A court-ordered evaluation of Nicholas Bendle, who partially decapitated a Santa Maria man with a hatchet nearly five years ago after a psychotic break, may be the first step toward his release from a state mental hospital and eventual freedom.
During a hearing in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria on Thursday, Judge Rick Brown authorized the evaluation to see if Bendle should be released from Patton State Hospital to undergo further treatment at Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Center, also a locked facility.
Bendle attacked Frederick Holgate, 69, on Aug. 1, 2009, during his early morning walk on South Miller Street, just south of Stowell Road. The two men did not know each other.
Two years later, Bendle pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as attorneys on both sides agreed he was legally insane at the time of the murder.
Prior to the killing, which was blamed on a severe psychotic breakdown, Bendle had been going to college, held a job, had a girlfriend, and otherwise led a regular life without any signs of mental illness.
Since his sentencing in 2011, he has been locked in Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino undergoing treatment.
Late last year, Patton officials recommended that Bendle, 25, be released into the community for outpatient treatment.
Normally that would lead to his release to a halfway house with intensive supervision for at least 90 days, and later a board-and-care facility, according to Deputy Public Defender Patty Dark.
Instead, officials are considering a transitional step for Bendle’s release.
“In this case, because of the rather quick time for recovery — and this has been a remarkable recovery, one that has been unusual and very frankly considered by the mental health treatment providers as a very complete recovery — everyone wanted to be very cautious for both the community and Mr. Bendle’s sake,” Dark said Thursday.
Instead of releasing Bendle from the locked facility to one without those restrictions, mental health providers are being asked to consider a transitional placement, or a less severe first step, Dark said.
Still, the psychiatric unit at Sylmar is a locked facility.
“It has a different level of therapeutic care, but it is therapeutic nonetheless,” Dark said. “There are certain things that are less restrictive about it as far, as allowing Mr. Bendle or people that are sent there to adapt to an upcoming release, but he will still be in a locked facility, still be subject to 24/7 supervision.”
“I think the court’s primary concern is not only community safety but that the community be comfortable with how this case is developing,” Dark said. “This seemed like not only a healthy solution for the comfort level of the community, but a healthy solution that everyone is certain that Mr. Bendle’s recovery is as complete as the records all indicate.”
Sylmar doesn’t offer many of the activities offered at Patton, such as a yard or work programs.
“In many ways, this will be more restrictive for him, but it is a necessary step in his development and his ability to demonstrate that he can adapt to different levels of supervision, different changes in his regime, and to show that his recovery is stable,” Dark said.
Bendle, 25, did not appear in court for Thursday’s hearing.
Patton officials will now provide a packet for Sylmar officials to assess and screen whether Bendle is acceptable for that program. If he is accepted at Sylmar, Bendle likely would be treated there for six to nine months, according to Dark
After that, Bendle would likely go to a highly intensive, supervised transitional housing program, and later a board-and-care facility in Ventura County.
However, Bendle reportedly doesn’t plan to return to Santa Maria, Dark said.
The case will return to Brown’s courtroom at 8:30 a.m. July 17.