COVID-19 hits Missouri’s controversial program for sexually violent predators

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Jesse Bogan; December 2, 2020


Last year, shortly after Donald D. Peckham was committed to a high-security mental institution for being a sexually violent predator, his public defender said he was essentially facing a life sentence.

Few might care, given the types of crimes the former pastor pleaded guilty to. But he’d already served a full 15-year prison sentence for those crimes and was 86 years old.

This time, Peckham was being sent to Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS — not as an inmate, rather as a patient. The program, run by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, has been controversial since it began in 1999. It holds people against their will because of what they might do. Few have gotten out.

Some patients, including those who were elderly, have died while trying to complete treatment, which caught the attention of a federal judge who once said SORTS had systemic failures but ultimately passed scrutiny.

Peckham’s time at SORTS was ultimately cut short by a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in Farmington, said Gary Almquist, a chaplain who buried him Monday in Neosho. He’d gotten to know Peckham and his family well while Peckham awaited his civil commitment trial in the Vernon County Jail for three years after being in prison.

He said Peckham tested positive for COVID-19 at SORTS about two weeks before he died at a St. Louis hospital on Nov. 22. Initially symptom-free, he said, Peckham’s condition worsened until he was receiving breathing treatments in his room.

“His issues steadily progressed to the point that they moved him to a Farmington hospital, and from there to St. Louis,” Almquist said.

With treatment at the hospital in St. Louis, Almquist said, Peckham’s condition improved, but the overall stress on his body from a subsequent angioplasty procedure was apparently too much.

“While in the hospitals, Don’s wife was not allowed to have contact with him, and had to go through a third-party staff member to get information on him,” Almquist said. “That person was off for the weekend when Don passed.”

Almquist, and SORTS residents, said Peckham was one of at least two patients who died after contracting the coronavirus in recent weeks. Patients said group therapies have been suspended for about a month and that the annex, which is still within the boundary of the security fence on campus, was being used for quarantine. The patients said staffing seems to be a challenge.

Debra Walker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health, didn’t provide an update on the situation at SORTS, which also has a facility in Fulton. The Post-Dispatch first asked for information Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Walker wrote: “I’m sure you understand that our staff are working very hard and doing everything possible to keep our team members and the people we serve safe from the coronavirus. The individuals who can answer your questions simply cannot get to this request right now.”

Asked if she would contact Cynthia Hackathorn, who oversees the SORTS program, by phone, for a basic update, Walker said Hackathorn wasn’t in the office Wednesday. Walker didn’t respond to an email asking to confirm the two deaths.

In October 2019, there were 257 people being treated at SORTS. The annual budget was $36.5 million. Public safety officials and the Legislature have stood by the program over the years as a necessary service for a small subset of the worst sex offenders in the state.

At Peckham’s civil commitment trial, experts disagreed if he fit the criteria of being a sexually violent predator. Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce ultimately convinced the Jasper County jury that Peckham “suffers a mental abnormality” and was “more likely than not” to reoffend if set free.

The attorney general’s office has said evidence presented at trial established that Peckham sexually abused at least 14 boys between 12 and 16 years old over the course of 30 years and continued to victimize young boys until he was 67 years old.

Peckham was a United Methodist minister in Kansas from 1958 to 1973 and worked as a pastor in Missouri, including Jubilee Christian Fellowship Church in Sarcoxie, a congregation that is no longer listed in public records. He leaves behind a wife of more than 60 years, grown children and grandchildren.


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