A Cowlitz County judge Tuesday sentenced David Altman of Kelso to 17 years in prison for the 2016 assault that killed 92-year-old Bernie Altman, his father and beloved advocate for the mentally disabled.
Altman, a documented schizophrenic man, stuck to his claim that his father attacked him, but he was calm and articulate at his sentencing hearing before Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning. “I’m sorry I did it. I felt trapped,” he added.
Altman’s lawyer, the prosecutor, his family and the judge alike expressed sadness and regret that his mental condition led to the tragedy. Judge Warning lamented, “We don’t have the tools to exorcise those demons (in Altman’s brain). He lives in a place we cannot reach.”
Altman, 53, pleaded guilty in January to an amended charge of second-degree murder (domestic violence), stating that he acted with intent but without premeditation in the Aug. 25 stabbing and beating that led to his father’s death two weeks later.
David Altman’s public defender, Simmie Baer, initially planned to pursue an insanity defense. Altman originally was charged with three counts of murder and one count of assault.
Baer and the Cowlitz County Prosecutor’s Office concurred that the defendant had been mentally ill for decades and recommended a sentence of 15 years.
“He puts his life in your hands, as fragile and sick as it is,” Baer told Judge Warning.
Baer described David Altman as “wedded” to his beliefs and unable to change his view of reality.
“He truly believed his father was poisoning his dog. He truly believed his 92-year-old father attacked him. He truly believed that his father, Bernard Altman, was a vampire. … David is seriously, seriously mentally ill,” she said. “... David Altman did not choose schizophrenia. Schizophrenia chose him.”
Neighbors and family of David and Bernie Altman expressed grief over the loss of both Bernie Altman’s life as well as his sons, as well as regret over not getting involved to help him sooner.
Jason Laurine, representing the State of Washington, echoed those thoughts.
“It’s not only a loss of one life. It’s a loss of two lives,” he said.
Judge Warning said that he “can hope” for mental treatment while Altman is institutionalized, but it’s ultimately not up to him.
A pre-sentence investigation filed on Feb. 28 found that David Altman’s “refusal to maintain mental health stability ... and his unpredictable, aggressive and violent community behavior place … the community-at-large in grave danger.”
In a memorandum filed Thursday, Baer said that Bernie Altman had repeatedly pushed to have his son hospitalized. Nevertheless, Baer wrote, “there are indications that Bernard Altman was extremely dismissive to outsiders who had concerns about his safety,” such as rebuking protective services investigators and asking neighbors “to stay out of his business.”
Court documents reference mental health concerns dating back decades, including a prior hospitalization in 1986 due to suicidal tendencies.
David Altman’s criminal history includes fourth-degree assault for shaking his father in 2012.
Three months after Altman’s fatal assault of his father, a state psychologist wrote that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial because of his schizophrenia. That December, he was transferred to Western State Hospital. He later was forcibly medicated and found fit to stand trial in February last year.
For years, family members sought mental health treatment for David Altman.
Rosalie Olds, Bernie Altman’s daughter, told The Daily News in December 2016 when her brother was sent to Western State that “What we wanted to happen is now happening. But I wish that could have happened without my dad being killed.”
Olds said at Tuesday’s sentencing that David Altman was a “fun, creative, and loving” person “before schizophrenia took over his soul.”
Her father, she said, “bent over backwards to assist my brother in finding housing, food, employment, and medical care.” In response, she said, her father received “continual harassment, a drain on his finances, and some physical abuse” from his son.
She said that her anger extends beyond her brother to Adult Protective Services, the court system, and Lower Columbia Mental Health — organizations that she said failed to protect her father.
“Watching my father fight for breath for two weeks was complete torture,” she said, “because with better laws and … mental health care, this murder could have been avoided.”