Citing Nicholas Bendle's complete recovery after a psychotic breakdown five years ago led him to randomly kill a man with a hatchet, officials are wrestling with where to send him because a plan to transfer him from a state mental hospital to another locked facility fell through.
Bendle, then 20, attacked Frederick Holgate, 69, with a hatchet, partially decapitating him, 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 killing.
In June, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rick Brown authorized an 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.
This was viewed as a partial step toward his eventual freedom.
But Sylmar officials have determined Bendle wouldn’t benefit from being in their program because of the “completeness of his recovery,” according to Patty Dark, the deputy public defender representing Bendle.
Defense and prosecuting attorneys met Monday with the judge in chambers to discuss the next step since the interim plan didn’t work out. The judge instructed them to return Sept. 15.
“I wouldn’t say that anyone at this point has decided what the outcome should be,” Dark said. “I think there was some general disappointment that Sylmar found him too recovered to benefit from their programs because that was a solution that addressed everybody’s concerns about releasing to an unlocked facility.
"But it isn’t a solution that really is relevant to Mr. Bendle’s recovery, which appears to be complete.”
“We had hoped he would be accepted at Sylmar,” Deputy District Attorney Kevin Duffy said later. “Since he was not accepted, we are hoping that he will stay longer in Patton since Sylmar is not an available option. We are confident that Judge Brown will make the right decision after he has all the information available.”
Patton officials had recommended Bendle’s release due to his recovery. But concerns about the short time since the fatal attack prompted a search for an interim step, like Sylmar, toward his eventual release.
The mental health treatment providers — “and these are very experienced people,” according to Dark — said most had never seen a recovery this complete.
Typically after the state hospital, patients would be sent to the outpatient Forensic Conditional Release Program, dubbed CONREP, in Ventura County. Those in the mental-health program are supervised with an eye toward community safety, not patient advocacy, Dark said.
Bendle hasn’t been on medication since 2012, and remains in complete remission, Dark said.
“That’s makes this case very unusual,” Dark said. “Everyone’s in agreement, including Sylmar who evaluated him, that he does not need medication.”
The finding by Sylmar validates the earlier opinions of Patton and CONREP officials, she noted.
Dark expects further discussions with Patton and CONREP representatives before officials decide how to proceed.
“There is the possibility that he could voluntarily agree to stay in Patton for a longer period of time” Dark said. "There is a possibility we could go to a contested hearing on whether or not he meets the statutory criteria for release. There is a possibility both sides could stipulate to his release. I don’t believe at this time the District Attorney’s Office is prepared to do that.”
It’s not known if Patton officials would allow Bendle to stay at the state hospital since they have recommended his release.
Bendle’s detailed wellness recovery plan is designed to ensure he is aware of what may lead to another attack, although there’s no indication he would have another psychotic breakdown, according to Dark.
He was diagnosed as having a single-episode breakdown.
He hopes to finish college and become a personal trainer. At Patton, Bendle has worked in the audiovisual department, Dark said.
“We’re very aware of the pain that this causes to the community and the family members of the gentleman who lost his life because of Mr. Bendle’s actions,” Dark said.
She added that those involved in the case recognize the need to carefully investigate options to lead to decisions that “result in safety for the community, safety for Mr. Bendle, and ensure he’s successful and ensure the family members of this unfortunate man suffer the least amount of trauma.”