Monday, October 26, 2015

Downey VA Hospital in the News

I was really surprised by the number of people that read my post about "Downey VA Hospital a Lost Empire." I thought that Downey had probably disappeared for good and that there would be little interest. I was going through my collection of old nursing junk memorabilia and lo and behold I came across some yellowed newspaper clippings about assorted trials and tribulations at Downey. As you can see bad press about the VA is not just a recent phenomenon.

From the Suburban Trib May 12, 1975:
The FBI has begin an investigation into the operation of Downey Veterans Hospital. The Suburban Trib learned of the FBI investigation on the heels of an announcement that the General accounting Office was studying the administration of the hospital at Buckley and Green Bay Roads.

Sources will nor specify what FBI agents are studying, except to say the probe is in the initial stages.

F.E. Gathmann, acting Downey Director, said Tuesday that he was not aware of any FBI investigation other than into the murder last month of a 45 year old patient found stabbed at the hospital. A 17 year old Waukeegan IL youth was charged with the murder.

The hospital has recently been embroiled in controversy. John Reeves, a cook at the hospital and president of Local 2017 of  The American Federation of Government Employees, recently charged that former Downey director was transferred because he stepped o too many toes trying to convince the VA to fire incompetent employees.

Reeves has also charged that:
There has been mismanagement of funds at the hospital.
Drugs used in treatment programs are missing.
More attention is being paid to the needs of the Chicago Medical School  formerly  at 2020 Ogden Ave., Chicago than to patients.
Hospital employees have been threatened with reprisals for making public concerns about patient care.

I am not sure of the exact date of the next one, but I think it was from a local newspaper, the Independent Register. Perhaps a bit later than the previous article

Downey Veterans Hospital in North Chicago has launched an investigation into why 7 psychiatric patients took their own lives during the last 11 months.

Hospital administrators told the Independent Register the "suicide rate at Downey is no greater than at like institutions around the country, but what disturbs me is what we can do to spot the potential suicide and stop him before it is too late."

Administrators, who promised a report in two weeks, took action following Lake County Coroner Oscar Lind's charge of lax security at the hospital. Those who died were:

Robert King, 51 a patient who leaped from a 3rd floor window.
Thomas Azzano, 26 a patient who stepped in front of a Northwestern train in North Chicago.
Robert Horwitz, 40, a VA patient who stepped in front of of a train.
Michael O'Mera, 37, a resident patient who jumped in front of a train.
Allen Hamburg,37, a resident patient who committed suicide on the same spot he saw O'Mera die.
James Caba 57, who leaped to his death from atop the hospital water tower.
James Zvala,27, who committed suicide by a medication overdose.

Lind expressed his concern for increased security at the hospital and with the number of pills some of the patients had in their possession at the time of their deaths. "From our investigation...and results we believe this must be negligence," Lind said.

This is from a Chicago Tribune Column from October 29, 1976 by Jeff Lyon called: "The Law on Insanity-Time for its own Trial?"

There is a paradox here.
Wednesday night, security guard Sam Valenti,66 was killed in his cargo-gate guardhouse at O'Hare Airport. He was beaten and stomped so much that his face was caved in. His nose was nearly cut off with a pocket knife.

Police arrested a man outside the guardhouse. they said he was singing when they found him. He told them Valenti had refused to page an airport employee for him and explained his own gashes by saying  he had slipped on Valenti's blood and fell thorough a window.

The man was a former Chicago fireman and Golden Gloves boxing champion James O'Malley, 55. He was indicted for murder before in 1972.

On New Years Day that year, James O'Malley walked into a pizzeria and shot a stranger to death. Moments before he had pistol whipped another man who offered to help move his stalled car. shortly afterwards, O'Malley was found incompetent to stand trial. He would not understand the charges or cooperate with his attorney. He was remanded to the Illinois Department of Mental Health for treatment. Last year he was at last pronounced able to face trial.

During the trial psychiatric testimony was brought before Circuit Judge Romiti: O'Malley had been "schizophrenic," "delusional" at the time of the murder. He had been hearing voices. judge Romiti did what he had to do. He found O'Malley not guilty by reason of insanity. But he also found him in need of further treatment and sent him back to the DMH, apparently confident that mental health authorities would do what they had to do. And that simply, would be to keep n mind O'Malley's past violence and make sure he was well before he was released. That is where Judge Romiti was wrong.

O'Malley spent 22 days at Manteno State Hospital before he was sent to Downey Veterans Administration Hospital on April 21. Downey discharged him on May 26 ruling he could function in society. For nearly five months he did. Until the explosion in Sam Valenti's  guardhouse.

Valenti did not have much time to think much about the aw before being fatally beaten. The law says that if a man is unfit to stand trial, the courts retain jurisdiction. Once he comes to trial, after treatment, he is likely to be found innocent by reason of insanity. That means he is not guilty. It does not mean he is sane. but that's when the courts lose jurisdiction over him; psychiatrists not judges can decide when he returns to society.

The judge can scream as loud as he wants. If Downey VA says he goes out, he goes out.

I had n interesting chat with Marjorie Quant, Administrator at the Downey VA Hospital. Miss Quant said a treatment team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and the like deemed O'Malley ready to be set free. She said she could not reveal what  their reasons were, because of the Federal Privacy Act.

But she said, "I think we followed our normal procedure here. If  you're assuming there was an error here, that would not be correct." When they released O'Malley, did they take into account that he had committed a murder?  "I'm assuming something to that effect would have appeared in the medical history," she said.

Wouldn't that have made a difference? "What made a difference was his medical condition at the time...A patient is discharged only if it is determined he is well enough to live in society. If he is well enough to go home, he has the same rights as anyone else."

Judge Romiti declared Thursday that "you don't just put a bombshell back on the street." DA Bernard Carey called O'Malley's release "outrageous."  There are those who might even call releasing O'Malley from Downey something else. They might call it insane.


  1. I ran across a couple of photos from Downey (a post card, in fact) and I thought you might enjoy seeing them:

    And two others:$_35.JPG

    Obviously there was a post card collection of the hospital, but I can't seem to find the whole collection. I'll let you know if I run across it.

  2. Thanks for the tip about those Downey photos. There was actually a photography group for the patients at Downey, complete with a decent wet sink darkroom. Some of the patients were actually good photographers. There used to be signs at the entrance to each building cautioning that unauthorized photography was a federal crime. I suspect this greatly limited the photography at Downey and it took a lot more than a cell phone to snap a picture!

  3. By chance was any part of the hospital named after dr joseph rangatore only thing I know is I have a picture of him at dedication ceremony of the psyc wing of hospital and my mother couldn't remember if they named it after him he worked there until his death in 1960

  4. The various buildings and hospital wings at Downey were identified by numbers and letters. I worked in Building 66AB. The name you mentioned has a familiar ring to it, but I worked at Downey in the early 1970's. I should write more about Downey-It was a very unique facility- the likes of which we won't see again.