Update on the Case of “Homeless” Bill Walton

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On Wednesday, August 3, 2011, two Urbana police officers approached “homeless” Bill Walton in the foyer of the Urbana City Building and asked him if he would come with them, pursuant to a court order that Walton be “medically” evaluated. Attorney Deb Frank Feinen had petitioned the circuit court on July 5 to mandate Walton be medically evaluated and if a disability was determined, be assigned a permanent guardian. Officers were ordered to drive Walton to the Danville Veteran’s Hospital rather than Carle Clinic where Walton has been seen before. Walton complied without incident.

It is the right of those being declared disabled and in need of permanent guardianship to attend their own hearings. After the “medical” evaluation on Friday, August 5, Walton was refused release from the Danville VA without formal commitment hearings, and without a voluntary signing-in by Walton. Guardian Ad Litem, attorney Andrew Bequette, was quoted by the News-Gazette’s Jim Dey in an August 6 column that Bequette, “certainly hoped” that Wallter would be present at the coming August 8 hearing. The stranger quote by Dey in the August 6 column is from both petitioning attorney Feinen and attorney Bequette that neither attorney knew the whereabouts of Walton at the time., It’s likely that both attorneys knew exactly where Walton was but nobody wanted to admit the bizarre legal limbo Walton had been placed in―involuntary confinement at the VA without a legal justification.

Despite Bequette’s wish that his client attend the hearing of August 8, no police officers were summoned to drive Walton back to the Champaign County Courthouse for the 1:30 p.m. hearing. As reported by the Independent Media Center’s Brian Dolinar, who was allowed to attend the hearing, no reason was given for Walton’s absence, other than Walton was in a secure unit because of “wandering” tendencies, a legal standard unheard of for an involuntary commitment. Anticipating Judge Brian McPheters’ later decision, Dr. Lori DeYoung of VA Illiana Health Care System testified that if Bill wanted to leave the hospital, the Public Guardian of Champaign County, Joseph Brown, would have to approve whether Bill would be allowed to leave the hospital. According to Dolinar, DeYoung further assured the court that Walton would be allowed visitors at the hospital. “It helps in their recovery,” DeYoung said. Feinen cross-examined DeYoung’s allowance for visitors, asking DeYoung if the guardian would have to approve who sees Bill at the VA. DeYoung answered, “If the guardian prohibited visits, we [the VA] would follow.” Despite attorney Bequette’s reading of a medical report in open court that indicated Walton wanted to leave the hospital, Dey refused to publish Bill’s desire in his news article that appeared August 9.

The most disturbing part of the case is Judge McPheters’ decision to allow the Public Guardian, Joe Brown, a former sheriff of Champaign County, temporary guardianship over Walton when Walton’s assets are listed by attorney Feinen to be zero. Public Guardians can only be assigned as guardians when the ward has an estate valued over $25,000. Attorney Feinen has claimed that she is acting on behalf of petitioner Patricia Babich-Smith, program manager at the Family Service Senior Resource Center, because Feinen thinks Walton “needs help.” It should be noted that “the help” Feinen’s petition seeks is that the Public Guardian be placed as permanent guardian over Walton, and that the Public Guardian be granted authority to put Walton in a residential facility over any objections from Walton.

On August 14, this writer and a friend, Sandra Ahten, attempted to visit Walton at the VA. After traversing a labyrinth of hallways deep inside Building No. 98, we were asked to sign in and escorted to a visitor’s room where the visit with Walton would take place. A nurse opened the door and a clean shaven Bill Walton walked in. Walton was confused by our presence since he did not know who we were. Without Bill’s beard of three decades, we hardly recognized him either. Nonetheless, he shook our hands and politely asked if he could sit down. I noticed Bill’s breathing remains labored, almost asthmatic.

During our visit, Sandra asked Walton if he missed Urbana, and Walton said, “Very much. I’d like to go back to Urbana.” I asked Walton if he was feeling better, and Walton replied, “I’d be much better if it were Urbana…rather than Danville.” At that point, nurses nervously re-entered our room and asked what our relationship to Mr. Walton was. When we explained we were friends from Bill’s neighborhood and we were there to offer Bill some company from home, the nurses countered that Walton, “has legal issues and we can’t just let anyone in here to see him.” The nurse said, “He has a power of attorney now…and they can pick and choose―they can say who they want to visit and who they don’t, and they gave a list of visitors. Your name is not on it.” They said we would have to leave. They were apologetic but firm. Bill seemed sad and confused as we said goodbye to him. Bill made a point of telling us again, “I’d like to get back to Urbana at some point, please.”

Sandra then attempted to be placed on the list of visitors. After contacting Natalie Liggett, a social worker at the VA, Sandra was referred to the Temporary Guardian, Joe Brown for approval. On August 23, Brown refused her request claiming that Bill doesn’t want to see anyone. When she recounted that Bill seemed willing, and even pleased to have visitors when we saw him on the 14th, Brown said he would check with Bill. On August 25, Brown refused her request again to see Bill, stating that, “He doesn’t want any visitors.” Finding that difficult to believe, given the fact that Bill was eager to spend time with us before, she challenged the notion, asking, “How can you be sure?” Brown replied, “All I can go by is what he told me and he told me he doesn’t feel up to visitors.”

Walton’s next hearing is September 19, 2:00 p.m. in courtroom J. At that hearing William Weisiger, a local gun dealer and childhood friend of Walton’s, will be named personal guardian. Those of us who wish to sit quietly about town are advised to learn the lessons from this case. Attorney Feinen seeks to be Mayor of Champaign in 2015 and sitting quietly won’t be allowed apparently.

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