Judge rips federal prison officials in North Carolina after inmate dies by suicide
Published 5:55 am Saturday, June 26, 2021
By Matthew Barakat, Associated Press
A judge on Friday excoriated federal prison officials for refusing to admit an inmate needing mental health care who later killed himself in a local jail cell.
Christopher Lapp, 62, of Great Falls, Virginia, died by suicide at the Alexandria Adult Detention Center last month while he awaited sentencing on carjacking and armed bank robbery charges.
Lapp was bipolar and had a history of mental health problems. When he pleaded guilty in April, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ordered him sent to the federal prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, where Lapp had been previously treated and restored to competency with the help of medication.
But Butner officials refused to accept Lapp, saying that they don’t accept inmates who are awaiting sentencing unless they need a court-ordered evaluation.
So Lapp instead remained at the Alexandria, Va. jail, where a psychiatrist with the city’s Community Services Board opted not to medicate him. Lapp died in his cell a few weeks later.
At a court hearing called Friday by Ellis to look into the death, Ellis was particularly angered that Butner didn’t follow his order to admit Lapp.
“I wasn’t asking. It was an order,” Ellis said. “I don’t care what your lawyers tell you about what’s allowed.”
Butner officials reached out to prosecutors and Lapp’s attorney to tell them why they weren’t accepting Lapp, but never notified the judge directly.
Ellis accepted a measure of responsibility himself; Lapp’s attorney, Joseph Flood, filed a motion with the court informing the judge that Butner was refusing to accept Lapp. But Ellis said Friday he wasn’t aware that Butner had declined him until Lapp had died.
Ellis also questioned why the jail discontinued medication for Lapp when he had a long record of mental health issues. A psychiatrist with the Community Services Board who evaluated Lapp gave an explanation, but most of it occurred when the courtroom was closed to the public. It was clear, though, that Lapp was not cooperating with the psychiatrist, and that the psychiatrist was not given Lapp’s medical records from Butner to review.
Ellis said he told lawyers representing Butner at the hearing that he expects the prison to send at least a summary discharge report going forward for local officials to review.
“Dr. Lapp’s suicide is a tragedy we ought not to repeat,” Ellis said.
Lapp lived in a wealthy neighborhood outside the nation’s capital and owned a $1.3 million home there at the time of his arrest.
He was highly educated, and had multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father, Ralph Lapp, was a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project.
Ellis said he committed the crime during a manic episode of his illness in which he robbed a bank and carjacked a woman at gunpoint in November 2018.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Lapp’s cellphone records showed he had multiple romantic interests, including a Playboy model, and that “he was working to keep his romantic love interests happy with additional money.”
Lapp was initially found incompetent to stand trial and initially refused medication, but eventually agreed to be medicated and was restored to competency. He opted to plead guilty, but at the time of his guilty plea, Flood noted he was starting to see a slippage in Lapp’s mental health, prompting Ellis to order Lapp’s return to Butner while he awaited sentencing,