A love affair and a court battle: How one man's legal challenge led to another's release

By Koby Levin | CNHI News Jul 2, 2017


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ASH GROVE, Mo. — Mike Wilkerson was confined to the state mental health system in Missouri for more than 19 years for a crime he says he did not commit. Then, thanks to a love affair and a well-heeled legal challenge, he was free, prompting a review of his case and the dismissal of the charges against him.

The romance and the legal battle were not Wilkerson’s, but they created a small shift in the legal landscape that eventually led to his release.

In 2003, three years after Wilkerson entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in connection with a 1997 sexual assault and was committed to Fulton State Hospital, Shannon Swickheimer attempted to kill himself with a pellet gun.

In that desperate moment, Swickheimer set in motion Wilkerson's release from the Department of Mental Health. Tucked into the judicial decision that won Swickheimer's release from a state mental hospital nearly 13 years later was language that offered a legal foothold: Without a psychiatric report, there could not be a not guilty by reason of insanity plea.

Wilkerson's lawyer seized on the decision, and the Avilla farmer was released in December 2016, six months after Swickheimer.

“By deciding the case the way they did, they allowed us to say that there was no jurisdiction unless they used a report,” explained William Fleischaker, Wilkerson’s attorney. “And every report said they couldn't come to a conclusion about his mental state because he said he did not commit the offense.”

'Depressed and frustrated'

The first .117 caliber pellet missed Swickheimer’s heart, lodging instead near the back of his rib cage. Swickheimer had grown up in foster homes and was not used to easy street, but that July it seemed his life had finally gone to pieces. He began to pump up the air-powered rifle, he says, to take another shot.

He was stopped by a housemate, who heard the first bang and rushed into the bathroom. In the ensuing scuffle, the rifle went off, leaving her badly injured.

An already distraught Swickheimer was charged with first-degree assault and declared incompetent to stand trial because of his “appearance and demeanor,” according to court documents.

When he was able to return to court, he insisted the shooting was an accident. And he asked repeatedly for fresh evaluations of his mental capacity, insisting that he was not mentally ill.

“I was depressed and frustrated,” he told the Joplin, Missouri Globe. “But in terms of psychosis? No.”

Nonetheless, his public defender, cooperating with prosecutors, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity — a plea Swickheimer never signed — and he was committed to Fulton.

Losing hope

At Fulton, Swickheimer threw himself into gaining the trust of the hospital staff, certain that he could earn his release. He helped run the canteen, where he met Wilkerson, and took a job as a manager at the hospital factory, the same one held by Wilkerson and other high-functioning wards.

But by the time he met Karen Creech years later, he says he had lost hope of release.

Creech was a new substance abuse counselor who had been assigned to his case. She came to Fulton from a career in probation and parole, where her job was helping people get out of jail, and she says she became frustrated at Fulton when she realized few of her clients would ever be released.

She got to know Swickheimer and others like him, the patients she calls the “what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here kind of people.” Many were drug addicts whose psychosis faded after a few weeks in the mental hospital, or people like Swickheimer and Wilkerson, who she said were harmless and for whom release never came.

“They don’t let them go,” she said.

Land sale finances defense

Creech and Swickheimer began to spend a lot of time on the phone, talking about his case and the Department of Mental Health. She liked music; he is a musician. She was impressed at the way he bore his hardship, and he marveled at her work ethic.

When hospital administrators began asking questions about their relationship, Creech retired and dedicated herself to Swickheimer's release from the Department of Mental Health. Swickheimer met her parents, farmers who raised Creech on more than 200 acres of rich black soil in Audrain County, north of Columbia. They had just retired and sold the land, which, after a bidding war, brought in nearly $7,000 per acre, a county record, according to Creech.

Creech's parents liked Swickheimer and agreed to finance a legal challenge to the Department of Mental Health. Creech began hiring lawyers, spending tens of thousands of dollars at a time to find a solution.

She had come to view herself as an advocate, not just for Swickheimer but for other state wards who she felt were in a similar position.

“My friend asked me one time: ‘If you and Shannon don’t make it, if you aren’t with him any more, are you going to continue?’ I said, 'I’m going to continue. This needs to happen … to get this to the Missouri Supreme Court.'”

In 2015, an attorney discovered that there was no record of Swickheimer’s original plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Swickheimer had maintained early on that he never intended to plead that way; now the state couldn’t prove him wrong.

The Office of the Attorney General appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld a decision by Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler. Swickheimer was allowed to enter a guilty plea, releasing him from the custody of the Department of Mental Health after 13 years. He was also released on probation in the case.

Swickheimer and Creech now live in Ash Grove, and are engaged to be married.

Levin writes for the Joplin, Missouri Globe.

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Swickheimer and Creech now live in Ash Grove, and are engaged to be married
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