Gas-pump arsonist with mental illness arrested again; this time in Dubuque

Richard Huffman arrested in 1998 in I.C., found not guilty by reason of insanity

Rick Smith
Published: December 20 2013 | 4:05 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:08 am in
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It’s still too early to know if the car industry is still stalking Richard Huffman.

The 45-year-old Huffman was arrested Wednesday evening in downtown Dubuque, accused of setting a convenience store gas pump on fire. He was charged with first-degree arson and jailed.

It was an arrest that came with a sign of relief for Iowa. No one was killed or maimed, so there was not another story of mental illness and violence to elevate to national prominence.

The arrest for the gas-pump arson is a repeat of the act that Huffman committed at an Iowa City service station in November 1998, after which he became a rarity in Iowa — a criminal defendant found not guilty of a serious felony by reason of insanity.

Such a successful insanity defense in Iowa requires the individual’s committal to a state mental health institute or the Iowa Medical & Classification Center at Oakdale where someone who continues to be mentally ill resides until doctors and the court conclude the person is no longer a danger to self or others.

In a series of interviews with The Gazette in 2004, Huffman was making his way in a court-ordered committal at the state’s Mental Health Institute in Independence, where he was being treated for the chronic mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia.

Even then, Huffman was convinced that agents of the auto industry had stalked and gassed him back in 1998, forcing him to splatter gasoline on a gas pump in Iowa City and light it on fire.

"At least I did something about it," Huffman said, more than five years into mental health treatment. "In an insane situation like that (being gassed), I did what I could."

At the time, Huffman’s doctors at the MHI at Independence said that such fixed false beliefs and lack of insight are hallmarks of paranoid schizophrenia.

Back in 2004, too, the state of Iowa estimated that Huffman was one of only six adults in a state mental health institute having been acquitted of a crime because of insanity.

At the time, the long-range hope was to one day be able to ease Huffman into a supervised community placement, a move which the Iowa Supreme Court has said is permitted under Iowa’s criminal insanity rule. Likewise, the court has said that someone who is dangerous can build a track record of good behavior in an institution and become nondangerous and so be able to be released in the community.

Even so, Dr. Bhasker Dave, superintendent of the MHI, said in 2004 that the insanity rule was demanding and not to be taken lightly, a rule that required caution before concluding that someone like Huffman wouldn’t do something dangerous again.

Clearly, Huffman met the standard for release at some point and made his way back into the community in Dubuque.

Dubuque Police Lt. Scott Baxter on Friday said Dubuque authorities have had encounters with Huffman dating back to May 2009 when he was charged with assault for punching another resident in the eye at the Julien Care Facility, now owned and operated by Hillcrest Family Services.

Baxter said the Dubuque Police Department then charged Huffman with intoxication in July 2011 after Huffman was spotted standing in a highway median holding a sign, "Sex for Free."

As recently as May 2013, Dubuque police had an informal field contact with Huffman, at which time, Huffman still listed the Hillcrest residential care facility as his address.

This Wednesday, Baxter said Huffman came into the lobby of the Police Department to say he wanted to be admitted to the psychiatric ward at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque, but that he had been turned away because did not meet the criteria for admission. Huffman then began to consume alcohol in the Police Department lobby in an attempt to get arrested. But the shift commander told him that the department could issue a citation, but the offense wasn’t sufficient for an arrest, Baxter said.

Baxter said the police report stated that Huffman apparently went home — he now lists a Dubuque address other than the care facility — drank some more and decided that lighting the gas pump on fire at the Oky Doky convenience store downtown would be enough to get him arrested.

It was.

Baxter said Huffman entered the store, got authorization from the clerk to fill up a gas can and then proceeded to go outside and spray the gas pump with gasoline and set it on fire. The clerk quickly deactivated the pump and firefighters arrived to put out the fire, Baxter said. He said no one was injured.

Huffman may have returned to the Police Department to be arrested or may have stayed at the scene to be arrested. The police report did not specify, Baxter said.

On Friday, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said she would need to check the status of Huffman’s 15-year-old Johnson County insanity verdict to see if the case remained open and could be affected by the new criminal allegation of violence.

Amy McCoy, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, on Friday agreed to check, too.

In interviews back in 2004, Huffman said he had spent time in the Marines, took some college courses and performed menial jobs, but turned away from his family after his mother and brother, worried about his behavior, committed him to a local psychiatric ward.

Once out of the psychiatric facility, he concluded his family was crazy, not him, and he drifted for years, living in shelters from Alaska to Florida and in the woods and on the streets. An anti-automobile crusader by then, he made his way to Kalona, Iowa, south of Iowa City, thinking it would be an auto-free zone because Amish lived in the area. It wasn’t, so he went to Iowa City.

He came to spending a lot of time on street corners holding up signs. "Die Autos" was one of his favorites, he said in 2004.

In 2004, too, Huffman characterized himself as an avid reader, though he had little interest in reading about his illness. He did accept a suggestion, and began to read a book about schizophrenia.

"I would like to believe it’s not true," he said after that. "I would like to think I don’t have schizophrenia."

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