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Crime & Courts

2 troubled lives collide -- and 1 ends -- in an Anchorage jail cell

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: February 9
  • Published January 10, 2016

Two men who had each been living on the streets of Anchorage and struggling just to navigate everyday life were placed together in a cell at the Anchorage Jail in December. One of them, who was awaiting transfer from the jail to a psychiatric facility, would die in that cell. The other -- himself a victim of past violence -- would be charged with murder.

Their stories differ, but the lives of both men, each of whom faced his own struggles with mental health, highlight the difficulty of handling the most vulnerable offenders.

People who knew both men -- James Clinton, 20, who has been charged with killing his cellmate on Dec. 11, and the victim, Mark Canul, 53 -- said limited resources for the mentally ill led to their fatal confrontation.

James Clinton is arraigned at the Nesbett Courthouse on Tuesday, December 22, 2015 for the murder of Mark Canul. Canul and Clinton were cellmates at the Anchorage Jail.

Canul's sisters say he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 19, a condition that dominated his adult life. In recent years, without a permanent roof over his head, he was arrested multiple times. At the time of his death, an Anchorage district judge had issued an order stating he wasn't mentally competent and shouldn't go through criminal proceedings, and needed to be taken to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. The order came down nine days before his death.

Mark Canul’s sisters say he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 19, a condition that dominated his adult life. In recent years, without a permanent roof over his head, he was arrested multiple times. At the time of his death, an Anchorage district judge had issued an order stating he wasn't mentally competent to go through criminal proceedings and needed to be taken to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. The order came down nine days before his death. This photo was taken in June 2015.

"The left hand wasn't talking to the right," said Janine Canul, referring to efforts to find her brother a stable home. "There has to be better policies and procedures. He never should have been incarcerated."

Clinton, meanwhile, was living at Covenant House Alaska in September 2013 when he was severely beaten by several people in a downtown house set for demolition. The assault put him in a coma and left him with "cognitive delays," according to court notes from his criminal cases. Many officials helped the young man over the past two years, but he repeatedly found himself homeless and back in trouble with the law.

Related: Anchorage Jail death highlights need for reform

"He was really struggling with some mental health issues due to (traumatic brain injury)," said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean's Cafe, a day-services facility near downtown Anchorage that Clinton visited infrequently for meals.

James Clinton was living at Covenant House in September 2013 when he was severely beaten by several people in a downtown house set for demolition. Where the building once stood is now a parking lot used by employees who work at Covenant House's new facility. The assault put him in a coma and left him with “cognitive delays,” according to court notes from his criminal cases. Two years later, while in jail, prosecutors say Clinton killed his cellmate Mark Canul. Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

"I think he often got frustrated by his predicament. I don't think he understood everything that was going on in his life,"said Lane Gunter, general manager of City Center Motel, where Clinton lived for several months last summer. "He'd quickly get upset, little things would send him off, but he'd calm down just as fast."

Assault to trespassing

How Clinton ended up in Anchorage remains unclear. He once told a judge he was originally from California.

Members of Clinton's family either could not be reached for this story or declined to speak on the record. The Department of Corrections suggested in response to a request to interview Clinton that his lawyers be contacted; attorneys representing Clinton in cases new and old did not return calls.

While enrolled in mental health court for an assault case, Clinton mentioned his family multiple times. He said he loved them and he'd like to see them. His sister took him in for a short time but he left her house and never returned for reasons not explained in court records.

What is clear through affidavits and recordings of mental health court hearings is the tumultuous situation to which Clinton awoke after the assault in the abandoned house.

On Dec. 1, 2013, he posted a selfie, sitting in a hospital bed. His curly, dirty blonde hair had grown out several inches during his time in recovery.

Friends asked if he was OK, if he'd made a full recovery.

"(N)aw f----- my head up," he responded.

Covenant House, which offers refuge for youths living on Anchorage's streets, doesn't give out information about the kids it helps. Kids age out of the service at 21. Clinton turned 19 in January 2014, but he was homeless in March, evidenced by his first contact with police following the assault, when he was arrested for trespassing at the Brother Francis Shelter. A shelter employee told officers Clinton was making threats and causing a disturbance.

He pled guilty to a trespassing charge three months later. He later filed a request in the case asking for permission to go to the Downtown Transit Center's teen center. Clinton's written reason for the request: "Stay out of trouble and be safe."

James Clinton’s last criminal case before the alleged murder arose from him trying to take a bike from someone at the transit center. Security there grabbed Clinton, recognizing him because he was banned from the bus depot for life. It was Dec. 7. He was taken to the Anchorage Jail, and it was in a cell there four days later that prosecutors say Clinton killed Mark Canul. Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

Seven additional criminal cases followed after Clinton was removed from Brother Francis. His second arrest resulted from an altercation with his roommate, in which he pulled a small knife on the man. As part of a plea agreement, he wasn't allowed to go back to the apartment.

Once again, he was homeless.

Clinton was then arrested for threatening someone with a stick -- a charge that would lead him to mental health court and group homes -- followed by an arrest for stealing clothing from J.C. Penney.

The most common characteristics of people with mild to severe traumatic brain injury are troubles with anger management, impulse control and making good choices, said Tracy Golly, rural resource navigator for the Alaska Brain Injury Network.

"The story is all too common," Golly said. "We see this kind of stuff in people who suffer even mild brain injuries. Recent studies have indicated that of the millions of incarcerated men in the U.S., 80 percent are living with mild TBI."

The Anchorage jail.

Starting in September, Clinton was charged numerous times for trespassing at downtown locations -- a garage off Fifth Avenue and C Street, a bank, a parking garage and the Downtown Transit Center. He would spend more and more time behind bars as he couldn't pay the standard $500 bail imposed by a district court judge for each of those offenses, according to court records.

A struggle with normality

Mark Canul grew up in Juneau. He had a normal childhood, according to his sisters, Janine Canul and Victoria Canul Dunne. He never struggled with alcohol or drugs, they said.

When Canul was less than 2 years old, he got spinal meningitis, which would leave him nearly deaf, compounding his troubles later in life. This summer he was kicked out of the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission because employees thought he was ignoring their presence and demands, Victoria said. She explained to one employee that her brother was deaf, and he was welcomed back. But he didn't stay for long, for reasons unknown.

Canul mentioned he heard voices at age 15, Janine said. Being so young, she knew nothing about mental illness and didn't know what to think or do. Those voices would eventually get him kicked out of college during his inaugural semester at a university out of state, when he had a mental breakdown and trashed his dorm room, she said.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

When Mark Canul was less than 2 years old, he got spinal meningitis, which would leave him nearly deaf, compounding his troubles later in life. During the summer of 2015, he was kicked out of the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission because employees thought he was ignoring their presence and demands, his sister Victoria Canul Dunne said. She explained to one employee that her brother was deaf, and Mark was welcomed back. But he didn’t stay for long, for reasons unknown. Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

Canul's mother, whom his sisters say he loved deeply, acted as caretaker for the majority of his adult life. She would make sure he took his medications and tried to keep him out of trouble. Trouble would come in intervals, as he faced numerous charges of criminal mischief over the years while in Juneau.

"He attempted suicide around the mid-80s," Janine said. "He said he couldn't take it anymore. He laid in the tub, put a knife to his lower abdomen and pulled up. He didn't want to get blood on my mom's bathroom floor. He almost died. … Mom kept him going. He really loved our mom."

He was eventually placed in housing through the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health. It became too much for his mother to look after him as they both aged, said Janine and Victoria.

Downtown Juneau.

After his mother died, he took off for parts unknown. Janine said she'd get calls from emergency rooms in the Lower 48, saying the police had brought her brother to the hospital. He'd have outbursts and get in trouble, but officers would realize he suffered from a mental illness, she said.

Janine could never act fast enough to reach her brother. Hospitals could only hold him for 72 hours; then he'd hop on a bus and go to the next town.

Around 2010, Janine got a call from Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City. Canul told doctors there he'd like to go home, and he was eventually escorted back to Alaska, where he ultimately ended up in Anchorage.

A lack of stability

"We got him into assisted living here. He lived there uneventfully for quite some time," Victoria said. "He had people helping him but they didn't always take him to appointments or other things he needed to go to. So I decided to move from Sitka to be closer to him in 2013."

By then, Janine had become his legal representative. She handled paperwork and the bureaucratic maze of social services from outside Anchorage while Victoria offered help closer to her brother.

In April, a letter came for Janine in the mail. The state decided it was taking away Canul's assisted-living voucher. A physician's assistant, according to Victoria, decided he could care for himself. He was set to be evicted in June, but in late May, Adult Protective Services closed the building where he'd been living due to licensing issues, she said.

Canul ended up at API after losing his home, but finding a long-term solution proved daunting.

"The main problem is I couldn't get him anywhere stable. There are huge chasms between the agencies who help people like him," Victoria said.

Victoria is two years older than her brother. She has a master's degree in conflict resolution, which probably helped when she allowed him to stay in her small Anchorage apartment.

Early this summer she called the police on her brother. He wouldn't take his medication; he couldn't comprehend that he needed to, his sister said. He was arrested. Victoria did not see him again until October.

He stopped staying regularly at Victoria's. She'd let him spend his days at the apartment, but he would have to leave when her kids came home. She was trying to find him a home. One of the biggest barriers, she said, was that he would get his public assistance taken away every time he was arrested.

"It's a vicious cycle," she said. "It's like you pulled back one layer of red tape and there are countless others."

The Katmai unit nursing station at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute on Wednesday, January 6, 2016. The unit has been closed since November because the facility does not have enough psychiatrists to staff the entire facility.

A stint in mental health court

After his beating in 2013, Clinton received mental health treatment starting the next year in the form of the Anchorage Coordinated Resources Project, better known as mental health court. He opted to enroll after getting in trouble for the fourth time since waking up from his coma.

The first CRP hearing was held Sept. 25, 2014. Anchorage District Court Judge Stephanie Rhoades thanked Clinton for choosing to participate in the mental health court. She said she and a team would begin looking into getting him connected with health services and housing.

"My sister wants me home," Clinton told the judge. "I want to help my sister. I love her. I love my family."

It would be more than a month before the team assigned with helping Clinton got him placed with Red Oaks Assisted Living. It was going well. Come November, during a routine hearing, the judge commended Clinton for adjusting to his living situation.

"You got a great report from Red Oaks. You're getting used to it over there?" Rhoades asked. "Take it easy on the other guys. It's a new home, so it will take a while to get used to it. They deal primarily with people who have brain injuries."

A year after being severely beaten into a coma, James Clinton sought help from the mental health court, who placed him in the Red Oaks Assisted Living home in South Anchorage. “You got a great report from Red Oaks. You’re getting used to it over there?” Judge Stphanie Rhoades asked. “Take it easy on the other guys. It’s a new home, so it will take a while to get used to it. They deal primarily with people who have brain injuries.” Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

She asked Clinton if he had any comments or goals. He replied he mostly needed to work on himself.

By February, Clinton had connected with his sister and was living with her, according to court records. Clinton said he planned on moving in a few months and getting his own place.

The following month, Rhoades issued a bench warrant for Clinton's arrest. He'd left his sister's house, wasn't making appointments and hadn't been taking his medication, she said.

Clinton reconnected with the court at the end of March. The social workers found him a home at City Center Motel in Midtown.

It was the last stable home he'd have before bouncing around downtown businesses in an effort to find shelter from the cold.

After leaving his sister's house, James Clinton disappeared for a month before reconnecting with the mental health court, which helped find him a home at the City Center Motel in Midtown. During his stay, from March to August 2015, he graduated from the mental health court, so when he was kicked out for not following the motel rules, he was no longer connected to the team that helped him get back on his feet. Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

No answers

City Center general manager Lane Gunter said Clinton, whom he referred to as JC, stayed at the motel from March to August.

Gunter said Clinton interacted with other tenants infrequently, but he did. It's unavoidable, as the motel is set up for community living, he said. Clinton would also go to church occasionally, he said.

But Clinton's struggles seemed to get the better of him, Gunter said.

"We have far too many people in similar situations. But JC's contacts with the court system -- it isn't really set up to handle someone like him. If he had been in a better situation where he had the mentoring he needed to work out his emotional issues, he'd be in a different place," Gunter said.

"I don't know what the answers are," he said.

Clinton was kicked out of City Center because he couldn't follow the rules. He sneaked people in though his apartment window, and he smoked in his room. He'd graduated from mental health court in May, so he was no longer connected to the team that helped him get back on his feet.

Although he had been arrested for trespassing at Brother Francis Shelter in 2014, James Clinton managed to get back in for a night in November 2015. He had just gotten out of jail and came to stay the night there. Two hours in, he was kicked out. He was pacing around, agitated, according to fellow client James Roberts. A box cutter fell out of his pocket, and he was back onto the streets. Not long after, he was back in jail. Photographed Thursday, January 7, 2016.

During the winter months of 2015, when Clinton was arrested multiple times, he was a regular at the Transit Center.

He was there nearly every day until recently, Jacob "JJ" Johnson said at the Transit Center in mid-December. Johnson, another youth without a home, said he didn't associate with Clinton much. Clinton hung around people that were hard to get along with -- people constantly seeking a high, he said.

Johnson stayed at the Rescue Mission in the past year. Clinton was there too, he said. Clinton got kicked out of the shelter for saying derogatory things about Jesus, said Johnson.

Brother Francis supposedly let Clinton back into its facility for a short time, according to James Roberts, an older man everyone at Bean's Cafe calls "Pops." Roberts met Clinton before the assault. Clinton seemed like a good kid; he was a lot more talkative before the assault, he said.

Roberts last saw Clinton at Brother Francis in November. Clinton had just gotten out of jail and came to stay the night there. Two hours in, he was kicked out. He was pacing around, agitated, Roberts said. A box cutter fell out of his pocket.

He was back on the streets.

A fatal confrontation

Clinton's last criminal case before the alleged murder arose from him trying to take a bike from someone at the Transit Center. Security grabbed him, recognizing Clinton because he had been banned from the bus depot for life. He was taken to the Anchorage Jail.

It was Dec. 7.

In November, Canul was charged with trespassing at the same bus depot. An order from Judge Rhoades said Canul wasn't mentally competent to stand trial and "Alaska State Troopers must transport defendant to API as soon as practicable."

The order was dated Dec. 2, 2015. Due in part to a lack of beds and staff at API, Canul would still be at the Anchorage Jail on Dec. 11 when the two men found themselves locked up together.

James Clinton is arraigned at the Nesbett Courthouse on Tuesday, December 22, 2015 for the murder of Mark Canul. Canul and Clinton were cellmates at the Anchorage Jail.

The men had been sharing a cell for about four hours, the Department of Corrections said. There was no surveillance camera inside the cell and no video of what happened next.

Canul was discovered unconscious in the cell at about 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11, according to court records. Jail staff performed CPR, and he was taken to Alaska Regional Hospital for treatment.

An initial autopsy determined that Mark Canul had been strangled. He was dead at 2:11 p.m.

According to a criminal complaint, Clinton would tell investigators that he killed Canul.

"Clinton stated that Canul 'kept spitting, running his mouth, and I snapped,'" prosecutors said. "Clinton indicated that he killed Canul because Canul had taken his identification."

In late December, Clinton appeared in court. A public defender entered a plea of not guilty to the killing.

James Clinton did not speak. His family did not attend the hearing.

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