Rev. Larry Rice says mental health cuts to blame for chain saw attack

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Rev. Larry Rice blamed cutbacks to Missouri's mental health care system for a weekend chain saw attack at a homeless center that left four people wounded.

Rice said Tuesday that the assailant, 28-year-old Matthew Watkins, was battling with schizophrenia when one of his relatives dropped him off at a homeless shelter in St. Louis operated by Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center.

Watkins was later transferred to a training center in New Bloomfield run by New Life, where he kept to himself for more than a week before attacking four staff workers with a chain saw and knife.

"You just don't have the programs intact that we used to," Rice said. "How many people are in our prisons right now, and in our jails, that have psychiatric problems? How many people are in shelters?"

Watkins has been charged with four counts of first-degree assault and armed-criminal action after authorities said he attacked two men with a chain saw and two others with a knife. The attack happened Saturday at Mid-America Care Center in New Bloomfield, about 170 miles northwest of Cape Girardeau.

Rice said Watkins had been having mental problems since he was 17 years old. His relatives tried to commit him to a mental institution, but couldn't do it without proving he was an immediate danger to himself or others.

Two victims of the attack, Bruce Caulkins and Maurice Thomas, are still in the hospital. Rice said both are expected to recover fully and be released from the hospital within days.

Speaking from his hospital bed Tuesday, Caulkins said he felt remarkably well after the attack.

"I'm just looking up to the Lord. He's pulling me through," Caulkins said.

Watkins was an unremarkable resident in New Bloomfield for the short time he stayed there before the attacks, Caulkins recalled.

Caulkins said he was working in an upstairs office Saturday afternoon when he heard the sound of a chain saw buzzing in an auditorium downstairs. As a former newspaper reporter, curiosity got the best of him and he went down to investigate.

He found Watkins there, swinging the chain saw from side to side.

"He came at me. He said something -- I'm not sure what -- he did a swipe on me" with the chain saw, Caulkins said.

Watkins quickly ran away and Caulkins staggered to the center's lobby where he called 911.

"My guts were hanging out," he recalled.

The attack is raising concerns in Springfield, where Rice is proposing to open a center for homeless military veterans in an old Social Security Administration building a block away from Central High School.

The Springfield News-Leader reported Tuesday that the proposal already had attracted opposition from parents, because the building's parking lot backs up to a building used for a school swimming pool. Saturday's attack exacerbated their concerns.

"This is exactly the type of thing we want to prevent at Central," Bruce Johnson, whose daughter Jordyn is a freshman, told the newspaper. "I don't believe we help our veterans or our children (with this location)."

Rice told the newspaper the parents' complaints were "not rational" but said he would work with the school and city officials to address their concerns. He noted that the center will be open only during regular business hours and will not be a live-in or emergency shelter.

"The project is going to proceed, so these people need to face reality," he said.

Parents said they're worried about when the shelter isn't open, such as when students are using the swimming pool, coming to school or waiting for rides in the afternoon.

They also said there have been problems at other New Life facilities in the past. A volunteer at the New Life Evangelistic Center Free Store in Springfield is scheduled to go on trial in May on a charge of forcible sodomy, while a trainee at New Life's shelter in Joplin has been charged with rape.

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