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Rupa Shenoy, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published August 06 2013

First-ever suicide reported at Minn. sex offender facility

ST. PAUL - A man committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program took his own life this weekend, Minnesota Department of Human Services officials said Monday. It was the first suicide in the program's history.

DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry said the 45-year-old man died Saturday at the program's Moose Lake facility after an apparent suicide attempt Friday.

"We have natural deaths, we have people who have died of cancers and other diseases but this is the first -- as far as we know -- this is the only suicide in the history of the sex offender treatment program," Barry said.

Several other offenders at Moose Lake identify the man as Ray Messer.

Messer was civilly committed to the state's treatment program after two criminal sexual conduct convictions: 5th degree criminal sexual conduct in 1991 and 2nd degree criminal sexual conduct in 2007.

So far this year, Barry said, there have been six cases where patients' self-inflicted injuries required medical attention. According to the department, emergency room staff classified two as attempted suicides.

Last year, nine men at the state's Moose Lake treatment facility attempted to harm themselves; officials say one of the men tried to commit suicide. Barry said on average there have been about nine or 10 cases of self-inflicted injuries a year.

But offenders held at Moose Lake say those numbers don't match their perceptions. They say they see a handful of attempts every week.

Wallace Beaulieau, an offender committed to the program in 2006 after convictions for kidnapping and criminal sexual conduct in the third degree, said offenders attempt suicide after experiencing stress and frustration.

Beaulieau said he has tried to kill himself twice by cutting himself with the cheap razors for sale in the facility canteen. He said they're a common tool.

A federal lawsuit challenging Minnesota's sex offender program claims that it doesn't provide real treatment.

Beaulieau said offenders are closely watching the work of a court-mandated task force appointed to recommend changes that would protect sex offenders' constitutional rights. There was speculation last legislative session that if lawmakers didn't take action, a federal judge would force changes. The Department of Human Services is negotiating a settlement to the lawsuit.

Every development causes an emotional wave through Moose Lake, Beaulieau said.

"You know, the last few months everybody was hoping things were changing -- DHS was going back and forth with the attorneys about settling the case and everybody thought that was going to be something that would be a big change … and none of it happened," he said. "The legislature didn't do anything, so, it was like, [we] went from a big high to a pretty fast low."

Other patients say they've used drugs to try to commit suicide. Among them is 44-year-old Roger Michael Gilbertson, who pleaded guilty to 2nd degree criminal sexual conduct in 1998 and 5th degree criminal sexual conduct in 2003. Otter Tail County Judicial Officer Mark F. Hansen ordered him detained under civil commitment at the Moose Lake facility in 2007.

Within a few years, Gilbertson said, he tried to kill himself.

"And what I did was I saved up a whole bunch of Amitriptyline, which is Elavil, and I over dosed on that. I was in the hospital for six days I think it was."

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program currently has 683 clients, who each cost the state $326 dollars a day. In 2011, the state's legislative auditor documented a chronic problem with clinical understaffing. Some offenders inside say they're trying to kill themselves because they don't receive psychiatric help.

Ken Timms, 57, said he molested children in parks and fought to be committed to the sex -offender program because he wanted treatment. He said he slit his arm open with a razor blade three months ago out of frustration.

"I would rather be dead than offend again," Timms said. "I think a lot of the guys here don't belong here, but they don't belong on the street right away either -- and I'm one of them. I don't need to be behind a fence but I do need psychiatric help."

In response to questions from MPR News, Barry said the program will investigate the availability of razors at the facility. She said the program's clinical staffing has improved dramatically since the auditor's report.

Barry also said DHS officials try hard to show offenders in the program they should have hope of an eventual release after they complete the required treatment.

"Although only one person has moved into the community at this point, there are a number of people who have moved into the higher phases of treatment and may soon be ready for community placement," she said.