'Slap in the face:' State spends $350K on accused Santa Fe shooter while families wait

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Thursday, May 20, 2021
'Slap in the face:' State spends $350K on accused Santa Fe shooter
As survivors share their frustration about delays in the trial for the accused shooter, the suspect's attorney tells ABC13 that Dimitrios Pagourtzis "sees" and "hears things."

SANTA FE, Texas (KTRK) -- Joe Tisdale doesn't understand why the man accused of shooting and killing his mother is still at a mental health facility three years later instead of in jail awaiting trial.

"It's a slap in my face. I got to go visit my mother at the gravesite. He shot and killed her, cold-blooded," Tisdale said. "I don't have a choice to see if my mom could come visit me anymore, but his family can come visit him while he's supposedly sick in the head. It's not right. I don't want another year added to it again."

Tisdale's mom, Cynthia, was a substitute art teacher at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018, when Dimitrios Pagourtzis allegedly killed 10 people and injured 13 others.

Video evidence from the mass shooting hasn't been released and will likely remain confidential until the case goes to trial. Tisdale is worried that may never happen.

Pagourtzis was charged with capital murder and faces life in prison if convicted. In February, after Pagourtzis was deemed not fit for trial, a judge ruled the 19-year-old could stay at North Texas State Hospital in Vernon for up to 12 more months.

"If he wasn't fit to stand trial, why didn't it happen within the first month? Why was it an issue six weeks after the shooting?" asked John , a Santa Fe Independent School District police officer who was injured in the shooting. "It looks like, from our standpoint, or from mine anyway, that this is relaxed."

Since December 2019, Pagourtzis has been committed to the state mental health facility that treats incompetent patients who are so mentally ill they can't understand the charges against them or effectively communicate with their lawyer ahead of trial. Until Pagourtzis is deemed competent, the case can't move forward to a trial.

13 Investigates recently met with three of the Santa Fe families who are eager to pressure the judge, doctors and the district attorney to make sure everything is being done to release Pagourtzis for trial.

"This is the only way we have to add pressure," Barnes said. "We've contacted our congressmen and we've done everything we can do on that end. There should be pressure put on them to say, 'Look, why is this guy still here?'"

Scot Rice, whose wife Flo survived after being shot five times at the school, said every time there's another mass shooting, it brings him back to that day and his frustration with the delayed trial continues.

"You can work this system to your advantage and this could last forever," Rice said. "We've seen him in court and him joking around with his lawyers and cutting up. He can turn it on or turn it off, I'm sure."

Pagourtzis' defense attorney, Nick Poehl, said that's not the case. He said on the outside, it might look like Pagourtzis is competent, but the actual conversations between the two of them indicate he is not.

"This is a young man that, because of his mental health problems, he lives in a different world than the rest of us. He perceives reality in a different way and that's about the best way I can put it," Poehl said. "He sees things that aren't there. He hears things that aren't there. That impacts the way he perceives reality."

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady, who is prosecuting the case, said as psychologists and psychiatrists work to restore his competency, his office is monitoring Pagourtzis' progress periodically. But, he said, they can't push the hospital to hurry treatment or demand doctors report back more frequently.

"The frustration with the criminal justice system is that the rights of crime victims often are placed second to the rights of the accused," Roady said. "I get it. I get that they seem to be constantly being told no, or not yet. And I understand their frustration and we share it with them."

For victims like John Barnes, a school security officer who was shot during the incident, it feels like every update they've received in the three-year-old case is delayed justice.

"We're sick of it. We just want it to be done. I want this guy to go to prison and I want it to be over with. Period," Barnes said. "I would love for my phone never to ring again about any of this."

'Very disheartening'

Rice said in the first year after the shooting, he thought things were moving forward. Now, he said every time there's another setback in the case, he wonders why Pagourtzis is able to continue living in a treatment facility, without facing the consequences of the alleged attack.

"This whole thing is very disheartening," Rice said. "While you're having Thanksgiving and there's an empty chair, an empty plate, you're just wondering what he's doing. What's his family doing? Are they visiting? Are they talking? Is he having turkey and dressing out on the picnic table under a tree?"

Poehl said, and the hospital confirmed, that Pagourtzis spends his time in group and individual therapy as well as classes designed to help restore his competency.

Poehl said he, too, thought a trial would have already been underway, but says that cannot happen until Pagourtzis is able to communicate with him and understand the charges against him.

"I'm confident that they're giving it their very best efforts, but this isn't repairing a car. This is a human brain. It's a human personality," Poehl said. "They try different things, different medications, different types of therapies to try to get him back to competency and at some point they may, or at some point they may not be able to."

Victims said they worry the state-run psychiatric hospital where Pagourtzis has been for the last year and a half offers the alleged mass shooter too much freedom, and an opportunity to avoid a harsher punishment than if he were confined at a county jail or state prison.

RELATED: ABC13 goes inside the facility where violent, mentally ill accused killers and rapists are treated

Five years ago, 13 Investigates went inside the maximum security mental health facility where Pagourtzis and hundreds of Texas' most violent accused killers, rapists and otherwise criminally charged defendants wander the campus of a renovated geriatric treatment center.

Back then, the hospital told us that once patients are admitted, the handcuffs and shackles come off. The dormitory doors are locked only at shift changes and guards are out of sight in a "calculated effort to not make it oppressive," the hospital told us in 2016. Actively violent patients are kept in a more secure, locked unit where staff work behind fortified glass and locked doors.

Pagourtzis was transferred to that facility in December 2019, delaying the trial that was set for February 2020. His stay there keeps getting extended.

"The intensity of the efforts to restore him to competency has not slacked off. It may seem that way with the passage of time, but the urgency of the issue is still the same," Roady said. "The frustrating fact that it has taken this long does not mean that we have lost confidence in the efforts of the state hospital to get him restored."

Still, Tisdale said he's worried the mental health treatment is a delay tactic and that the case will never go to trial.

"He's got an open (area), roaming around, eating good, sleeping good," Tisdale said. "He's not dealing with the true justice system right now."

Poehl said Pagourtzis didn't have any mental illness treatment or diagnosis prior to the shooting, but he did "hear" things that weren't there on the day of the shooting and that was a contributing factor.

"There's no doubt in my mind and there's no doubt in any of the multitude of experts that have examined him, not just the ones that work for me, the ones that worked for the prosecution too," Poehl said. "TV dramas aside, you can't coach a person to effectively fake mental illness. It's not rational. People are just too rational and you can only turn it off a certain amount."

Roady said the Galveston County DA's office has sent other defendants to the state-run hospital whose competency was restored much quicker.

The state said the cost of care per person is $673 a day, meaning it would cost the state $245,645 to treat Pagourtzis for another year. State taxpayers have already spent close to $350,000 on his treatment.

"The danger with waiting, in addition to the pain that our families are still going through, and the frustration in our office, is that time works against you. Witnesses move away, memories can fade," Roady said. "Fortunately, we're able to refresh those memories because the investigation into this was extraordinarily extensive and well done ... but time passing is never a good thing."

In 2016, the hospital said about 85% of patients treated for competency prior to trial were referred back to the court within 95 days. The discharge time is slightly down during the pandemic. Now, the state says 55% of patients are ready for trial within a year - or on average, within 52 days.

The average length of stay for 61% of patients is 110 days. About 39% of patients are at the facility an average of 410 days, according to the Texas Health and Human Services, which oversees the facility.

The turnaround has families of Santa Fe victims questioning why Pagourtzis is still at the facility and not at trial.

"If you're that good, then move him on out. I mean, he should be good to go, right?" Rice said.

A hospital official told 13 Investigates that after two years, the effectiveness of being able to restore someone's competency dramatically decreases to where they start considering long-term options for people who may never go to a trial.

There are 55 people who have been there five years or more and 28 more people who have been there at least 10 years, according to the state.

Poehl said Pagourtzis is in an age group where, because of his mental health concerns, it could be hard to restore competency, which means he doesn't really have a timeline of when - or if - the case will ever go to trial.

"He either gets restored to competency or he doesn't," Poehl said. "At the end of the day, he's locked up. He's going to be locked up kind of one way or the other, and so how big a difference that makes to some people, that's for them to decide."

If his competency is never restored, Poehl said the suspect could be sent to a civil commitment facility for the rest of his life.

Roady said he can keep the case open for as long as a possible sentence would run, and he intends to keep fighting for it to go before a jury trial.

"If the story ends with him dying in custody, undergoing restoration to competency, then that's not the right ending," Roady said. "The right ending is for him to be restored to competency and brought back to this county so he can face trial for what he's accused of."

'Uncertainty is difficult'

Tisdale tries to imagine what it looked like inside Santa Fe High when his mom was gunned down and killed, but doesn't know for sure if he's right.

"I know who my mother was and I know what type of protection she'd be trying to give to the kids and things like that, so it's always played out in my mind," Tisdale said. "I want to know how he was acting that day. ... What was his demeanor? How was he moving forward? What was happening? And I want to know if there was any thing that maybe could have been changed also for public safety reasons, too."

Even though he knows it'll be painful to watch, he is tired of waiting for video evidence -- showing the alleged shooter moments before his mom's final breath -- to be released.

He wants to know exactly what happened.

RELATED: Upcoming Santa Fe High School documentary tells stories of survivors and victims

Current state law allows agencies to withhold releasing video evidence in open investigations. Agencies can choose to release information, but if they give it to the family members of victims, they'll also have to apply that decision to anyone else who requests the video, including news outlets.

For now, Roady said he's still hopeful the case will go to trial so he is withholding the evidence.

"The law doesn't give those families special right of access," Roady said. "If we share it with them then anyone else with a morbid sense of curiosity has the right to go into that and put it on social media."

Since Barnes was a law enforcement officer at the school, he had access to some of the evidence that is currently being withheld. Since he's no longer an officer, he was able to share what he could with Tisdale, Rice and other victim's families, but he said it doesn't offer the same closure as viewing the footage in person.

"I was as honest as I can be with what happened, but the truth of it is until you see that video. ... it is not the same," Barnes said. "With anything, if you see pictures or videos the video really tells you a lot more than I can talk about what happened, so I would really like that to happen with the victims seeing it."

Poehl supports the decision to withhold releasing any evidence to families. He said that's because he still is hopeful the case will go to a trial, in which case he'll want any potential jurors to come in with an open mind about the case.

Still, Rice said parents of the victims deserve to know exactly how their children died that day.

"We don't care if (Pagourtzis) can talk to his lawyer or not because he could take the fifth and never (testify) anyway, so we want the evidence to speak," Rice said. "If he doesn't want to go to trial and speak for himself, we really don't care. We want to see him tried and convicted and in prison."

Poehl said if it looks like Pagourtzis' competency won't be restored in a reasonable time frame - or ever - that should be factored into the decision to release information.

"The uncertainty is difficult, just like it is for the victims and their families, the uncertainty of when is this going to end? When do you reach a point where not every day, all day is about this for the rest of our lives?" Poehl said. "That's difficult for anybody to go through, and it's especially difficult for the victims. It's no easier on his family at this point. I can assure you of that."

While doctors work to restore Pagourtzis' competency for trial, Tisdale said he spends every day searching for distractions to keep him from getting angry about it all over again.

He said a chapter of his life was closed when his mom was killed. Now, he just wishes he could get a glimpse into one chapter, one day of Pagourtzis' life to get one step closer to closure.

"It's the loss. We all have it, in different ways, but we're all connected through that loss and pain and suffering and we want some answers," Tisdale said. "Our loved-ones need answers. The children need answers."

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