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Group home at center of Gilbert murder investigation fights to keep license to operate

In episode six of Locked Inside, suspect Christopher Lambeth faces a new, violent charge and some changes made after the group home murder aren't going as planned.

GILBERT, Ariz. — After Christopher Lambeth was arrested and charged with murder in the death of Steven Howells, he was booked into jail. And in June 2021, two months after the group home killing, another charge appeared in the court system for Christopher Lambeth.

At that point he should have been in jail, where he was being held on a $2 million bond.

It was a different case than the murder investigation. This was something new. This was for aggravated assault, meaning something had to happen while he was in custody.

Listen to the 12 News Locked Inside podcast on Apple and Spotify.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, who runs the jail, has been slow to provide any explanation or any of their public records, but the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office was able to release charging documents in the case.

According to the documents, on April 23, 2021, 11 days after the group home killing, Christopher Lambeth was in a holding cell with another inmate, waiting to be transferred. Then suddenly, unprovoked, Christopher Lambeth started “repeatedly punching, kicking and choking” the other inmate, breaking the other inmate’s nose and causing trauma to his face, charging documents allege.

“What they teach us in psychiatry is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” explained Dr. Carol Olson. “The best predictor of violence in the future is past violence.”

Dr. Olson spent her career working in this field and has been running the psychiatry department at Valleywise Health for nearly 20 years. She couldn’t comment on the Christopher Lambeth case specifically, but was able to weigh in on working in the mental health field and where she thinks there could be improvements.

By all accounts, dealing with a mental illness isn’t easy.  

It’s not easy for those experiencing symptoms. It’s not easy for loved ones to know how to help. And sometimes it’s not easy for those with training to try and help people who are suffering.

“Arizona has a very small number of long-term type of psychiatric hospital beds,” Dr. Olson explained. “So, many of those people just end up getting continuously on a round of going in the hospital getting out, often sent to a group home, they don't stay, they're off their medication, their symptoms get worse, then they get arrested for doing something, then they're back in the hospital again and it's a continuous cycle.” 

It’s a cycle that showcases gaps in treatment. Dr. Olson said there really isn’t a one size fits all approach.

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“If a person is willing to get treatment and has a relatively treatable problem—  they're suicidal, but they're cooperating with care—it’s usually not difficult to find a hospital bed for them,” Dr. Olson said. “On the other hand, if the person is not willing to get treatment, is highly agitated or aggressive, or has medical issues or is demented, for example, and has a severe behavioral disturbance as part of their dementia, it can be very difficult to find a hospital bed for them, that person may end up sitting in an emergency room for days.”

Or people could wind up in other scenarios where mental health support is hard to come by, like homelessness or incarceration.  Illegal drugs can also play a role.

“Right now, the way psychiatric hospitals are incentivized, they're all paid the same,” Dr. Olson said. “ It doesn't matter how complex the patient is. So, if you have a more complex patient, either because they're highly violent or self- injurious, or they have complex medical problems, psychiatric hospitals are incentivized not to take those patients. And so those patients often are poorly served and don't spend the time in the hospital that they need.” 

Issues with access to mental health treatment extend beyond Arizona.

In its latest findings from 2020, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 14.2 million Americans are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, including diagnoses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Of those 14.2 million people, only about 65% received treatment.

There isn’t a lot of data on how often someone with a serious mental illness becomes violent. In fact, some studies suggest that people with serious mental illnesses are more likely to be victimized.

Steven Howells' path

By now we’ve detailed how Christopher Lambeth got to Tilda Manor, but we don’t really know how Steven Howells got there.

Steven was married to a woman named Nicole Williams in the early 90s when he first started experiencing delusions. They divorced soon after, both struggling to deal with his symptoms.

In the years after Steven and Nicole divorced, she said they kept in touch—writing letters, the occasional phone call. But after a while, Nicole said Steven eventually stopped responding and he became harder to track down.

Credit: Nicole Williams

“We were pretty sure he was either in Arizona or in Hawaii,” she said. “But when you're in the hospital, when you're dealing with these things, you generally don't have Facebook, social media, phone number put in the phonebook, ways to track people down like that.”

Nicole said she’d try and keep tabs on Steven through court records, which is ultimately what we had to do, too.  And what we found doesn’t show everything, but it does help piece some of this together.

In 2015, court records show there was a notice of eviction filed against him. In 2016, Phoenix Police wrote him a ticket for misdemeanor trespassing in a city park. There aren’t a lot of details on the ticket, but the address listed for Steven is part of a campus that provides resources for people experiencing homelessness. 

It’s not clear why he was there or what happened immediately after that.

RELATED: A man was convicted of murder, 16 years later he's accused of killing again. Here's how it was allowed to happen

More than two years later, a court-appointed guardian ad litem, which is like an advocate, submitted a request in court to get Steven help. By this point, records show Steven had been receiving mental health treatment at the state hospital. 

The filing doesn’t say when he went to the state hospital or why, but a review in November 2018 stated Steven Howells believed he had been in the hospital for more than a year. His medical report indicated he had limited insight and impaired reality. A hospital staff person said Steven Howells was not a behavioral problem and that most of his issues are related to psychosis or delusional thoughts, like believing government officials were tracking him.

The filing emphasized over and over that Steven Howells needed serious help and should have the county assign him a guardian with mental health authority to make decisions on his behalf.

But then, records show Steven Howells was released from the state hospital in January 2019 and went to a group home.

He was reportedly stable and sticking to a medication plan, but still had delusions that he was involved with the FBI.

The court ultimately denied the request to appoint Steven Howells a guardian with mental health authority in April 2019.

Then the paper trail goes cold again until November 2020, when he appeared before a judge in Phoenix City court.

In audio from this hearing, the judge explained that Steven was in court for that trespassing ticket in 2016. The judge told Steven that he never showed up for the court appearance for that ticket. Steven told the judge he didn’t remember the ticket and wanted the case dismissed.

When listening to this hearing, it doesn’t sound like Steven Howells had a lawyer with him. He told the judge officers brought him in from an address in San Tan Valley, a city southeast of Phoenix. He gave an address for a behavioral health group home in that area. A home he said he moved into just 3 days before.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Steven Howells told the judge. “I was not prepared to be arrested. I was a plaintiff calling on the services of the police in San Tan and the Sheriff’s Department arrested me. And there was nothing done about the defendants. Plural. Who were threatening me to the point of physical provocation.”

To be clear, Steven Howells wasn’t charged with anything new. It’s not clear exactly what he was describing here. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said it did respond to a call for service at the group home and took Steven Howells into custody when they realized he had an open warrant for the trespassing ticket.

The judge set another court date and said the court would assign him an attorney. When listening to the audio, you can’t help but notice it doesn’t seem like the judge is aware of Steven Howell’s mental health history or that he could be staying in a group home.

JUDGE: Well, we need to get this matter taken care of because it’s in front of us today. What I’m going to do—and you said you have a problem with transportation? 

STEVEN HOWELLS: Pardon me?

JUDGE: You have a problem with transportation?

STEVEN HOWELLS: Yes, ma’am. I have a car but it’s not at the house.

JUDGE: Okay—so you do have a car. So if I gave you another court date in the future you should be able to get here. 

STEVEN HOWELLS: Well, it’s not at the house.

JUDGE: Well, you’ll have time to work that out.

STEVEN HOWELLS: Okay.

JUDGE: So if I give you another court date—

STEVEN HOWELLS: I can make an arrangement for a taxi-cab, here and there.

Soon after all this hearing, the trespassing case was dismissed. This was five months before he was killed at Tilda Manor. As for when he moved there, a Tilda Manor staff member told police he’d been there about four months, but there are no records to verify for sure.

'The wheels of justice turn at a glacial speed…'

In October 2021, Steven Howells’ family filed a lawsuit against Tilda Manor.

The lawsuit claims Tilda Manor failed to provide services for not only Steven Howells but also for suspect Christopher Lambeth, that ultimately led to Howells’ death. An attorney representing Steven Howells’ family said neither he, nor Steven’s family, could talk with 12 News because the case is still pending.

In court filings, Tilda Manor denied any wrongdoing.

This was also the first and only time someone from Tilda Manor ever replied to the dozens of requests for comment left by 12 News.

An email from someone named Jesse Iglesias, who was a clinical coordinator at Tilda Manor, according to a police report, stated the following:  

“Tilda Manor is aware of the lawsuit, and intends to defend it self to the fullest. Tilda Manor continues to believe that its staff acted reasonably under the extreme circumstances. Tilda Manor thinks it’s unfortunate that a lawsuit has been filed based largely on media reports that don’t represent the actual events or situation.”

Although Tilda Manor or anyone representing them never agreed to an interview for this series, Tilda Manor was obligated to talk to the state when the health department came to investigate after Steven Howells’ death.

In Locked Inside episode 5, we reported that the state’s investigation found big problems at the Wildhorse Drive facility, including staff members lacking training or not meeting residents’ needs.

RELATED: ‘It’s terrifying’: How one East Valley neighborhood learned a convicted double murderer was living on their block

The state found that the two staff members working the morning of the murder didn’t follow protocol when they left Christopher Lambeth inside alone with other residents.

In June 2021, Arizona’s Department of Health Services filed an intent to revoke Tilda Manor’s license at the Wildhorse Drive location, much to neighbors’ relief.

“Which is a victory not only for our neighborhood, but I think also for the individuals who are receiving care from that home,” said Chris Lineberry, a neighbor down the road from Tilda Manor who spoke out and pushed for change after Steven Howells’ death.  

“They're going to get the care that they deserve and that they need.”

In the wake of the murder investigation, he said it appeared residents were able to go back inside that night and continued living there in the weeks that followed. Despite the investigation and the killing, ADHS said Tilda Manor was still allowed to operate all five of its locations.

RELATED: Gov. Ducey signs law that dissolves Arizona's Psychiatric Security Review Board

“The wheels of justice turn at glacial speed,” Lineberry said. “And this definitely didn't happen quickly. I'm just grateful that it happened, you know, that they did do a thorough investigation. And as a result of that thoroughness, they were able to put together a solid case to potentially revoke the license.”

“Potentially” being the keyword there. Tilda Manor asked for a hearing to dispute the revocation and for months kept asking for continuances, which were granted.

As of this publication in May 2022, the state and Tilda Manor still haven’t resolved this. The next hearing scheduled for this matter is set for July 2022.

But this case wasn’t Tilda Manor’s only problem.

One of Tilda Manor’s Mesa locations lost its license to operate in October 2021.

The state went to investigate in August 2021 after a complaint that residents were left alone for about 30 minutes to an hour. The investigation uncovered dozens of other problems, including outdated employee records and lapses in protective supervision. One resident told an investigator she contemplated harming herself while the staff wasn’t there.

The state also found Tilda Manor installed security cameras inside the house without residents’ consent. 

Apparently, they wanted to keep a better eye on things after “something happened in another facility recently,” which could likely be referring to the killing at the Wildhorse Drive location in Gilbert.

RELATED: Mesa group home loses its license after leaving residents unsupervised, records show

In the Mesa case, Tilda Manor didn’t dispute, meaning it lost its license to run the home one month after the state filed to revoke its license.  At that point, ADHS said there weren’t any residents living inside.

After we learned about this revocation, an attorney representing Tilda Manor in the licensure cases told 12 News over the phone that the company is working with everybody involved to resolve concerns.

The future of Tilda Manor remains unclear.  

As of this publication, it’s still allowed to operate its other four locations. It’s still listed in good standing in Arizona business records.

When we’ve driven by the five locations this spring, they looked empty, but usually had a vehicle or van in the driveway.

PSRB to be dissolved

Dr. Carol Olson said she served about 10 years on the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board, the same state Board that allowed Christopher Lambeth to go live in the community.

She was actually the Board’s chair when he was first approved to live in the community at the end of 2016.  But she resigned soon after that and was never part of any of his hearings while he was living at Tilda Manor.

She said she didn’t remember Lambeth from her time on the Board.  But because of her history, she couldn’t comment on his case specifically.  She could, however, weigh in on the Board itself.

She remembered Board members would get paid about $30 each day they had a hearing or reviewed material. She also remembered a revolving door of executive directors, who do the administrative work for the Board.

“It's quite complex,” Dr. Olson said. “And that was difficult for people to manage who were only in the position for a relatively short period of time. The Board members themselves are essentially volunteers, who, as I said, they get paid very little. And so, they're not going to a board office every day and working for eight hours. Really a lot falls on the executive director as far as organizing things and proposing policies and procedures and making things you know, workable.”

Despite that, Dr. Olson said she and her Board colleagues took their jobs very seriously and would often err on the conservative side when it came to making release decisions.

“But let's say the person ends up doing something before anybody is aware that they're deteriorating or not doing well,” she added. “It sits poorly, obviously, because nobody wants to feel that they were responsible for releasing someone to the community who later does something to harm themselves or others.” 

Almost three months after the killing at Tilda Manor, Arizona’s governor signed a new law getting rid of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.

Instead, all the guilty except insane cases will be managed by the state’s court systems, meaning judges will decide whether or not someone should be released before their sentence expires. 

This is how the state-operated until the Board was formed in the early 90s. Certain lawmakers and advocates applauded the move back, but Dr. Olson has her doubts.

“I wasn't sure that a judge in a busy criminal court would be able to take the time and have the background in mental health, as many of the Board members do to really make a considered decision about what should happen with that patient,” Dr. Olson said. “However, you know, I guess I still feel that way. I still feel I wish the PSRB had received sufficient resources to be able to actually function as it was intended to function.”

The change to courts is a big one, but it’s not set to happen until July 2023.  

In the interim, the Board is supposed to operate with newer, stricter guidelines. The new law did away with one position, so there’s now only four people on the Board.

And in early 2022, we learned two more Board members resigned.  

At the time of this publication in mid-May, the PSRB hadn't held its monthly meetings for February, March and April, because it didn’t have enough people for quorum. That means all the people deemed guilty except insane who are due for check-ins are waiting in limbo until the Governor’s Office appoints new members.

'This is the system that let both of them down'

The I-Team interviewed Nicole Williams, Steven Howell's ex-wife, in September 2021, the week Steven Howells should have turned 50 years old.

“That always has been a guilt that I have carried that I did not stay there and help him more, or find him the help he needed,” Nicole shared. “Even though I know now that I didn't have that knowledge base.”

She said she went on to become a teacher, with a focus on helping kids with severe mental health issues.

“I will say personally, I have forgiven and I have nothing against Christopher Lambeth,” Nicole said. “He is sick. I think this is the system that let both of them down.” 

A system that allowed Steven Howells to die in a home setting that should have had supervision, that should have been helping him.

“And the two people who were there supposed to be watching I think actually kind of hold most animosity towards,” Nicole said. “Working with special needs students, kindergarten through seniors. When they start having issues, you're the one who's supposed to be there to help. And to stop it. And to just walk out and leave. I mean, frankly, I think there should be criminal charges on them. If I did that, as the teacher with one of my students, there would be charges on me. You know, there were several people there in that chain that led to death.”

Christopher Lambeth is the only one charged in Steven Howells death. Gilbert Police said it closed its case and didn’t plan to submit any more charges.

He’s set to go to trial on the murder charge in June 2022.  He pleaded not guilty in that case.

He’s also facing the aggravated assault charge for allegedly attacking another inmate while in custody. He’s had a few attorneys over the past year and his most recent attorney has never responded to our calls or emails.

“I think there needs to be systematic change to make sure these things don't happen again,” Nicole said. “But I also think the more awareness there is about mental health. The more it's not just quiet and shunted to the side, and people don't want to talk about it, or they let people lead their lives because they don't know how to deal with it, the more we'll continue to see things happen.”

After all these years she’s held on to cards and letters from Steven, his words sharing love and humor preserved with care as he fell through the cracks.

Credit: Nicole Williams

Locked Inside Podcast: Tilda Manor coverage

Locked Inside, a new 12-News I-Team and VAULT Studios podcast, follows the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Christopher Lambeth and those who crossed his path along the way.

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