Mentally incapacitated man's case set for trial

Many like him don't qualify for state mental health services and cycle in and out of jail

Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ANCHORAGE - For Victor Oustigoff, the courtroom was not a bad place to be - away from the sneers and taunts in jail. His lawyer told him all he would have to do is answer questions. That was simple. He could handle that.

Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News
Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News

Oustigoff, 63, sat in the hard chair and picked at the cuticles of his worn-down fingernails, his eyes blankly staring at his handiwork. His oily hair hung like a shield over his face.

The question that brought him to court that day: Was he mentally competent to go to trial? Could he help defend himself against criminal charges that he molested six girls?

The judge would eventually rule that he was, despite his I.Q. of 70, which is 30 points below average - on the edge of retardation, according to professional standards.

There are hundreds of people in Alaska prisons like Oustigoff, people who are mentally incapacitated in ways that cannot be medicated. Many suffer from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, others from traumatic brain injuries. They cycle in and out of the jails. The state punishes them for mostly petty crimes; they do their time and are released only to come back on a new charge.

While the Department of Corrections is the state's largest provider of mental health services, it can do little for people like Oustigoff who are more handicapped than mentally ill. Other state agencies can, in fact, do very little for him also.

If people like him don't have family to monitor their behavior, many are left floating through the world on their own - hurting and being hurt.

This isn't the first time Oustigoff has been arrested for child molesting. Police say he committed a similar crime in the late 1980s. For that conviction he was sentenced to six years in prison. Then he spent more time in and out of jail for probation violations, such as not checking in with his parole officer. In 2004, he was charged with failing to register as a sex offender.

This time, Oustigoff is charged with 14 counts of various degrees of sexually touching young girls, most of whom were related to him in some way. None of the charges are for actual rape. Anchorage police say he had six victims from the summer of 2002 to October 2007, ranging in age from 3 to 10 years old.

The Anchorage police officer who investigated Oustigoff, Sgt. Gerard Asselin, said he had no qualms about arresting him. Oustigoff knew what he was doing was wrong and tried to cover his tracks, Asselin said.

"Mr. Oustigoff admitted to a lifetime of conduct similar in nature both in Anchorage and his prior village ... how can he not know? He's doing it because he's getting - pardon me - but he's getting his rocks off."

Asselin said that when police discovered what Oustigoff was doing, he tried to hide it and blamed others. "Blaming other people for what you're doing? There's a lot of thought process going on there," he said.

From the time he was a little boy on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs, Oustigoff's family knew there was something not quite right about him, said his older brother Vlass Shabolin, who still lives in the village.

When Oustigoff was a little boy his mother died, depriving him of the woman who was kind, patient and protective of his oddities. He watched her cancer progress, a battle she fought largely on her own, pulling out the tube in her throat to clean it herself.

After her death, the family would find him sleeping by her cold grave at night.

"He had it rough," said his sister Manefa Bartley.

Like his siblings, Oustigoff was adopted and raised by neighbors.

It's not clear when or why he was first taken off the island. He told the court during one proceeding that it was because he was told not to speak Russian at school, so he threatened the teacher with a razor.

But there's another story. Several years after his mother's death, Oustigoff and his best friend were chasing foxes on the windy tundra when the other boy plunged to his death off a steep cliff. Oustigoff returned home late, couldn't stop screaming, and had to be hospitalized that night, Bartley said.

The dead boy's mother blamed Oustigoff for what happened. Even Oustigoff's own family doesn't seem to be too sure.

Shabolin says whatever happened "put violence in his (brother's) mind."

As Oustigoff tells it 50 years later from jail: "I found his body. We should have stayed off the cliff. They said I killed him."

What does an isolated, rural community do with a person - a child - like this? Mostly they send them away. Back in the 1950s, that's what they did with Oustigoff. He was sent to Morningside Hospital, an infamous Portland, Ore., institution where Alaska used to send its mentally ill before it was shut down in the 1960s.

Even today, after the passage of so many years, Oustigoff has held on to the memories about being torn away from the island. Ask him about his day or what he did yesterday and he'll break into stories about Morningside. The stories don't make sense but the images repeat: electric shock treatment, padlocks on the doors, telling nurses "he's not a faggot," and being beaten.

Oustigoff is scattered in his thoughts and in addition to his low I.Q. may have fetal alcohol problems, although he's never been diagnosed. He functions well enough that he doesn't need a guardian, but he's not capable enough to function "normally" in daily life, his family says.

People like him who are mildly cognitively impaired don't qualify for community service programs, said Steve Williams, a program officer with Alaska Mental Health Trust who focuses on disability justice. "It is very difficult for them," he said.

Because they aren't protected in the swaddle of those services, as more impaired people are, they have a higher risk of entering the criminal justice system, he said.

Laura Brooks, the director of behavioral health with the state Department of Corrections, estimates 2 to 5 percent of people in prisons are like Oustigoff.

"Often times it's really challenging to identify these folks because they really fly under the radar," she said. "They are quiet or subdued and so they don't always come to the attention unless there's a problem or unless they tell us that they need some assistance."

Alaska, with one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the country, may have more of such prisoners than other states, she said.

While experts in developmental disabilities say the vast majority of impaired people are more often victim than perpetrator, those who commit wrongs prove difficult to deal with.

"When you have someone who is mentally incapacitated and may not be capable of learning or understanding that this kind of stuff is wrong, what do you do with them? It's a very difficult situation," said Cindy Strout, an Anchorage defense attorney who is not involved in the Oustigoff case but spoke generally about cases like his.

"It's horrible that he's perped on other kids, but it's also horrible for him that now he's going to spend the rest of his life in jail. That's not good for anybody if there's some middle ground for him in a placement where he's supervised."

There's really no place in the state for people who need long-term supervisory care unless they agree to it, she said.

In his late 20s, Oustigoff tried to go back to St. Paul, but it wasn't long before he was put into a straitjacket and taken off again.

"They said I wasn't allowed back on the island. They called me a dangerous person," he said from the Anchorage jail, where he has been housed for two years awaiting the outcome of the molesting charges. "They said I wasn't allowed to go to school in St. Paul or anywhere. I said that's baloney. That's my rights."

Kicked off the island again, his years as a young adult included stints in jail and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. He racked up misdemeanor charges of assault, disorderly conduct, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, trespass and larceny.

Those who remember him still don't want him back. They remember that when he returned to St. Paul in the 1980s, it led to trouble.

There is no doubt life dealt Oustigoff a bad hand, but that's not the fault of his victims, those in law enforcement say.

The 1991 charging documents against Oustigoff say he repeatedly sexually abused a 12-year-old St. Paul girl. He admitted to having sex with her at least five times, according to court records. One time, he paid her for her silence.

Shabolin, who was a longtime constable for the Alaska State Troopers on the island, believes the earlier case against his brother was bogus. His brother got caught up in village drama laced with alcoholism, revenge and lying, he insists. "Victor never bothered anybody."

Shabolin says his brother is more hurt than hurtful, always has been, and probably always will be. The problem is he desperately wants to be liked. That lands him in compromising situations with people taking advantage of him, even as the family has tried to protect him. "You can tell Victor anything and he'll do it for you," he said.

That's especially a problem when he gets around alcoholics or criminals, his brother said. Oustigoff falls into their rhythm, adopts their behavior.

Documents from the most recent court case say Oustigoff suffers from the residual effects of alcohol dependence, but his family doesn't think so.

In the 1990s case, Judge Karl Johnstone seemed to think Oustigoff had learned his lesson from being arrested and jailed. "I have no information to suggest that Mr. Oustigoff is a pedophile, that he preys on young women," Johnstone concluded.

"Mr. Oustigoff, with no lack of respect, has a low I.Q., and this is the type of thing that is like putting your hand on a stove," he said. "If you have a low I.Q., it hurts, you don't do it again, and you don't have to be a brain trust to understand the consequences of your acts."

Oustigoff was told to stay away from children.

But keeping kids away from him didn't happen. One of the victims in the latest case was the granddaughter of a neighbor. The charges say Oustigoff was at her house on Halloween 2007. Oustigoff molested the girl, dressed as a princess for Halloween, in the bathroom while the grandmother was in the other room. The 3-year-old told police that Oustigoff told her not to tell anyone.

Sgt. Asselin said family and police had approached Oustigoff before about inappropriate behavior; he's been told not to do it. "He knows enough to deceive the police and family members about what he's doing but he doesn't know enough to know right and wrong?"

Now Oustigoff is an old man.

The only friends or family he has left are his elderly brother and sister.

A civil court proceeding would be necessary for the state or a family member to get control over his life. He would have to be "civilly committed," something neither sibling is willing to do.

His sister, Bartley, lives in Anchorage but says she is busy being a grandmother. She didn't grow up with Oustigoff, hasn't really been following his case, and feels little obligation toward him. Besides, she said, she wouldn't allow her brother around her grandchildren. She says the current charges are not Oustigoff's fault but anyone who lets children around him should know better.

Shabolin wants something, anything, other than jail for his brother. Life behind bars is very difficult for him, he says. "They pursue him, they know he's mentally retarded."

"I've been trying so hard to get Victor put in a home," he said in a phone interview from St. Paul. "He has to have 24-hour attention."

He has offered to take care of him on the island but doubts the state will allow it because he has his grandchildren in the house.

"Victor needs all the help he can get," Shabolin said.

When asked where he wants to be and what he wants to be doing, Oustigoff said he doesn't want someone else to be in charge of him. He wants to fish and hunt seal. Going to trial then to prison for the rest of his life isn't real in his mind.

"Then maybe come back here (to Anchorage) and finish my school," he says. "And I think about studying with the monks."

His trial is set for mid-September.



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