Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the drowning of Jessy Hamilton. Part Two will be published in Tuesday’s edition.
In the week leading up to his drowning, a severely autistic Centralia man was prohibited by a court order from having any contact with his only legal guardian and had been staying with a family friend.
Jessy Lee Hamilton, 26, of Centralia, was found dead in the Chehalis River on May 30 at Fort Borst Park after being reported missing a half-hour earlier, at 7 a.m., according to the Centralia Police Department.
Family members and friends described him as having the mind and behavior of a 5-year-old child. A Centralia police sergeant wrote a week before Jessy’s death that he was barely able to communicate with him. Court records show Jessy Hamilton was legally declared incapacitated, and a guardian was appointed by Lewis County Superior Court to manage his affairs and living situation.
However, after being arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge and spending three nights in a jail cell, he was released on his own and prohibited from contacting his only legal guardian on record — his mother, with whom he lived.
He died a few days later after slipping away from the family friend who was supposed to be watching him while camping at Fort Borst Park.
His mother, Jackie Hamilton, told The Chronicle she was trying to keep an eye on her son despite the order, and was at the park with him just before he slipped away just before dawn that Saturday morning.
She said they were looking for her friend when Jessy Hamilton escaped to the river. She said she ran into the water looking for him. She recalled seeing one of his shoes in the water, and said she struggled against the current.
“The rapids got him,” she said.
If not for the no-contact order, Jackie said she and her son would have been safe at home.
“It just shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “We shouldn’t have been separated.”
Almost exactly a week before he died, Jessy Hamilton was arrested at 7:09 p.m. May 23 in the 300 block of North Tower Avenue on suspicion of fourth-degree assault, domestic violence, after Jackie Hamilton reported he threw an ashtray at her head.
Centralia Police Sgt. James Shannon responded, and described what he found in an incident report filed later that day.
“He was not able to communicate in any meaningful way,” Shannon wrote. “He was very subdued and lethargic. I could not tell if it was the effect of medication, or if it was the effect of his autism.”
Shannon wrote that Jackie Hamilton told him her son had been in and out of the hospital in the past few days to treat violent outbursts he had since developing kidney stones.
“It was just him expressing the pain,” she said. “He didn’t understand it.”
Jackie said he was also getting used to new medication — Trazodone — a drug often used as an antidepressant.
“Jesse (sic) was released from the hospital yesterday and his diagnosis was violent outbursts and autism, and Jackie was instructed to call the police if it continued,” he wrote.
Hamilton told The Chronicle her son was in his mid-20s, but had the mind and behavior of a small child.
“When he threw a fit, he threw a big fit,” she said. “Little boy/big boy fits, that’s what I called them.”
It wasn’t the first fit Jessy Hamilton had thrown. In July 2014, he and his mother were both arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree assault in the 400 block of William Avenue in Chehalis. Charges against Jessy Hamilton were later dismissed.
According to Lewis County Superior Court records, Jessy Hamilton was declared legally incapacitated, and Jackie Hamilton has been his only court-appointed guardian since 2009, managing his money, medical care, and day-to-day life under the regular supervision of the court.
Court documents do not show a standby, or alternate, guardian.
Court records relating to Jessy Hamilton’s guardianship dating to 2013 indicate that he did not have violent tendencies, but note that he wandered aimlessly and had problems with short and long-term memory. They noted that he needed help with household tasks but knew how to ask people around him for help getting food and other necessities. His mother was appointed to manage his government assistance, including Medicaid, and maintain detailed records for his bank account, making regular reports to Superior Court.
Court documents also show that a requirement to complete an online guardian training for Jackie Hamilton was waived because she has trouble reading.
Shannon further noted in his May 23 police report that he thought Jessy Hamilton should be committed to a mental health facility, rather than a county jail.
“I do not feel jail is a suitable environment for caring for Jesse (sic) but I had no other options available for providing him care as it is a mandatory arrest situation,” he wrote.
Jessy Hamilton was booked into the Lewis County Jail that evening. According to Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Chief Kevin Hanson, jail inmates such as Jessy Hamilton are often placed in one of four holding cells set aside for inmates with mental health issues.
Such inmates are held in these single-occupancy cells for their own safety, and the safety of other inmates and staff, he said.
Ninety-five percent of the time, those cells are filled,” Hanson said.
Hanson said he could not comment specifically on Jessy Hamilton’s time at the jail or his release, as inmate records are not public.
On May 26, Jessy Hamilton made his first appearance in Centralia Municipal Court on a video feed from the Lewis County Jail.
For the purposes of the arraignment hearing, he was represented by Centralia attorney J.P. Enbody.
“I was just trying to get him released … a lot of times these charges take forever to get resolved,” Enbody said.
The court imposed an order barring Jessy Hamilton from contacting the victim in the assault — his mother. Centralia Attorney James Buzzard is Centralia’s Municipal Court Judge.
Enbody said the hearing did not address the fact that Jessy Hamilton had previously been declared incapacitated and had a full-time court-appointed guardian, or that the no-contact order prohibited him from seeing or speaking to that guardian, who he lived with.
“Even if somebody knew that, there would normally be a standby guardian,” Enbody said.
However, no standby or alternate guardian is listed in the Superior Court file. Enbody said a man, whose name he couldn’t recall, sat with Jessy Hamilton during the arraignment, and promised to look after him when released from jail.
Jackie Hamilton said she didn’t have anyone she felt she could count on to be a formal standby guardian.
Enbody said Jessy Hamilton’s Lewis County Superior Court file on his guardianship was not available at the arraignment. Files from different courts, such as municipal, district and superior courts, are often not all available at the same place and time for attorneys to review at arraignments, he said.
Jessy Hamilton’s signature on his court documents matched his mother’s description of him — it looks much like the scrawl of a small child.
According to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, being declared legally incapacitated does not affect a person’s ability to sign court documents.
The court ordered that the jail release Hamilton on his own recognizance and did not specify that Hamilton be released into any guardian’s custody. When releasing inmates, the Lewis County Jail follows the instructions included on the judge’s order for release, Hanson said.
Jackie Hamilton said her son was later found roaming the streets of downtown Chehalis alone.
According to Lewis County Superior Court Administration, a guardian ad litem — a person appointed by the court to represent an incapacitated person— or a new or temporary guardian is not appointed automatically when a person no longer has access to their court-appointed guardian. The court administration office would need to receive a request to appoint a new guardian or a guardian ad litem.
Centralia Municipal Court Prosecutor Amanda Vey did not return a request for comment.
At 7:03 a.m. on May 30, the Centralia Police Department received a report of a missing 26-year-old man. Approximately a half-hour later, Jessy Hamilton’s body was found floating in the Chehalis River.
Since his release from the Lewis County Jail on May 26, Jessy Hamilton was living with a friend of his mother’s, since he was prohibited with having contact with her. Jackie said she was trying to keep tabs on her son while avoiding violating the court order. She said she arranged for her son to get some of his favorite refreshments, such as soda and s’mores, and for him to go camping at Fort Borst Park. She said she was with him, looking for the friend she meant to have Jessy Hamilton stay with, when he disappeared into the river.
Jackie said she doesn’t know if the events in the days prior to her son’s death had any effect on his behavior May 30, but she said she knew he was feeling stressed. She hoped spending some time fishing on the river — one of his favorite activities — would have helped.
“We wanted to get that stress out of his head,” she said.
The Centralia Police Department is continuing to investigate the drowning. According to Detective Patty Finch, a public information officer for the department, investigators are not sure of the sequence of events leading to Jessy’s drowning or exactly when he went into the water.
“It’s unclear who was present at the time,” Finch said.
Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod told The Chronicle the autopsy pointed toward drowning as the cause of death.
Investigators hope pending toxicology reports shed more light on how Jessy died.
“We’re waiting,” Finch said.
Toxicology reports can take up to three months to be completed.
Mother of Drowned Centralian Says She Struggled for Services
Jessy Hamilton Death: ‘They Talk to Us Like We’re Stupid When We’re Asking for Help,’ Mother of Autistic Man Says
This is Part Two of a two-part series.
When asked where she felt she could turn for help, and what resources she had to take care of her 26-year-old severely autistic son, Jessy, Jackie Hamilton had a short answer.
“None,” she said.
Resources do exist for families and caregivers of children and adults with autism, but even the state Autism Task Force’s 2010 Autism Guidebook for Washington State notes seeking help can be an arduous task for a layperson.
“The ATF recognizes that finding and maneuvering through the various systems in Washington State can sometimes be tedious and frustrating,” the guidebook says.
Jessy Lee Hamilton, 26, of Centralia, was found drowned in the Chehalis River on May 30 at Fort Borst Park after being reported missing a half-hour earlier, at 7 a.m., according to the Centralia Police Department.
Family members and friends described him as having the mind and behavior of a 5-year-old child.
In the week before he died, Jessy was adjusting to new medications and had a case of kidney stones, his mother told The Chronicle. The pain of the kidney stones was resulting in violent outbursts, leading his mother to take him to the hospital several times.
“He didn’t understand it,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said Jessy had violent outbursts for years.
“I was pretty much used to it,” she said.
On May 23, she called 911, and Jessy was arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree assault. He spent three nights in jail and made his first court appearance in Centralia Municipal Court May 26, where he was issued a no-contact order barring him from seeing his mother, also his legal, court-appointed guardian.
He was released to downtown Chehalis unaccompanied and was found wandering. He died a few days later after slipping away from a camping group, including his mother, at Fort Borst Park. The Centralia Police Department is investigating the death, and cannot confirm who was at the park with Jessy.
Hamilton said she didn’t know who to turn to for help dealing with Jessy’s outbursts and other issues, and had little luck when trying to reach out to government agencies and other organizations. She said she didn’t know how to ask for help when the no-contact order left Jessy without a full-time guardian.
“They talk to us like we’re stupid when we’re asking for help,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 88 children have an autism-spectrum disorder. Autism is about five times more common in boys than girls.
The Autism Guidebook compiled information on autism and a list of guidelines for supporting autistic people and their families.
“Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) require individually designed interventions that meet the distinct need of the person. It is important that parents, health care, social services and school professionals, working together as a team, select teaching strategies and methods on peer reviewed, empirically based, valid evidence,” the guidebook states. “Several decades ago, if a child was diagnosed with autism, there was little hope for leading anything close to a ‘normal’ life.”
Jessy was born in 1989. After her son was diagnosed, Hamilton said she doesn’t remember receiving any formal training on how to raise a child with autism, and relied on her own intuition and experience.
“We learned from each other,” she said.
Jessy needed 24/7 supervision. In 2009, Hamilton, in Lewis County Superior Court, was named her son’s sole court-appointed guardian. The guardianship was renewed in 2013 and was due to be reviewed by the court again next year.
No standby, or alternate, guardian was listed in court documents. Documents suggested that Hamilton designate a standby guardian, but if that was ever done, it isn’t reflected in court records.
Long-time family friend Lisa Leigh described the relationship between Jessy and his mother, and how he relied on help for daily tasks.
“Jessy wouldn’t even know how to use a crosswalk without her there to remind him,” Leigh said.
Hamilton resisted any attempts to separate her and Jessy.
“We were a team,” she said.
Looking back, Hamilton said her son would have benefited from time in some kind of residential treatment facility.
“That would have helped some. He needed to be evaluated,” she said. “He needed into a living system where professionals could deal with his anger.”
She suggested a situation where she could have lived close or visited her son often.
However, Hamilton, who according to court documents was excused from an online guardian course because she struggles to read, found the process of navigating state assistance programs for autism not “tedious and frustrating,” as the Autism Guidebook suggests, but impossible.
Both public and private resources exist to help autistic children, adults and their caregivers.
The state Developmental Disabilities Administration, a part of the Department of Social and Health Services, provides some support for autistic adults and their families based on their eligibility, assessed need and other factors. The services are tailored to each individual client.
A representative from the DDA did not return a request for comment and more information on specific services provided by the agency by press time.
The Autism Society of Washington did not return requests for comment.
The DSHS communications department referred questions on services for autistic adults and their families to the Washington State Health Care Authority. A representative from the authority did not return a request for information by press time.
Easter Seals Disability Services provides services for autistic adults. However, the group’s closest location is in Seattle.
Several local agencies are dedicated to helping people with autism.
The Lewis County Autism Coalition, affiliated with Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, provides some help to parents of autistic children. April Kelley, co-chair of the coalition, said the group helps refer patients to other services.
“It really depends on the parent,” she said. “you can have as much or as little (help) as you want.”
Reliable Enterprises, a local community service organization, also provides services to disabled individuals.
The group’s Family Support Network also provides information and helps refer families to other organizations.
People First of Lewis County meets on the third Saturday of the month in Centralia. For more information, go to peoplefirstofwashington.org.
Specialized Activities & Recreation in the Community is organized by People First of Lewis County. The group creates social opportunities for people age 16 and up with special needs. For more information on the Family Support Network, and SPARC, go to http//reliableenterprises.org/familysupport-network/.
The University of Washington’s Autism Center has a list of autism advocacy groups, clinics, and other services at http://goo.gl/Ggk3Ve.