In February of this year, a 68-year-old patient at Bryce Hospital was viciously beaten by another patient committed there. 17 days later, the victim died of severe brain injuries in hospice care.

The homicide of Walter Rogers Jr. has never been publicly reported. No public notice was made of either the attack or his death as a ward of the state. It's in question if he should have been at Bryce at all at the time of the assault, and no charges have been filed against his assailant.

This investigative report will seek to tell the story as completely as possible using media obtained by the Thread including hospital surveillance video, court documents, previous reporting and limited comment from the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

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THE VICTIM

The victim of the eventually deadly beating was 68-year-old Walter Rogers Jr., who the Tuscaloosa News called a U.S. Army veteran with bipolar disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

Although there appears to have been very little if any local media coverage of his original arrest, court documents say Rogers was a Memphis man jailed here in Tuscaloosa in August 2009. He reportedly threatened violence against Mayor Walt Maddox, local law enforcement officials, former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis and more, allegedly including threats to take students at Bryant High School hostage.

Rogers was ultimately charged with seven felony counts of making terrorist threats but found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity.

He was committed in June 2010 to the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility in Tuscaloosa before he was transferred to Bryce in November 2013.

EFFORTS TO RELEASE ROGERS

Since 2013, the Alabama Department of Mental Health has asked on five separate occasions for Rogers to be moved to less restrictive care.

Malissa Valdes, Public Information Officer for the Alabama Department of Mental Health, explained their limitations to the Thread.

"There are two categories of patients who are committed to Bryce Hospital – civil and forensic. The department has the ability to discharge civilly committed patients when the patient has met their treatment goals," she said. "In the case of the placement of forensic patients, the department makes recommendations to the court and the court makes a decision regarding discharge or placement of the individual."

Records show judges have denied four motions filed by ADMH attorneys seeking to release Rogers to less restrictive care.

Circuit Judge Charles Malone denied the first motion in 2015, and Circuit Judge Allen May denied three other motions to release Rogers from Bryce in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

The Tuscaloosa County District Attorney's office reportedly pushed back against the Department's efforts to relocate Rogers. WBRC reports prosecutor Jonathan Cross said in 2018 that Rogers was "a rattlesnake and he will strike again."

May did not return a call seeking comment before the publication of this report, and the District Attorney Hays Webb declined to discuss specific case details on the record.

In their penultimate motion, the ADMH said Rogers had made progress and taken some responsibility for his 2009 actions during therapy sessions with an intern, but May said in a ruling that the alleged progress "appeared self-serving" and offered by Rogers specifically to address the Court's concern, not as a demonstration of genuine remorse.

"This is a most serious matter, where the court must make judgments about the safety of the community," May wrote in his 2020 order denying Rogers' release to a group home. "The central component to release of Rogers to a less restrictive environment is not the department's efforts or sincerity, but is, as the Court made clear in its previous order, Roger's obtaining the necessary insight into the wrongfulness of his actions."

Two years after that denial, the ADMH filed one final motion on April 2nd, 2022 seeking to release Rogers from Bryce Hospital.

"It is [the] opinion of the professionals of the Department that the Defendant should be released from the custody of the Department and discharged to a group home," the motion read. "It remains the opinion of said professionals that the Defendant would not pose a real and present threat of substantial harm to himself or to others by being discharged from the custody of the Department if certain conditions are imposed upon said release from custody."

ADMH attorneys said those conditions would include that Rogers would take all medications and participate in all treatments laid out for him, abstain from drugs and alcohol, be forbidden from possessing any kind of weapon and more.

May had not ruled on the motion when Rogers was assaulted 324 days after ADMH lawyers filed it.

There are also questions as to why Rogers, who was 68 when he was attacked, was still at Bryce and not at the nearby Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center, which is specifically responsible for the provision of inpatient psychiatric services for citizens aged 65 and older.

Valdes declined to address that matter and many others.

"The Alabama Department of Mental Health’s mental health care facilities are healthcare facilities and patient information is protected," Valdes said. "We do not notify media outlets of events related to patient information, as their personal information is protected."

(Screenshot from Obtained Surveillance Footage)
(Screenshot from Obtained Surveillance Footage)
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THE ASSAULT

Surveillance footage obtained by the Thread shows that on or about February 20th, 2023, Rogers was sitting in a chair in a hallway at Bryce Hospital.

Another patient walked through a nearby door and, seemingly without provocation, began punching the 68-year-old in the face. The assailant very quickly struck Rogers around two dozen times and Rogers' head impacted both the window behind him and the wooden arm of the chair he slumped into during the attack.

Rogers' hands were briefly raised up to protect his head, but he dropped them after the second punch landed and appeared to lose consciousness before twenty or so additional blows landed.

The entire attack lasted around 10 seconds before the assailant was pulled off Rogers and the footage obtained by the Thread ends.

Court documents show that Rogers was rushed to DCH Regional Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a "massive right hemisphere subdural hematoma," or, in layman's terms, bleeding between the skull and the brain. Rogers reportedly did not regain consciousness after the attack, although the Thread has not been able to independently verify that.

Rogers remained at DCH until the ADMH filed an emergency motion on March 7th asking Judge May to release him for end-of-life care at a local hospice. After denying three motions to release Rogers to a group home and leaving a fourth unanswered for nearly a year, May approved the emergency motion and Rogers was sent to die.

According to his obituary, he did so two days later on March 9th, 2023. A service was held weeks later in Ripley, Tennessee.

The ADMH declined to confirm even this basic timeline of events.

THE INVESTIGATION

The investigation into Rogers' death has been vastly different from other homicide cases in the region.

The ADMH employs police officers at Bryce, but they are explicitly forbidden from making arrests without authorization from Facility Director Audrey McShan, who is not a law enforcement officer.

The Thread has often reported that the multi-agency Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit investigates all assaults, homicides and sex crimes in Tuscaloosa County, but that apparently does not apply to cases that originate at ADMH facilities such as Bryce Hospital.

Captain Jack Kennedy, the commander of the VCU, confirmed to the Thread that they did not investigate the attack on Rogers or his subsequent death, and that a state agency handled it.

Valdes, the spokesperson for the Department of Mental Heath, was willing to talk about the investigative procedures in place at Bryce and other state facilities but declined to say anything about this specific case.

"The ADMH Bureau of Special Investigations investigates events at facilities that require a review and process. Once investigated, BSI coordinates with law enforcement, if deemed necessary," Valdes said.

Privacy law, particularly the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act usually referred to as HIPAA, limits what can be shared about the assailant, who were themselves a patient at Bryce at the time of the attack., but Valdes and the ADMH declined to say what conclusion, if any, their BSI reached about the deadly beating. They did not say whether the assailant may yet face criminal charges in connection to Rogers' death, if the assailant is still a patient at Bryce, or what access he has to other ADMH patients.

News of the attack on Rogers was never shared publicly, even after his death in March. His assailant has never been publicly identified, and as far as public records show, has never been charged or indicted with a crime connected to the attack.

QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED

The Thread submitted nine questions to the Alabama Department of Mental Health, which Valdes only answered to the extent shared in this report.

We continue to investigate the circumstances of Rogers' death, and all that preceded and followed after it. We are also actively investigating reports of other issues inside Bryce Hospital.

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more investigative work as time and our resources allow.

If you have a Tuscaloosa-area story that needs to be heard, we have a small staff but would appreciate the opportunity to help see it told. Submit a tip here or reach out to stephen.dethrage@townsquaremedia.com.

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