Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Incredible Story Of Window Washer Alonzo Martin

Alonzo Martin poses outside of the Independence Center on Forest Park Boulevard in St. Louis, where he works, on Wednesday on conditional release status.
After seven years locked up, St. Louis man wins chance at freedom - On a Good Friday more than seven years ago, Alonzo Martin was finishing his window-washing route at a popular St. Louis barbershop when he made an off-color comment to the owner’s wife that would destroy his life.

“I told his wife, ‘You are so sexy, you look like my wife,’ ” he recalled. Her husband heard. A violent ruckus ensued. Police were called.

In the seven years since the incident, Martin has paid a price. He’s been locked up in jails and state mental hospitals, most recently at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center on Arsenal Street. His indefinite confinement is based on a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Had he pleaded guilty to charges, he probably would have been free long ago.

Instead, he has missed the births of five grandchildren and much of the childhood of his youngest son who is now 13. Throughout it all, Martin has argued he was the victim, not the offender, in the barbershop crime. And he said he never agreed to enter the insanity plea made by his attorney.

On Monday, a judge backed him up. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Philip Heagney lifted Martin’s order of commitment after the court and his former attorney Paul Sims could not produce the legal document Martin should have signed off on stating he had no other defenses. It is required in any order of commitment.

In a hearing last month, Martin’s new pro-bono attorney, Thor Mathison, successfully argued that because the court could not produce the document, the commitment was void. Mathison also told the judge that Martin probably would have been acquitted of the charges had the case gone to trial.

“Had he even pleaded guilty, I’m not sure he would have ended up spending seven years in the custody of the state,” Mathison said Tuesday.

By Martin’s and Mathison’s accounts, Martin was attacked and severely beaten by several people after he made the remark in Yams Barber and Beauty shop on South Jefferson Avenue. He tried to flee in his car. One of his attackers shattered a passenger window, causing Martin to drive up on the sidewalk toward pedestrians and witnesses, some of whom took part in the altercation.

But St. Louis police saw it another way. Martin — who had no previous convictions for violent crimes — was charged with three counts of first-degree assault and three counts of armed criminal action. Yet, as Mathison told the judge, Martin was the only person who was injured in the altercation. Martin’s arrest photo shows a severely bruised and swollen face.

“Ironically, Alonzo was the one who called police,” Mathison said. Martin first spent three years in the city Workhouse awaiting trial on the charges until his then-private attorney filed a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The plea was accepted by the court.

He was then confined at Fulton State Hospital, and later transferred to St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center where he eventually resided in low-security cottages. Doctors at Fulton had diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, though Martin doubts the diagnosis and said he had never been manic nor been a behavioral problem.

Monday’s ruling isn’t Martin’s first court victory. In January, the Post-Dispatch reported that he won $34,000 in back wages for himself and others in a federal labor dispute against St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center. He successfully claimed the facility set unfair work performance quotas and underpaid him and other residents who were required to do light manufacturing jobs in the facility’s work center. (More below).

In the past year, Heagney granted Martin conditional release status, which allowed him to leave the facility for work training, a janitorial job at a church and to visit his mother. Those freedoms were revoked by state mental health officials last month after Martin attended the hearing in shackles to fight his commitment.

After the hearing, he was put on lockdown with everyone else after two residents escaped from the facility. But after the lockdown was lifted, Martin remained under the watch. At one point, he was confined to a high-security observation room that he said smelled of feces and urine.

Martin formally appealed the lockdown to hospital officials. Documents in response to that appeal shared by Martin show an “administrative decision” made to keep him on lockdown on a high security ward with no visiting or conditional release privileges “to reduce the chance of elopement pending resolution of court case.”

Martin said by phone during the lockdown that he felt he was being punished for fighting his commitment and the wage dispute. Mathison, his attorney, thought the move was extreme. “I understand that the facility has to be mindful of security, but Alonzo had been there for a long time and had followed the rules for a long time and to sort of punish him for executing his constitutionally protected rights seems unfair,” Mathison said.

Despite Heagney’s ruling Monday, Martin is still not free. He was transported Tuesday morning from the psychiatric facility to the St. Louis City Justice Center on $50,000 bail. Under Heagney’s order, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney has until Friday to refile charges. Mathison said it would be hard to try the case, given that seven years have passed and witnesses are hard to locate.

If no charges come, Martin will go free and restart his window-washing business. If he is recharged, Martin said, he will ask his mother, 80, to help him post bail.
Ward of St. Louis psychiatric center wins labor dispute: Five days a week for nearly two years Alonzo Martin was required to do the most menial of tasks to earn his keep inside St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center where he was committed by the city Circuit Court.

Over the course of his confinement at the Arsenal Street facility he’s stuck labels on plastic clamshell packaging for produce. He’s changed out photos behind the glass lids of wooden gift boxes for Hollywood Casino. He’s stuffed San Francisco Giants World Series replica championship rings into tiny plastic bags. He’s packaged erasers. He’s even put together Boy Scout tool kits to make Pinewood Derby cars.

Martin is unsure if he will ever fully gain his freedom under what he believes was a bogus court order to commit him after an alleged crime. But he says he has at least prevailed in a federal labor complaint against the facility’s work center, which he said underpaid him and others and operated like a sweat shop.

Records released last week show federal inspectors with the U.S. Department of Labor validated many of his complaints. The federal agency ordered the facility to repay more than $34,000, the equivalent of two years’ back wages, to many of its residents.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Mental Health declined last week to comment on the report or the payments. But as part of the inquiry, the facility has also agreed to adjust the way it figures those wages to comply with federal standards.

Martin is an even-spoken, articulate man of normal intelligence who says he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 10 years ago, though he disputes that diagnosis.

Records show he’s been paid as little as $2.55 an hour for his work at the rehabilitation hospital’s work center. That has occurred even though labor laws say those wages should be based on an average prevailing wage, which currently hovers a little above $9 an hour. And he’s watched 40 percent of his meager earnings taken away each month by the facility to pay for room, board, health care and other expenses — a practice allowed by state law.

Martin said state law also limited the savings residents could accrue and enabled the state to take the rest. A spokesman with the state Department of Mental Health said the cap was set at $768, with additional earnings being deposited in the state’s general revenue fund. The cap is intended to help the state pay for psychiatric medicine and treatment but also ensures that clients remain qualified for Medicaid when they are discharged. Medicaid also prohibits savings and limits net earnings.

Under the rule, Martin said, he typically reaches his savings limit after just two months. Records also show Martin is currently paying court-ordered child support with half of his earnings. If he could save more, Martin said, he could pass more along to his children.

Some may say that’s just the way it goes for the 100 or so residents committed to the psychiatric facility under criminal court pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity. The alternative might have been a guilty ruling and prison sentence.

Martin has for years maintained that he is innocent of the assault and armed criminal action charges that led to a three-year confinement in the city jail and then nearly four years in state psychiatric facilities. He says he never consented to a not guilty by reason of insanity plea bargain made by an attorney nearly seven years ago.

So the wage issue has really bothered him, and he decided to take a stand. “Whether I’m mentally ill or not, they shouldn’t be in here paying us only $2 an hour,” he said.


The final report by federal labor inspectors concluded the facility was underpaying the workers by 46 percent. Wages went as low as 85 cents an hour, the report shows.

In the end, 73 residents were found to be significantly underpaid; each got a slice of the $34,000 in back wages.

At issue was a formula used to determine just how much a worker should accomplish within 50 minutes to earn an hourly rate of pay commensurate to the prevailing wage. Investigators found that the facility had improperly inflated that production quota and expected workers to meet it even though it was 54 percent higher than it should have been.

That low productivity drove down their pay far beneath the prevailing wage.

Martin, who at one point wrote to federal officials, “we are tortured here daily with an impossible to reach high standard,” said he was reimbursed about $850 in back wages after the federal findings. He used the money to buy a computer that he keeps at his mother’s home, which under the terms of his confinement he is allowed to visit once a week. He said that at least his mother and his children could use it.

He said facility residents were told neither about the labor violations nor why they got the back wages. He said more back wages should have been returned because the facility had been underpaying clients for well over a decade. The Department of Labor went back only two years in its investigation, with a statute of limitations preventing a longer review.

“I really feel sorry for the guys who’ve been here 15, 20 years,” Martin said. “They are owed a lot more.”


Martin does not know how long he might remain in the psychiatric facility. He was committed after the court accepted a not guilty by reason of insanity plea from his former attorney on three counts of first-degree assault and three counts of armed criminal action in 2007.

He contends he was fleeing an assault by two people when one of the perpetrators burst his car window as he drove down a sidewalk. Some bystanders possibly associated with the assault claimed he tried to hit them with the car. Court records said the victim was not injured but Martin was. Martin also made the 9-1-1 call to authorities after the incident, records show.

Martin, who had a prior felony conviction for theft that resulted in prison time, said it was possible he would have served some jail time for the assault if found guilty — but certainly not the seven years he’s been confined under the plea bargain.

In October, his attorney Thor Mathison, who took on the case pro bono, filed a petition demanding Martin’s immediate release. The petition claims Martin’s commitment order is invalid because the court has yet to produce a legal document signed by Martin declaring he understood his insanity plea.

So for now, Martin waits. Though he is still a resident at the psychiatric facility, he no longer works in its work center. He is transported daily to the Independence Center, which gives job training and support for those coping with mental illness.

He said he would like to return to the window-washing business he ran in The Hill neighborhood. He’d like to spend time with his family. His youngest child is now 13. He has six grandchildren.

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