Furrow: Many Signs Of Trouble

Drunk And Distraught, He Pulls A Knife

On Aug. 10, 1999, Buford Furrow walked into a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and started shooting. Five people were wounded, including three children in day care. Later that day, Furrow shot a postman nine times, killing him.

At the time of his arrest, the FBI says Furrow described his attacks as a wake-up call to kill Jews and non-whites.

Furrow pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes. And yesterday he was sentenced to life without parole.

Furrow apologized to the court and to his victims and said he wished he had remained at a mental hospital that he was in before the shootings.

What Correspondent Scott Pelley found when he first reported this story was a wake-up call for authorities in Furrow's home state of Washington.

They had every reason to believe that Furrrow was dangerous before the Los Angeles shootings and that he was thinking of mass murder.

Washington state officials knew this because Buford Furrow told them.

Nine months before the Los Angeles shootings, Furrow told Sheriff's Deputy John Hall of King County, Wash.: "I've been having suicidal and homicidal thoughts for some time now. Sometimes I feel like I could just lose it and kill people."

Deputy Hall confronted Furrow in October 1998 at a psychiatric hospital outside Seattle. Furrow came there for help. He was drunk and upset.

"What I sensed was a very, very distraught, very mentally disturbed man," Hall remembered.

The hospital staff said that Furrow told them he was thinking of suicide. He had already slashed his arms several times with a knife. But Furrow also told them that the day before he had gone to a shopping mall with the thought of shooting people there at random.

The staff got his car keys away from him, but Furrow snapped and pulled a knife, holding it just inches away from a woman's face while other members of the staff called the police.

When Hall arrived, he drew his gun and ordered Furrow to drop the knife. Furrow started moving toward Hall, and Hall thought he would have to shoot the man.

But Furrow stopped just before Hall had planned to shoot. Instead Hall arrested him, and they talked. Furrow confessed his urge to shoot people at this shopping mall.

"His plan was to make his way to his wife's workplace where he was going to kill her [and] kill several of her employees. It was his hope that he would create enough chaos that once found by the police, there would be a shootout and he was looking for the police to take his life," Hall said.

Why didn't Furrow goad Hall to kill him? Said Hall: "I asked him, 'Why did you stop in the hallway?' and he looked at me and said, 'You seemed like a nice guy. I didn't want you to be the one.'"

Furrow was charged with assault and transferred to a psychiatric ward, where he tried to hang himself. He spent six weeks in mental hospitals. Those medical records are confidential, so it is impossible to know what the docors learned about Furrow.

But he was diagnosed, stabilized on medication and then returned to jail. One note he later wrote to the court may provide some insight. It read: "I felt like a beat-up dog. After being in pain for three or four years, you just snap."

Furrow pleaded guilty to assault. In deciding how to sentence Furrow, the court could have requested the confidential records from the psychiatric hospital.

But sources in the state mental health system said that there was no request. Neither the judge nor the prosecutors nor the Department of Corrections read the doctors' reports.

Washington's Department of Corrections recommended Furrow's release. It based this recommendation on Furrow's own belief that he was well, in addition to statements by his lawyer.

Joseph Lehman, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said that the evidence indicated that Furrow's stay in the hospital had improved his state: "They saw that individual several months later as, in fact, changed as a result of some intervention and stabilized him on medication."

But the Department of Corrections had plenty of evidence that Furrow was a high risk. A pre-sentence investigation was done to find out for the judge whether Furrow was fit for parole.

In it, the victims of the assault at the psychiatric hospital warned that Furrow was determined to kill his wife. They said that he was scary and they were "quite concerned that he might return...to get revenge."

The report told the judge that if she decided to keep Furrow in jail, he should not be allowed out on work release because it would be destabilizing. It advised total confinement.

In addition, the report said that Furrow could not manage his finances, that he was a loner, was depressed about his mother, and that in recent years he had suffered anxiety attacks that had increased in magnitude and frequency. It seemed full of red flags. Lehman said that Furrow's condition had been stablized by medication, by his and others' accounts.

Furrow was sentenced in May 1998 after seven months in custody. Despite his violent fantasies, the Department of Corrections recommended parole. The prosecution did not object, and Judge Harriet Cody released Furrow, without ever seeing the psychiatric records describing Furrow's mental illness and his need for treatment.

Deputy Hall knew that Furrow was a risk: "I was convinced that once they evaluated him, read the reports and the information provided that they would see just as clearly as I had that this man was a serious risk and not release him."

Neither the prosecutor nor the judge would talk with 60 Minutes II. But Lehman insisted that compared to many other parolees, Furrow did not appear as dangerous as he turned out to be.

"If you look at this individual and who it was, 37-year-old, first-time offender,...who was under the influence of alcohol and who had a mental health problem," Lehmn said.

"We felt we had an assaulter on our caseload. That's what we thought we had," Lehman said. "We had a domestic terrorist individual and we didn't know that. And I, I'm sorry....I don't know that anybody could have predicted that from the information we had."

"The mistake that I see in this is the idea that this attack at the mental hospital was some sort of a onetime aberration, that medication had miraculously stabilized Furrow and that his life would, from that point on, be smooth," said Seattle lawyer Mark Leemon.

"It doesn't look like that from the documents that were filed in preparation for sentencing," Leemon said. He thinks that in the Furrow case, there were ample warning signs.

The state of Washington witnessed a similar tragedy. Officials there vowed that it would never happen again. In 1997, Dan Van Ho, a violent psychopath, was released from jail against the recommendation of a state mental hospital.

Days later, Ho encountered a retired fire captain, Stanley Stevenson, and stabbed him to death for no apparent reason. Leemon represents the Stevenson family.

In that case, too, the report said that the patient had serious mental illness, and was very dangerous, Leemon says. No one, he says, followed up on that report.

Because of that case, Washington passed new laws to protect the public from the criminally insane. For Furrow, the new laws meant that the judge could order a psychiatric evaluation and additional treatment. But she didn't.

Even after Furrow's release, there was still a chance to protect the public. Furrow had a parole officer. When Judge Cody released Furrow, she ordered that he continue on his medication, stay away from alcohol and never touch a firearm again for the rest of his life.

These were big changes for a heavy drinker, a mental patient with a passion for guns. And yet when Furrow walked out of jail, he was not seen by his parole officer for 26 days.

"It did take that amount of time to transfer the case," Lehman said. "The officer who supervised him was in contact with him by telephone prior to that day. There was no indication from a third party or anybody that there was a problem during that period of time."

Eventually the parole officer saw Furrow five times, but only in the parole office. 60 Minutes II obtained the parole officer's notes, which make it clear that the department had no idea what Furrow was doing.

On July 20, 1999, the parole officer wrote that Furrow "shows positive progress regarding his moods, attitude and anger." Days later, Furrow obtained the guns allegedly used in Los Angeles.

On Aug. 3, 1999, the officer wrote: "No problems to note, [parolee] was in a good mood." Seven days later the community center was attacked.

"The truth of the matter," Lehman said, "is we were supervising somebody for a [second-degree] assault that was - ivolved [with] substances, alcohol and [it] had to do with his mental illness. We were not supervising somebody who we saw as a threat to go out and commit the act he did."

But Furrow had a deeper insight into his own mind. In a statement from his Seattle jail, he wrote, I was an extremely miserable person....I was trying to get help before I did something." The Los Angeles shootings happened three months later.

"Buford Furrow was treated by the Washington criminal justice system as a person who, if he had ever posed a danger, probably didn't any more," said Leemon.

"Despite the fact that Mr. Furrow and everyone who knew him was saying otherwise. Under those circumstances I think that the state of Washington has a lot to apologize for to the families of those victims," he added.