A Christmas Story, Sort Of

In Solitary and Off His Meds

Maria Santos and Guillermo Nunez came to Santa Barbara in the hope of a conservatorship for their son, Francisco Aledo.
Courtesy Photo

About 2,018 years ago, a young couple named Mary and Joseph rode into the town of Bethlehem on the back of an ass. Mary was about to give birth to her son who, years later, millions would proclaim the son of God. For the time being, however, there was no room at the inn. Famously, Mary and Joseph were forced to seek refuge in a nearby manger.

Fast forward a couple thousand years. Maria Santos and Guillermo Nunez just flew into Santa Barbara from Miami hoping to talk with their 42-year-old son Francisco Aledo. That’s proven problematic. Aledo happens to believe that he is God. He’s the only one who does. And for Aledo, there’s no room at the inn. And there’s certainly no manger either.

For the past two-and-a-half years, he’s been held in various forms of custody by Santa Barbara County law enforcement authorities who charged him with attempted murder.

Right now, Aledo is being held in the psych ward of the county jail’s North West Unit. He’s in isolation. His parents have just heard that he tried to kill himself a week ago. If that’s actually, true, they have yet to be officially informed.

When Francisco first started acting out more than half a lifetime ago, his parents thought it was teenage rebellion. Nothing to get worried about. Otherwise, he was a smart, charming, and intelligent kid. “A sweetheart,” said Nunez. And a voracious reader. Then one day, Aledo wouldn’t come out of his room. And then another. And another. He wrapped himself into a tight fetal ball, and rocked back and forth. He wept. The door to Aledo’s room was left wide open. He was naked. He was 17 years old.

County health officials came. They had to. Aledo could not be cajoled out of his room. Aledo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and a touch of paranoia. He also suffered from a diagnosis with a Latin-sounding name which, translated, means Aledo doesn’t think there’s anything seriously wrong with him. “He says his brain chemicals are out of balance,” his father said during an interview at a downtown restaurant. “He calls it ‘Avant garde.’”

Over the years, Aledo would go off for a month or two at a time. He’d stay in the woods or the desert. He told his mother of encounters he had with wild animals. She got him a pocket knife for his protection.

In June 2016, Aledo came to Santa Barbara. He was in pursuit of Taoist scholar whose writings had impressed him, and he was on his way to Oregon. He never made it. While at the downtown public library, Aledo reportedly addressed a black man he encountered there as “my niggah.” This did not go over well. “The gentleman responded by grabbing my son’s cigarettes,” Nunez said. His son demanded them back. Voices were raised. Fists were raised. Aledo pulled out the knife. But no one got stabbed or cut.

That’s one version.

Another is that Aledo seriously tried to kill the other guy. And that he repeatedly hurled racial epithets at the victim. The incident was witnessed by an off-duty cop riding by on his bike. Had he not intervened, the ending could have been much bloodier.

Cigarettes were definitely involved.

When his son was arrested, Nunez acknowledged, his son looked like a thug. He has lots of tattoos. “That’s just a façade,” Nunez said. Aledo is short and skinny and needs to look tough to survive. As for the epithets, his father said, “Francisco doesn’t have an ounce of hate in his veins.” As a kid, Aledo’s best friends, his father said, were black. He dated black girls.

Aledo was charged with attempted murder with a hate crime enhancement.

He has yet to be tried for anything. First, Aledo was deemed incompetent to stand trial. After a while, he was shipped to the Atascadero State Psychiatric Hospital in San Luis Obispo County to have his competence restored. There, for more than a year, Aledo was pumped full of all the psychiatric medications he had otherwise refused to take. According to his parents, he got better.

Better but not good.

The forensic psychiatric authorities at Atascadero concluded that Aledo could not be restored to mental competency. They concluded he was “gravely disabled.” According to Aledo’s father, the deal killer was God. His son thought God would intervene in the trial. More than that, he thought he was God.

At some point, Aledo was sent back to Santa Barbara County Jail where he cannot be forced to take meds if he doesn’t want to.

He doesn’t want to.

At first it was uncertain Guillermo and Maria would get to see their son. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see them. Eventually they had a 45-minute visit Thursday afternoon. “He looked like a wild caged animal,” his father said. “He was banging the table. His eyes were bulging out. He used to have baby fat. Now he’s haggard.”

For more than 20 years, Nunez has worked been a state social service worker in Florida. First, it was his job to keep high school kids from dropping out. Then he did vocational rehabilitation. Now, he’s “retiring” so he can join his wife in focusing on their son’s challenges. “It’s not a part-time job,” he said.

Thursday, Aledo was scheduled to appear before a judge in a conservatorship hearing. Had it gone differently, perhaps Aledo would have been declared a ward of the state, meaning he could be placed — eventually — in what are known in the mental-health lingo as an Institute for Mental Disease or (IMD). They provide long-term lockdown care for those with chronic psychiatric issues. None exist in Santa Barbara County.

Aledo, however, would not talk with the public defender representing him in the conservatorship proceeding. As a result, the proceedings were postponed to a later date. In the meantime, Aledo will be spending more time in County Jail.

Aledo’s father has a round sweet face. There’s a splash of white in his black hair. He smiles warmly and reflexively. Even when there’s nothing to smile about. “There’s so much insensitivity to the mentally ill,” he said. “If someone has an illness like cancer, people feel sorry for them. But as for the mentally ill, there’s no sympathy. People are okay letting them sit in county jail. They really don’t care.”

In Florida, Aledo was placed in psychiatric hospitals twice, for a combined 12 months. He got much better, his father said, almost functional. Now, Aledo’s father worries that the protracted time behind bars in Santa Barbara could cause permanent brain damage. Being placed in isolation, he said, only accelerates the process of decompensation. His son has tried to kill himself twice before.

“Francisco has been found not competent to stand trial, yet they are allowing him to make decisions not to take his medications and to not be conserved if he doesn’t want to. We have to protect his rights to say no?” Nunez demanded. “Come on!”

For once, he didn’t smile.

At some point, Aledo will be transferred somewhere else. At issue right now is where. And when.

Guillermo Nunez and Maria Santos have spent the better part of 20 years dealing with their son’s issues. They’ve been to Santa Barbara eight times now. It will be a lot more before they’re done. When they left town early Friday morning, they flew out on an airplane, not the back of an ass.


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