Brennan: Zoo murder hits home
By Tom Brennan |
The murder of Alaska Zoo chief gardener Michael Greco brought home the crisis in our mental health system in a very powerful way.
We didn’t know Michael but my wife and I were part of the extended zoo family for many years. Having a fine guy working at a place he loved knifed to death, run over and his body robbed was a tremendous shock to all of his friends and colleagues on the zoo staff.
The man charged with his murder, Clayton Charlie, age 32, was known to be a dangerous man with paranoid schizophrenia who had been in and out of jail and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute many times. But the system was unable to hold him and keep him from doing what he apparently did to Michael Greco on the night of November 4.
It’s hard to know who to blame for the problem and perhaps finger- pointing would be counter-productive when the system itself needs to be fixed. API currently has only 80 beds — half the number experts say it needs — and at least 30 of those beds are chronically empty because the hospital doesn’t have the staff to handle that size caseload. And those who do work there say they consider the workplace unsafe due to short staffing and danger from violent patients.
My family connection to the Alaska Zoo began when Sammy Seawell, founder of the zoo, asked Marnie to serve on her board of directors. Marnie was on the board for years and chairman several times. She was an executive in the telephone industry and was at Anchorage Telephone Utility when Sammy asked for her help.
Marnie maintained the connection when she moved on to become vice president of marketing at Telalaska. She brought that company in as a frequent sponsor and host of events like the annual zoo dinner, where Chef Al Levinson and his team created culinary marvels for guests who reached their tables by walking among the zoo’s many wonderful animals pacing in their cages.
The Alaska Zoo has great leadership and a fine staff that was heart-broken by the death of Michael Greco, who was filling in as a night watchman when Clayton Charlie apparently attacked him with a knife, ran over his fallen body and stole his phone and wallet. The killer then went to a McDonald’s restaurant for a bite to eat. Also emotionally devastated by the crime were members of Clayton Charlie’s adoptive family, who knew he could be dangerous when off his meds and had been trying to get help for him for years, with frustrating results.
How to fix the systemic problems is a question far beyond the capabilities of this English major. Obviously experts in the field will need to be involved and our political leaders will need to find ways to implement solutions and come up with the money. This urgent quandary will presumably land in the lap of Alaska’s incoming governor, Mike Dunleavy and his staff. It will be a difficult one but it must be solved, one way or the other.
On a lighter but related note, I have to tell you about a visitor who came to our house from Austin, Texas a few years ago. Graham Franciose is a fine artist with a quirky brand of visual humor. We have a couple of his paintings on the walls of our house.
Graham was feeling good about our choice of fine artwork so I couldn’t resist telling him that the swoosh-style painting outside his bedroom was done by Maggie, the elephant around which the Alaska Zoo was built.