It turns out two psychiatric patients from Santa Barbara County had escaped from Aurora Vista del Mar, Ventura County’s acute-care lockdown facility, when being evacuated from the psychiatric hospital to the Ventura County Fairgrounds early Tuesday morning during the Thomas Fire. Previous news reports indicated there had been one.
According to Marina McKenzie, her 23-year-old son and another young man placed in Vista del Mar escaped from the back of a car taking them from the facility to the fairgrounds at about 2 a.m. Tuesday. At some point, McKenzie said, the driver was otherwise occupied taking pictures of the fire. The car, she said, may have still been moving; she wasn’t sure. McKenzie has since picked up her son and returned him to Cottage Hospital for psychiatric evaluation; she expects he will eventually be placed in the county Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF). McKenzie said she doesn’t know if her son’s “co-escapee” has been found or not.
McKenzie said her son checked himself into Cottage on 9 p.m. Sunday because of intrusive suicidal thoughts. He was placed in the special emergency room set up to accommodate those experiencing mental health crises. At 10 p.m., he was driven to Vista del Mar in Ventura County. In hindsight, McKenzie questions the advisability of this. The fire had started four hours prior and posed a serious threat. The Cottage emergency room had only two patients waiting to be seen, she said.
McKenzie said her son reported his limited time in Vista del Mar was stressful. “Imagine being locked up and looking out the window and seeing flames around you,” she said. She said Vista del Mar initiated evacuation procedures at 2 a.m. The fire, she said, consumed the facility by 4 a.m. McKenzie said she was first notified her son was missing at about 9 a.m. She got a call from a county mental-health caseworker who had tried to track her son down at Cottage only to discover he’d been moved. McKenzie said she wasn’t notified by Vista del Mar administrators that her son was missing until 2:30 p.m., more than 12 hours after he’d escaped.
McKenzie drove to Ventura to search where she thought he might be. McKenzie used to work for Patagonia and said she thought he might go there. By the time she arrived, however, he had gone. McKenzie’s son’s companion, it turned out, managed to secrete enough cash on his person to take a cab from Ventura to Santa Barbara. Her son, she said, called her from Yoga Soup on lower State Street Tuesday afternoon. Her son’s father picked him up and she took him to Cottage.
McKenzie said her son had been in a skateboarding accident shortly before his admission to Cottage. She said his wounds appeared to have been freshly reawakened. McKenzie said her son has been dealing with serious psychiatric issues since 2013; she said she’s a strong supporter of Laura’s Law, a test program initiated by the Santa Barbara County supervisors allowing judges — as a last resort — to order treatment-resistant individuals experiencing mental illness into some form of outpatient therapy. To date, the county’s program has yet to avail itself of any judicial orders. The program also mandates a high degree of outreach by county mental-health workers. That, McKenzie said, has proven extremely beneficial.