Judge denies psychiatrist’s proposal to let man who killed AT&T lineman out on supervised trips into community

Zachary Lamone McKee was ordered to remain at Austin State Hospital for 12 months, when his...
Zachary Lamone McKee was ordered to remain at Austin State Hospital for 12 months, when his indefinite commitment order will be reviewed again.(KWTX)
Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 4:13 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - A judge has denied a request from Austin State Hospital officials to allow a man who stabbed and beat an AT&T worker to death in 2016 to leave the mental facility to go on supervised trips into the community.

Without comment or a hearing, Judge David Hodges rejected a proposal from Dr. Feroza Talukdar, a unit psychiatrist at the minimum-security Austin facility, for Zachery Lamone McKee to receive “brief therapeutic passes” for supervised family visits, trips to stores and other “therapeutic activities.”

McKee, 34, who has a long history of mental illness and substance abuse, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2019 in the April 2016 death of Kenneth Cleveland, a 61-year-old AT&T technician and the father of seven daughters.

Hodges recommitted McKee to the facility for another year in June after doctors there reported in a letter to the court in May that McKee’s “lack of insight and substance abuse history are two of his most salient risk factors for violence.”

Indefinite mental commitments are reviewed by a judge on an annual basis and state law requires mental patients to be housed in the least-restrictive environment warranted by their conditions and levels of improvement. Some defendants with serious mental issues are deemed too dangerous to themselves or others to ever be released.

McKee has told doctors he heard crows telling him Cleveland, who was working in the 1400 block of Barron Avenue, was an undercover police officer before McKee stabbed Cleveland more than 20 times, beat him with a shovel and set his clothes on fire.

McKee initially was committed to the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon, a maximum-security facility, after an Austin psychiatrist and a Waco psychologist found McKee insane at the time of the offense, while a Waco psychiatrist found that he was legally sane.

A defendant is legally insane at the time of the offense when his mental condition precludes him from knowing right from wrong.

Weeks after Hodges’ recommitment order, Talukdar wrote to Hodges that the Austin State Hospital forensic consultation committee supports McKee receiving “supervised community passes at this time.”

“Initial passes will be supervised by Austin State Hospital staff members and may include attendance in community therapeutic trips to local stores as a means to prepare for returning to the community, passes with family to re-establish relationships or other therapeutic activities,” Talukdar wrote.

“With this approval, family passes could be expanded over time to occur with family supervision only, if clinically indicated and approved by the hospital’s forensic consultation committee. Passes would be suspended if any inappropriate behavior occurs,” the letter said.

Talukdar wrote that therapeutic passes are a “very useful element” in the care of long-term psychiatric patients.

“These carefully monitored passes greatly assist hospital staff in assessing the individual’s progress in terms of whether or not they are progressing toward treatment in an outpatient setting, and also assist the individual in the significant transition from inpatient to outpatient treatment,” Talukdar’s letter states.

McKee has been diagnosed with “schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type” with a history of polysubstance abuse.

McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson predicted that McKee will spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital after Johnson drew blistering criticism from Cleveland’s family members about how his office handled the case. In the fallout from that case, Johnson changed the way, at least for a time, his office handled defendants with mental health issues.

Johnson has said if he had to do it again, he would have allowed a jury to decide McKee’s fate.

Several of Cleveland’s family members said that McKee was “playing the system” by faking his mental condition, while one said the resolution “was a big slap in the face to this family.”

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