Anne Schindler reports. 5/5/17
It’s been two and half years since Jannette Harriford was found strangled to death in her Arlington apartment.
Her youngest son, a diagnosed schizophrenic who was charged with her murder, has been in a state mental hospital ever since.
Her oldest son has become increasingly outspoken by what he considers the failure of Florida’s mental health system.
But new surveillance video shows an even darker reality. Johnathan Harriford now believes the treatment his younger brother received – and continues to get – is defined by mistreatment and brutality.
As a child, Sean Harriford looks happy, healthy, normal. But a seemingly unstoppable progression, documented in mugshots, shows his descent into madness. Arrested dozens of times for trespassing and vagrancy, and once for an incident in which he tried to set his own tongue on fire, he was committed to psychiatric facilities more than 30 times.
In the year before his mother’s death, Sean was arrested or committed weekly. Each time, he was released to the streets or a homeless shelter. In cell phone video, taken two days after a local psych ward found him sane enough to be discharged, Sean is filthy and hallucinating.
“Please tell me how a doctor could release somebody like that in in that kind of care to nothing but the streets,” Johnathan Harriford says. “You can clearly see he’s talking to the air. He doesn’t even register me.”
Johnathan Harriford, five years older than his brother, took early retirement from the Marines to help his mother deal with Sean. He began the process of becoming his brother’s legal guardian, but was stymied by HIPPA claims and privacy rules, which prevented him from knowing his brother’s whereabouts.
“Nobody would notify us when he was discharged. They wouldn’t even let me pick him up. I had to look up the jail log just to find him.”
He also tried to have his brother permanently committed. At the time, he thought the safest place for Sean was a psychiatric facility. That changed after he saw surveillance video from a local mental hospital from May 2014, showing Sean first attacked by a fellow inmate. That same day, he was tackled by staffers, who at one point are pulled off of Sean and escorted away by less agitated coworkers.
Days later, the facility discharged Sean to a local homeless shelter – despite previously diagnosing him as “grossly psychotic” and “unable to live outside the hospital on his own.”
Over the next five months, he continued to cycle in and out of the system. In October alone, he was arrested and Baker Acted three times. Nine days after his last arrest, Janet Harriford was dead.
“It’s horrific,” says Johnathan, noting his brother was not attacking or hurting anyone in either instance. “I can’t imagine how you treat somebody like that.”
Harriford wasn’t told about the May beatings. He only learned about them when the surveillance video was leaked by a hospital employee concerned about Sean’s treatment.
Attorney Rusty Mead says the video shows an often-hidden side of mental health treatment. He asked First Coast News not to name the hospital, since legal action is expected. But he says the timing of the discharge is suspect. “They were trying to cover it up. They figure put him on the street, nobody’s gonna believe him. Because he’s ‘crazy,’ right?”
As it turned out, it wasn’t the only time Sean was beaten, and not the only facility he was beaten in. Video from Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee shows Sean being pummeled after he was attacked in the shower. A police report says he was struck in the back of a head with a wet-floor sign.
And just last month, another attack – this time at the Northeast Florida State Hospital in McClenny.
“He’s getting beaten, he’s getting kicked, he’s getting bit,” says Mead, who notes those are just the cases they know about. Not only does the state have a legal obligation to keep psychiatric inmates safe, Mead says, the series of attacks likely did very little for Sean’s mental health.
“Part of what might have added to Sean’s psychosis is the fact that he was being abused in mental health facilities.”
DCF declined comment for this story. But Sean’s mom was one of more than 500 people in Florida murdered by a family member with a mental illness since 2000.
Harriford knows people accused of crimes don’t generate much sympathy, and that many would consider Sean’s alleged crime too awful to merit mercy. But he says he has no choice. He can’t afford to lose another family member.
“When I was at my very lowest point I realized: My brother is still alive. And I’ve got to continue to try and help him.”