Mikese Morse’s case highlights how Florida is failing those with mental illness

After 13 years of living with mental illness and three years of fighting in court, Mikese Morse finally receives treatment for mental health. The cost: another man’s life.

Why it’s important: Mike’s saga illustrates how Florida treats those in need of involuntary mental health care – as criminals who rely on the police and the courts to solve problems that require medical intervention – with potentially tragic results.

What happened: Mikese, 33, once dreamed of representing Tampa at the Olympics as an athletics star from USF before his mental illness derailed that plan.

  • His parents say they tried to get him permanent help, but did not succeed, as could be seen at a meeting with police in 2017, where they were told that “being mentally ill is not a crime.”
  • But one day, Mikese committed a crime and killed 42-year-old Pedro Aguerreberry as he drove into his father and his two young sons while cycling in 2018.
  • Then, his parents say, he was treated like a criminal instead of a person with a mental illness.

The big picture: About 10% to 25% of people in U.S. prisons have been diagnosed with serious mental illness, according to a 2014 National Research Council report. Compare that to a rate of 5% among all Americans.

  • Across Florida, a Sun Sentinel study found that people with mental illness were killed or brutally assaulted by at least 500 loved ones in Florida from 2000 to 2016 – while state funding for mental health care fell.
  • Mental Health America ranked Florida No. 48 nationally for access to mental health care in 2021.
Missed opportunities
Photo illustration of a series of Tampa Bay Police patches, some of them faded.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch / Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Mikese spent a decade in and out of the mental health system and had several encounters with law enforcement before the crash. But after each incident, the mothers say they were told no one could help them get him long-term treatment.

The latest: A judge ordered Mikese to be transferred from prison to a psychiatric hospital last month after he was found not guilty due to insanity.

  • Mikese was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder after the crash.

Background: Mikese was Baker Acted – a temporary and often involuntary commitment to a mental health facility if considered a threat to themselves or others – several times before the crash, according to his parents.

  • In the fall of 2007, during his first year at USF, he became Baker Acted at St. Joseph’s Hospital by his father, Michael. He was detained for 72 hours.
  • In 2009, he spent two weeks at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami while attending the University of Miami.
  • In 2010, he spent 72 hours at Gracepoint, a behavioral clinic in Tampa, for his third Baker Act.

August 13, 2017 The mothers say police followed Mikese after he did not stop for a traffic offense as police tried to pull him over.

  • Mikeke’s mother, Khadeeja, says she asked if the police could help get Baker Acted back for treatment, but was eventually told there was nothing they could do because “being mentally ill is not a crime. “
  • “She can see it. She hears it,” Khadeeja says of the interaction with the police. “She can admit it, and she just acknowledged every flaw in the system, so that means we’re alone.”
  • Neither the Tampa Police Department nor the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office have records of this interaction, but it is unlikely they would do so if no tickets or warnings were written.

Less than three weeks before the crash: Mike’s parents say officers came to their home to inquire about threats against then-President Trump he had made on social media on June 6, 2018.

Less than two weeks before the crash: On June 12, 2018, Mikese walked into a police station in Tampa and told officers he was worried he might hurt someone. He was Baker Acted and again taken to Gracepoint.

  • The facility acts as a kind of emergency department for mental health. When people are Baker Acted, they are usually kept for a few days. Then it is up to them to continue the proposed follow-up treatment.
One of the documents his mother says was included in Mike’s Grace’s emission package. Photo courtesy of Khadeeja Morse

Gracepoint held Mikese for a week and released him five days before the crash with what his mother calls “a bus pass and good luck.”

  • His printing package included a resource guide dated 2014 and virtually unreadable scans of documents. Many of the places listed for housing were unreadable. Most of the other Khadeeja called were either filled in or listed under the wrong number.
  • The facility does not share who has or has not received treatment, and representatives could only comment in general terms.
  • Gracepoint spokeswoman Susan Morgan says the images do not reflect their discharge packages and that patients are not discharged until they are seen by a psychiatrist and receive a follow-up interview and possibly medication.

Five days after his release, Mikese ran down the Aguerreberry family.

“They really wanted to create a villain”
Illustration of several police traffic lights, some of them transparent.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch / Axios

When TPD officers showed up at their home after the crash to arrest Mikese, the family was horrified and crushed.

  • Their only hope was that this would finally be a catalyst for really long-term help – but it turned out to be their worst nightmare.

The last straw: Khadeeja and Michael say they talked for hours with investigators about their son’s mental health history and felt convinced that the police understood he had a serious mental illness, especially considering that the same department had just served him by Baker .

  • But when they turned on the TV the next day, then-boss Brian Dugan saw their son deliberately beat the Aguerreberry family – not to mention his mental illness.
  • Khadeeja went to the internet and did everything she could to correct the record. “They would really create a villain. If we did not talk, they would put our son in jail and not tell the truth,” she tells Axios.

The other side: TPD stands by Dugan’s initial statements after the crash. The department would not let Axios talk to Dugan, but sent a statement …

  • “It is the responsibility of the police department to arrest people for crimes committed. Based on the evidence, Morse deliberately drove over a father and two children at the time of his arrest.”
  • “The decision of the subject’s competence and location is not the role of the investigator on the spot. It is up to the judicial system to determine the outcome.”
A legal battle
Illustration of a series of hammer blows, some of them transparent.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch / Axios

For the three years following the crash, the Morse and Aguerreberry families suffered constant delays in the case. It took months to establish Mikees’ competence to be tried and start receiving treatment – and then COVID hit.

  • Seeing his son sit in jail was like “dead by a thousand paper clips,” Khadeeja says.
  • “He was decompensating in front of our eyes, and in front of their eyes, and they all knew it and saw it … And they still would not let us get him to a hospital,” she adds.
  • The Aguerreberry family did not respond to Axios’ requests for comment on this story.

Between the lines: This is how the system works, State Attorney Andrew Warren told Axios.

  • Because Mikese committed a crime, his case could not be moved to a mental health court.
  • To get the case further, Mikese had to be considered competent to stand trial. He then had to be evaluated by experts so the court could determine if he had a mental illness defense.
  • Warren blames Mikees’ lawyer for part of the delay in arguing over whether he could be placed in private care instead of a state hospital.

But Warren puts most of the blame on what he calls a broken system.

  • “Here you see an example of the worst type of tragedy that occurs when a person who has a strong need for mental health care fails to get it. This could be prevented. This is an example of the failure of the mental health system in our society. ,” he says.
Repair of a broken system
Illustration of a series of images of the state of Florida, repeated and faded from the center.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch / Axios

Everyone involved in Mike’s story points to another villain.

  • The police point a finger at him. The prosecutor points to the mental health system. The mothers direct their anger at one particular place: Gracepoint.

The other side: Gracepoint CEO Joe Rutherford could not comment directly on Mikeke’s case, but he had a response to those who say the system is broken.

  • “It is definitely not broken. The parts that are in place work miraculously well,” he tells Axios.
  • The problem in Florida, Rutherford explains, is that there are gaps in care in the mental health system that are not funded. And people often slip through these holes.
  • “All of these components are there for successful discharge and finishing, but once a person leaves the unit, they are on their own to follow up with our recommended finishing,” says Rutherford.

His solutions: Rutherford says Florida needs to follow the example of other states that have funded short-term housing programs. He says Gracepoint alone treats more than a thousand people a month, in addition to more than 25,000 people in its outpatient programs.

  • People released from a Baker Act who need more than just a predetermined outpatient appointment would be able to spend two to three months in supportive housing.
  • It’s a program that exists in limited quantities in Florida, but which has not received more funding for about a decade, Rutherford says.
  • “The thing is, it would pay for itself. It would save the state money and take the pressure off the state hospital system. It would give us the missing component that we have right now in our current emergency system,” he adds.

Continuity is also an issue. Hospitals with Baker Act beds do not have a connected medical record system, so the facilities can only access their own medical records about a patient.

  • “Once we have someone coming through our front door, if we could see a snapshot of their history throughout the state of Florida, we would definitely be able to improve patient care,” Rutherford says.
The fight continues
Photo illustration of a series of photos of Khadeeja and Mikese Morse, some transparent.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch / Axios. Photo courtesy of Khadeeja Morse

There have been a number of recent developments around Tampa Bay that aim to improve care for those with mental illness.

  • Police departments have added mental health resources to auxiliary officers, a measure to help keep those in crisis out of the criminal justice system.
  • TPD formed a behavioral health unit over the summer, according to Creative Loafing.
  • Gracepoint’s absenteeism rates for follow-up appointments have dropped significantly over the past few years, Rutherford says, after starting new outpatient orientation groups.

What’s next: Weeks after the court ruling, Mikese is still waiting to be transferred to a state hospital. Khadeeja continues to wait for message from the prison and tries to understand when it will finally take place.

  • Meanwhile, she says he’s good enough to be in the prison’s general population, but she will not stop fighting until he gets treatment.
  • She has no plans to remain silent about his case for the time being. She will not stop talking to journalists, posting on TikTok or speaking out in any way she can until her son’s name is associated with lasting change.

Her bottom line: “With every breath in my body, I will keep talking about this and sharing this and revealing this. There is literally no better example of the failure of the mental health system than with Mikese.”

  • “Every system that should have been there to protect this result failed – several times, from before it happened to right now.”

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