Mental patient changes plea in Touchet assault

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WALLA WALLA — A mental patient who has been held at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake may be transferred to the state prison system after pleading guilty Wednesday to attacking a deliveryman in Touchet in 2010.

Luis A. Ballesteros, 22, was committed to the hospital in early 2011 after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.

He later appealed to the state Court of Appeals in Spokane, maintaining that his plea in Walla Walla County Superior Court was not made knowingly and voluntarily. He reportedly decided he didn’t want to be forced to take medications at the hospital indefinitely — and possibly for the rest of his life.

Early this year, a three-judge appeals-court panel found constitutional deficiencies in the record of the plea-taking procedure, presided over by now-retired Judge Donald W. Schacht. The panel then sent the case back to Walla Walla for a hearing to determine whether Ballesteros understood the nature and consequences of his insanity plea.

On Wednesday, Judge Scott Wolfram signed an order — agreed to by both the prosecution and defense — finding Ballesteros’ insanity plea was not made knowingly and voluntarily, thereby nullifying it.

A few hours later, Ballesteros pleaded guilty to criminal charges of second-degree assault and second-degree burglary.

He faces a standard-range prison term of 33-43 months, followed by 18-36 months of community custody, when he’s sentenced later. The prosecution is recommending the high end. He will be given credit for the approximate 34 months he’s been detained. Meanwhile, he will be held at the Walla Walla County Jail.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joe Golden said in an interview that Ballesteros now is “doing fine,” taking his medications and probably would have been released from the hospital soon. Ballesteros’ guilty pleas may result in prison time, in addition to increasing the list of his criminal offenses resulting in longer sentences should he get into trouble again in the future, Golden added.

Officials said Ballesteros committed the burglary and assault after he was released from the Washington State Penitentiary early on June 3, 2010. He was headed to the Tri-Cities on a Grape Line bus that stopped at the Touchet Mercantile.

He entered the store and walked into a storage room in which a young girl was sleeping.

The deliveryman, Joseph D. Hunt of Kennewick, went into the room about 7 a.m. to drop off products and was confronted inside by Ballesteros, who closed the door and attacked Hunt, according to a Sheriff’s Office report filed in court.

Hunt overpowered Ballesteros and helped subdue him until law enforcement arrived. Hunt wasn’t injured, nor was the girl hurt or disturbed.

“Mr. Ballesteros later told an evaluator at Eastern State Hospital that something told him to enter the storage room because someone was in trouble,” according to the Court of Appeals opinion filed Jan. 31 of this year.

“He thought he could save the girl and help catch the kidnappers.”

He initially was charged with first-degree burglary, second-degree assault and third-degree attempted theft. But the case was reduced in exchange for his guilty pleas.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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