Mental patient loses bid for freedom

Friday, December 6, 2002

CHESTER, Ill. -- Rodney Yoder and Millie Strom were planning their life together. An unsigned marriage certificate on the table and Yoder's arm around a beaming Strom, they talked about moving to Vermont, buying a house and growing old together.

At that moment late Thursday afternoon, the future was full of possibilities.

But an hour later, a six-person Randolph County jury deliberating in the next room threw a severe wrinkle into their plans, finding "clearly and convincingly" that Yoder was severely mentally ill and would likely hurt himself or someone else if he were released from a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane.

Strom began crying after Circuit Judge William Schuwerk read the verdict. Yoder's friend and defense manager John Prior sighed deeply and angrily as he ran his hands through his hair. Yoder's 17-year-old son, Loren, left the room, found a corner and sobbed.

The normally animated Yoder sat quietly with his hands in his lap while the judge thanked the jury members for their service.

Outside the courtroom, the news cameras and newspaper reporters from St. Louis, Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois geared up to ask questions about a man who has attracted national media attention for a case that had been billed as "putting psychiatry on trial."

It was the emotional end to four days of testimony in which Yoder -- who has been involuntarily incarcerated at Chester Mental Health Center since 1991 -- tried to convince a jury for the 12th time that there is no such thing as mental illness and that he is a danger to no one.

Yoder's attorney, Randy Kretchmar, said he felt cheated.

"They gagged my witnesses and I wasn't allowed to try my case," Kretchmar said. "All this means is that this is not over."

Schuwerk had ruled earlier in the week that defense witnesses, a neurologist and two psychiatrists, could not present testimony that suggested mental illness does not exist. Yoder, 44, wanted to make the case that there are no medical signs of mental illness and that it is a sham created by psychiatrists who want to keep paychecks coming. Schuwerk said that was not acceptable because it goes against what most in the medical community believe.

The day was not without concessions for Yoder. Schuwerk said he planned to recommend to the Illinois Department of Health that Yoder be moved from Chester to a minimum-security facility, based on testimony from a prosecution psychiatrist who said Yoder would likely be better served in a "less restrictive" environment.

"That's nothing," said Strom, who was married to legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker two decades ago. "It's a crumb. To me that was the worst. He doesn't want to be moved to a lesser facility. He wants his liberty. Rodney deserves his liberty."

The jury disagreed, taking only an hour to mull over the hours of testimony. They listened as assistant state's attorney Michael Burke described the more than 100 threatening letters to judges, politicians and other people that Yoder said he sent in the mid-90s to get a transfer from the mental hospital to a federal prison, where he would have a set release date.

"I find myself fantasizing about filling you full of holes with a large-caliber handgun," a letter Yoder sent to a judge said. Yoder read from that letter when he took the stand Thursday morning for cross-examination.

Yoder also abused two women, one an ex-girlfriend and the other his ex-wife. Both cases sent Yoder to prison.

"The jury made the right decision," Burke said. "My feelings are that Rodney Yoder is dangerous, and the expert witnesses backed that up."

Burke said he was reluctant to criticize the judge's recommendation that Yoder be moved to a minimum-security prison, but he didn't think it was a good move.

"He's refusing treatment and has shown no progress," Burke said. "He's never shown any remorse for what he's done. When people got those letters, they were scared. He's intelligent. He very easily could fashion a car bomb or worse. He's right where he needs to be."

This was the first trial for Kretchmar, a Chicago lawyer who represented Yoder for free. He said he plans to begin preparing for Yoder's next hearing, which is supposed to take place in six months. Yoder is entitled to a commitment hearing every 180 days. He hopes to get a change of venue for a hearing away from Randolph County.

Strom said she still plans to marry Yoder sometime this weekend.

"I can be a better advocate as a wife," she said. "The administration will have to respond to my letters. Rodney and I are going to have our life together."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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