Crime & Courts

Man found not guilty by insanity in 2004 arson death asks to attend 'community integration' program

Prosecutors say the man is too much of a public risk to be in the community without security supervision

WOODSTOCK – The Illinois Department of Human Services has recommended more privileges be afforded to a man accused of setting a woman on fire in a mental health facility, but later found not guilty by insanity.

McHenry County Assistant Public Defender Kim Messer on Thursday asked a judge to allow Lawrence Hucksteadt to go on two group trips into the community without police escorts as part of his treatment.

For the past five years, IDHS has recommended Hucksteadt for the Elgin Mental Health Center’s “community integration” program, based on his progress with a personalized mental health treatment plan.

McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs, however, said Hucksteadt is too much of a public risk to be in the community without proper supervision.

“The facts that lead to [Hucksteadt’s] commitment in Elgin Mental Hospital involve dousing a senior citizen with gasoline and lighting her on fire,” Combs wrote in a February court filing. “[His] presence in the community without adequate supervision is an unacceptable risk to the safety of the public.”

In July 2004, Hucksteadt walked into a mental health clinic in Woodstock carrying a lit cigarette and an open paint can full of gasoline. He threw the gasoline on part-time receptionist Ellen Polivka, 69, and struck a match. Polivka died about six weeks later.

Her daughter, Leslie Blankenship, cried after court Thursday, fearing what might happen if Hucksteadt eventually were to be reintegrated to society.

“If he doesn’t take his medication, he’s not a good person,” Blankenship said.

On July 13, 2004, Hucksteadt was released from a hospital where he had been admitted after reportedly jumping out of a tree and wanting to blow people up, his attorney said during trial. Hucksteadt went back to the psychiatric ward and asked to be readmitted, partially so he could receive more electroshock treatment, but officials refused and told him he was addicted to barbiturates.

The incident involving Polivka happened three days later.

“It has literally turned our lives upside down,” Blankenship said.

Since Hucksteadt was found not guilty by insanity during a December 2009 bench trial, he has been receiving inpatient treatment at Elgin Mental Health Center.

Messer told McHenry County Judge James Cowlin on Thursday that Hucksteadt recognizes the harm he caused in 2004 and has made significant progress. Messer now is requesting Hucksteadt be allowed to attend group trips into the community – a regular part of certain patients’ treatment that is supervised by facility workers.

The trips generally are scheduled twice each year and include a commute on public transportation, a tour of the library and a visit at the city’s recreation center, Messer said.

Typically, groups of eight closely monitored patients are accompanied by three Elgin Mental Health Center aides, who have security training but are not police officers. Hucksteadt previously had been granted permission to attend the trips as long as two uniformed officers were present. The center hasn’t allowed him to go, however, since a police presence would be “detrimental” to the other patients’ progress, psychiatrist Richard Malis testified Thursday.

“We felt that it was counterproductive to the purpose of the trip,” Malis said.

Combs said he’d be willing to modify the previous court order to allow the officers to dress in plain clothes.

Cowlin is expected to announce his decision on the matter March 22.

Since her mother’s death, Blankenship has made an effort to volunteer with children who have suffered burn wounds and taken every chance to celebrate the animal-loving mother and grandmother she lost.

“She was our hearts. She was our stone in the family” Blankenship said. “She was our rock.”

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