Hearing Pending for Homeless Jackson Resident

Dennis Gross Detained in Jail for 278 Days before being hospitalized

Pictured above is Dennis Gross following his arrest in July 2021 for allegedly lighting a fire and stopping firefighters from putting out the flames. (Courtesy photo from the Teton County Sheriff's Department)

By Yaritza Castrejon, Gabrielle Despain, Nicholas Espenan and Clay Simpson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

JACKSON, Wyo.—Dennis Gross spent 278 days in jail—more than nine months—after being arrested last summer. His alleged crime: Lighting a fire and stopping firefighters from putting out the flames, according to police reports.

There was at least one mitigating factor: He’s been diagnosed as bipolar with mania and episodes of psychosis, court records show.

A hearing is pending in Jackson to determine his competency to stand trial and at which he will enter a plea.

The question remains, should Gross have been hospitalized rather than imprisoned? Part of the answer is that there were not enough hospital beds at the Wyoming State Hospital.

It’s a question that has been asked repeatedly in Wyoming and across the country; many people with mental illness often find themselves incarcerated where they receive little to no treatment.

Elisabeth Trefonas is the public defender for Teton County and represents Dennis Gross. (Courtesy photo from Trefonas Law, PC)

In Gross’ case, he was released from the Teton County Detention Center and hospitalized after the Wyoming Truth sought all the records in his case. The Wyoming State Hospital did not respond to several requests for an interview with Gross.

If deemed competent by the Wyoming State Hospital, it will be up to Gross, 70, to determine how to plead at his preliminary hearing, said his attorney, Teton County Public Defender Elisabeth Trefonas, who questioned why Gross was jailed for so long.

“It’s not the jail’s role, it’s not their training, it’s not what they are supposed to be doing,” Trefonas said, “and at the end of the day, there’s no carpet there—it’s a jail cell. [Gross] deserves a pillow and bed and a psychiatrist to treat him properly.”

Gross, a resident of Jackson Hole, was arrested on July 7 last year for violating the county fire ban that went into effect the day before, according to a Teton County police report. He allegedly started a fire at Mead Ranch, on private property near West Gros Ventre Butte, and obstructed firefighters as they worked to put out the flames, the police report shows.

Gross has lived on the streets of Jackson Hole for 46 years, said Rev. David Bott, pastor of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jackson Hole, who has provided spiritual counseling to Gross. Over the years, Gross has attended services at the church and helped Bott with yard work. Sometimes, he spends the night there.

“One morning, I found [Gross] outside the church in a sleeping bag in negative 10-degree weather,” Bott said. “He’s one of the toughest guys you’ll ever meet.”

 Gross has been arrested about 42 times since 1994, mostly for public intoxication and trespassing—crimes related to his diagnoses of bipolar disorder, mania and episodes of psychosis, court records show. Gross’ condition causes him to act irrationally, irresponsibly, impulsively and aggressively when he is not properly medicated, Trefonas said, citing psychiatric evaluations. (Trefonas is a member of the board of advisors of the Wyoming Truth.)

At the time of his arrest, Gross was not taking his medication or receiving psychiatric care, Trefonas said. She filed a motion on July 9 last year to have Gross undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial. According to court documents, the motion was intended to suspend court proceedings after Trefonas and other members of the court observed signs that brought Gross’ mental health into question.

Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr says Dennis Gross’ presence in the detention center poses challenges for law enforcement: “We are not equipped to hold someone who needs that amount of psychiatric attention.” (Courtesy photo from the Teton County Sheriff’s Department)

“Mr. Gross partially understands his biographical information, the time, place, and location, but only while he is on his medication,” Trefonas told Circuit Court Judge James Radda. “Mr. Gross does not understand that he needs to continue to take his medication. Without assistance from someone, Mr. Gross will not remain on his medication. When that occurs, Mr. Gross will return to not understanding his biographical information, the time, place, or his location.”

Judge Radda entered an “Order of Psychological Evaluation,” which required the Wyoming State Hospital to generate a written report within 30 days on Gross’ fitness to stand trial. But Trefonas did not receive the written evaluation, based on an examination of Gross at the Teton County Detention Center, until 37 days later—on September 15, according to court documents.

A week later, Judge Radda found that Gross was unfit to proceed and committed him to the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston for an inpatient psychiatric evaluation.

But the hospital was at capacity, and Gross was detained in jail for 278 days while he waited for a bed to open up.

The Wyoming Truth reached out to officials at the Wyoming State Hospital for comment regarding the delay in patient admittance, but did not receive a response.

This much is clear, though: Gross’ situation is not unique. Riley Sills, 42, another Teton County resident with mental health needs, sat in jail for six months before being admitted to the state hospital for court-ordered evaluation and care, Trefonas said.

Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr told the Wyoming Truth that Gross’ presence in the detention center poses challenges for the police department. “We are not equipped to hold someone who needs that amount of psychiatric attention,” Carr said.  “We have an amazing patient staff, but at the end of the day, they are not equipped to handle someone like Dennis long term.”

On January 27, Trefonas filed a motion for the state hospital to show cause for its four-month delay.  The hospital argued, and the court agreed, that the hospital’s actions were justified due to a lack of capacity and resources, and that the handling of Gross’ case was consistent with others awaiting a court-ordered admittance to the facility, court records show. 

The state hospital admitted Gross on April 11. But the bed backlog remains. In documents filed in response to Trefonas’ motion, the state hospital attributed the problem to staffing shortages due to the Covid-19 pandemic, along with a recent $7.5 million budget cut from the Wyoming Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Division. 

Carr said: “Until the system gets fixed in Wyoming, and we have more bed space available, and there’s funding allocated towards the state hospital, I don’t see it changing.”

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