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Mentally ill man charged in ATM attack

Blind victim lost $74, sense of trust

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By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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In the days after the attack, Donald A. Dawes was a fearful man, unable to walk Boston’s streets with the same confidence, unable to walk into banks and the small spaces where ATMs are often found.

“Because of the violation, I just felt extremely depressed,’’ said Dawes who is 58 and has been blind since birth. “I tried to fight back, but it didn’t work out too well.’’

Dawes was attacked last month at a Sovereign Bank ATM in West Roxbury by a large man who wrapped his arm around the blind man’s neck and choked him into unconsciousness before making off with $74. The attack was filmed by a security camera.

Authorities identified the attacker yesterday as 47-year-old Jerome Tate, described by his attorney and sister as a mentally handicapped and mentally ill man who has lived for more than a decade in a group home financed by the state Department of Developmental Services.

Tate, who according to a Boston Police report weighs 300 pounds, appeared uninterested as he stood in West Roxbury Municipal Court yesterday, charged with armed robbery and assault and battery on a disabled person in connection with the June 20 attack.

“For him to do something like that to another handicapped person, I couldn’t believe it,’’ Tate’s sister and guardian, Evelyn Tate, said yesterday. “He’s not like that; he’s a gentle person.’’

But Assistant District Attorney Mark Swadling described the terror Dawes suffered as he asked Judge Ernest L. Sarason Jr. to set bail at $150,000 in cash.

Swadling also said that police interviewed Tate’s caretakers at the group home in West Roxbury run by Vinfen, a private nonprofit with a state contract, and learned that Tate had asked some crucial questions before the attack on Dawes. “He questioned [staff] about how blind people use ATMs,’’ Swadling told the judge.

A statement released by Vinfen spokeswoman Donna Rheaume cited state privacy laws and refused to confirm that Tate is a client. The company does cooperate with authorities when a client is accused of a crime, Vinfen said.

In court, Tate’s attorney, Davis C. Bruce pleaded with the judge to send Tate to a supervised group home, not to jail.

“I don’t think he will do too well’’ at the Nashua Street Jail, Bruce told the judge. “He appears to be severely mentally retarded.’’

At the request of Bruce, Tate was examined by a forensic specialist, who recommended that Tate undergo more extensive psychiatric examination. Sarason set bail at $10,000 cash and ordered that Tate be examined at Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston.

In court, Swadling said Tate was charged in 2006 with breaking and entering in the nighttime.

According to court records, Tate was spotted by Boston police as he broke into the cab of an ambulance as it dropped off a patient at a hospital near the group home where Tate lived.

He was arrested and placed on pretrial probation and required to comply with state and group home rules. The charge was dismissed when he made it a year without being arrested, records show.

In court, Swadling said Tate was committed to the custody of Department of Youth Services in the 1970s after being found delinquent on a charge of assault to kill. In a telephone interview yesterday, a former neighbor, Nancy Bonita, said Tate shot her in the buttocks with a stolen handgun when both were 12 years old. He seemed to be targeting her mother when he fired and instead hit her, Bonita said.

The effects linger today, some 35 years later, because she was hit in the sciatic nerve.

“I just think, hopefully, that he is going to go behind bars,’’ said Bonita, who is seeking Social Security disability coverage. “I can’t walk. I can’t drive.’’

Tate’s sister, Evelyn Tate, said in an interview after the arraignment that she is deeply worried about her younger brother’s safety if he is sent to jail. Tate has lived at the same group home for 15 years, she said.

“He’s not a flight risk’’ she said. “Where’s he going to go? He wouldn’t last in jail.’’

Evelyn Tate apologized to the victim and his family. “I am so sorry,’’ she said.

Dawes said he welcomed the apology, but wants authorities to make sure the man who choked him does not get the chance to victimize someone else. “If he is a mentally disturbed person, he certainly ought to be committed to a place where they can take care of him, and not let him out on the streets to continue doing his pillages,’’ Dawes said.

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.