Slaying suspect captured in California

September 30, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Banner Cornell Catlett, who escaped from a mental hospital earlier this month while awaiting trial in the shooting death of a church volunteer, was captured Monday at a relative's apartment in suburban Los Angeles.

Capt. Curtis Keller of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department said information from a local source helped lead the Los Angeles Police Department's Fugitive Warrant Section to Catlett, who was apprehended at 9:30 a.m. in an apartment in Panorama City.

Keller said a deputy got the information last Thursday, but would not divulge the source.

"They gave us the exact location of where he was," said Officer Robert Ginther of the fugitive unit. He said Catlett was arrested without incident at his grandmother's apartment. Catlett, 21, was alone at the time and no other arrests were made.


Los Angeles Police Department personnel found that Catlett was wanted there on a misdemeanor warrant for possession of a controlled substance. Ginther did not know how old the warrant was, however.

A Los Angeles County Jail spokesperson said Catlett was scheduled for a court appearance Tuesday on the misdemeanor, but the district attorney's office there did not have any records of the case.

"They have first jurisdiction on him, even though he's wanted for murder here," Keller said. Authorities in California will have to decide whether they will prosecute Catlett on the drug charge before he can be extradited to West Virginia.

If Catlett is returned to West Virginia, Keller said he would be held at the Eastern Regional Jail for having violated a court order by not appearing at his trial.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said she would fight any efforts to return Catlett to the mental hospital from which he escaped.

Catlett escaped from the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston on Sept. 6. According to state police there, he had been issued a one-hour grounds pass that morning, but failed to return.

The Hedgesville, W.Va., man was awaiting a Sept. 23 trial in the Feb. 4 shooting death of Andrew Mason of Tomahawk. A volunteer with the Hedgesville Assembly of God Church, Mason was shot twice in the head at his mobile home.

Catlett told police he had kicked in the front door of the home and shot Mason twice in the head with a .22-caliber rifle, according to testimony at Catlett's February preliminary hearing on the murder charge.

Mason had been trying to help Catlett deal with his substance abuse and personal problems, according to court records.

In June, Catlett was found innocent by reason of insanity of first-degree arson in a jury trial. He had been charged with setting fire to the Sawmill Road house where he lived, causing about $50,000 in damage. During the trial, defense attorney Jerry Dambro told the jury that Catlett often exhibited "inexplicable behavior," such as living naked in the woods and talking about communicating with satellites.

Berkeley County Circuit Judge Thomas Steptoe committed Catlett to 20 years in a state mental hospital. According to court records, Catlett had been committed to the Sharpe Hospital at least twice prior to his escape.

"We know he took another individual's identification with him" when he left the hospital, Games-Neely said Tuesday. She said she expected he would be found in California because he had relatives there.

State police in Weston said Catlett's disappearance from the hospital might result in a misdemeanor charge.

Spokeswoman Ann Garcelon said a few days after the escape that "Sharpe is a hospital and its mission is to treat people with mental illness." She said the hospital has no fence and to call the incident an escape "would seem to imply that it's a prison situation."

Garcelon said physical or pharmaceutical restraints are used only for patients who are uncontrollable and "there was nothing to indicate this man was out of control."

The Herald-Mail Articles