Steve and Susan Gordo have known the struggles of raising an autistic child, the progress and setbacks, and the haggling with local schools over education plans.
Now, their 18-year-old son Paul is awaiting trial on a felony assault charge that the parents say criminalizes the disorder that affects about 80,000 people in California.
“You can’t prosecute someone for behavior that is a direct result of their disability,” Steve Gordo said.
Gordo, whose father founded Gordo Pool City in Modesto, was a teacher in Ceres and his son attended schools in Sylvan Union School District. Five years ago, the family moved to Marina, near Monterey, where Paul Gordo is charged with felony assault stemming from an incident at a library last July.
Autism groups and other supporters have urged the Monterey district attorney to drop the criminal prosecution of Paul Gordo, who’s among the wave of young people with autism who are entering adulthood.
“There’s a gigantic bubble of young adults who are coming into a system that’s utterly unprepared to meet their needs,” said Jill Escher, president of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area. “We can’t as a just society let incarceration take its place.”
July 14, Gordo and his son were at the busy library in Marina for language study with a home teacher from the Monterey school district. Gordo said he was apprehensive because it is the type of setting known to trigger Paul.
People with autism have difficulty with social interaction, repetitive behaviors and communication, but some are also prone to outbursts, meltdowns and aggressive behavior due to sensory dysfunction. Gordo said a loud noise or admonishment can cause his son to lose control.
After a break, Paul was loud and disruptive, prompting the teacher to tell him to quiet down. Paul, a large 18-year-old, yelled at the teacher and then ran toward the front doors of the library, bumping a person at the counter and pushing another man.
Paul ran outside the building toward where his father’s car was parked and pushed a 58-year-old woman who was in his path. The woman, who suffers from Huntington’s disease and uses a cane, fell and suffered a concussion.
“It was horrible thing to watch,” Steve Gordo said. “The way she fell, she had no way to break her fall. There’s no question she was an innocent victim.”
Marina police responded and questioned witnesses. According to accounts, Paul was crying over what he had done, but also made threats to the woman’s husband, who was making insulting statements in his anger.
The Gordo family waited for two months before Paul was charged with felony assault with an enhancement for causing great bodily harm.
They had hoped that Superior Court Judge Pamela Butler would reduce the charges at the preliminary hearing this month, but the felony remained in place and a misdemeanor was added for a person pushed inside the library. At the close of the hearing last week, Paul was ordered to stand trial.
Steve Gordo said it’s clear the woman should be made whole and his insurer has tried to contact her family.
He said his son panicked in the library and was running to take refuge in their car. Because of his inability to make decisions and care for himself, a court appointed the parents as conservators for Paul last April.
“When Paul has a meltdown, its fight or flight. He’s not thinking clearly,” Steve Gordo said. “There is documentation in his school file that says this behavior is related to his disability.”
More than 10,000 people have signed an online petition in support of the defendant. Escher of the Bay Area autism society urged the district attorney in a December letter to drop the criminal prosecution.
According to her letter, autistic people like Paul are unable to “accurately process the world around them or maintain functioning we take for granted.” Such outbursts of panic, flight or aggression may result from anxieties and sensory dysfunction hitting a brain that becomes overwhelmed, she wrote.
“It doesn’t happen because they intend to harm people or they’re bad people, but they are miswired from the start,” said Escher, who has raised two autistic children. “As a society, we are having a very difficult time coming to terms with this. I don’t want to diminish what happened to that woman, but I don’t think the criminal courts are any place for somebody with a disorder like autism.”
Escher said California had about 5,000 residents with autism 25 years ago. There are 83,000 today, and nothing has been done to boost community supports to meet their needs, she said.
Jeanine Pacioni, assistant district attorney in Monterey County, said Gordo is facing criminal prosecution because it was a criminal act against an innocent bystander.
“We normally would charge a felony when there’s a traumatic injury to a victim,” Pacioni said. “In this case, the victim was hospitalized as a result of the attack and received a concussion. You have a fragile victim and an unprovoked aggressive attack and injury.”
She said the district attorney’s office is responsible for protecting the public. The prosecution presented the case at the preliminary hearing and the judge ruled that Gordo’s disorder was not sufficient to mitigate the charge, Pacioni said.
She said the prosecution does not want to put Gordo in prison. A guilty plea on the felony charge would place Paul on supervised probation, so that he is monitored and has access to services for which he might not otherwise qualify, Pacioni said.
The prosecution also is seeking restitution for the victim, she noted.
Gordo said the family does not want to accept felony probation. That would allow officers to enter their home at any time. “Would they? I don’t know,” he said.
Defense attorney Tom Worthington, who represents Paul, contends there’s no indication his client had intended to hurt the woman. “Because of his disability, he did not form an intent to commit the act,” Worthington said. “He was escaping from what appeared to him to be the world closing in on him.”
Steve Gordo said his son faces trial in a region where some of John Steinbeck’s novels were set, and he sees parallels with his son’s situation in the tale “Of Mice and Men.” Paul goes home with his parents after court appearances. To prepare him for hearings, he’s given calming medication and urged to stay on his best behavior inside the courtroom.
The parents want to place their son in a residential treatment program in Kansas for therapy to help him control his behavior. A court hearing Wednesday was continued for two weeks over questions of available space at the facility.
Depending on what the prosecution offers, Paul could spend time in the Kansas program and then return for the trial.
“We hope we are getting to the end of this,” Steve Gordo said.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said he was not aware of any instances in which an autistic person was arrested for a crime locally, but advocates have asked how deputies would deal with an autistic person who’s aggressive.
He said that autism is one of the topics discussed in a crisis intervention class that teaches peace officers to recognize behavioral disorders and de-escalate encounters. The Sheriff’s Department has to maintain a balance between protecting the public and trying to help those with emotional disorders find the help they need, he said.
“Each case is unique, but I imagine if we were faced with a situation similar to the one (in Monterey), we would protect the victim and make an arrest,” he said. “Keep in mind that our role is to gather evidence and present it to the district attorney.”
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321