he does hurt somebody or gets himself in trouble bad enough that he becomes forensic and can quality for DMH services." But Nester isn't willing to take that risk.
In view of Thweatt's military service, his parents and Nester thinks the federal government owes him. But the VA hasn't been much help. "They don't have an understanding of how difficult it is to get Don into one of those institutions," Nester says.
From the other side of the glass, Thweatt looks harmless enough, but his hands are cuffed just to make sure. Guards are stationed just on the other side of the door leading from the visiting room back to the jail's housing units. Thweatt smiles easily and flirts, politely, with a photographer. He complains that guards have "confiscated" a Bible he was using to document their abuses by writing in the margins. But he cradles another as best he can with handcuffs on. "I don't know why they didn't take this one," he wonders. "Yes, I do. The Lord didn't put it in their hearts to think about that. I have a little problem with recall. They know that here at the jail. That's why they consistently take my documentation from me. I learned a long time ago as an officer: If it's not on paper, it didn't happen."
He apologizes for coughing and blames the towel he clutches. "I'm choking because this towel that I brought with me has Mace in it," he says. Jailers say he was sprayed after throwing coffee on someone. He also carries a hand-lettered envelope signed "Tweetie" he holds up to the window between himself and visitors: "Being abused perpetually since military service," it reads. He recites the names of guards whom he accuses of abusing him and spells their names aloud. He says he's been beaten and sustained broken ribs.
"This is a criminal institution," he says. "But the biggest criminals are not behind the bars."
He doesn't swear, nor does he raise his voice during an interview that lasts more than two hours. He talks a lot about God and tends to ramble. He occasionally laughs and, at one point, cries while describing a time when he was homeless and a Taco Bell manager gave him two fresh burritos when he went begging for leftover tacos. He's not sure what will happen to him once he leaves jail. He's been applying to colleges. He's hoping to get an acceptance letter soon from a Christian school in Florida.
Last Friday, Thweatt was taken from the county jail to Chennault Place, a residential home in Lake Charles, La., run by a veteran who specializes in housing veterans with disorders ranging from schizophrenia to alcoholism. "Veterans taking veterans. We say yes when others say no" is their motto. On the same day, prosecutors dismissed the remaining assault charges against Thweatt, who was scheduled to face trial Monday.
Chennault Place has a wide range of activities for its residents, including fishing, excursions to casinos, movies and dancing. How long Thweatt will stay there is an open question -- violent behavior is grounds for immediate eviction. As of Monday afternoon, home administrators had reported no problems, but Nester is taking no chances. He's already been in touch with a home in Texas in case Chennault Place doesn't work out. Norman Thweatt isn't optimistic. "No matter what kind of restraints they have in that facility, they're going to need them," he says.