Slew of St. John Dinghy Thefts Highlights Broken Mental Health System

A recent string of dinghy thefts on St. John quickly has unfolded into a larger story involving threats, public disturbances and animal cruelty, prompting outcry from affected St. John residents, new responses from the V.I. Police Department, and the mother of a mentally ill man to come forward in his defense.

Screenshot of a video that purports to show Dalton Powell stealing from dinghies on St. John.
Screenshot of a video that purports to show Dalton Powell stealing from dinghies on St. John.

On Jan. 11, a St. John resident posted a video of 32-year-old Dalton Powell on social media. In the video, Powell is seen removing items from dinghies docked on the old customs dock. The man, who was on a dinghy while filming the video, angrily confronted Powell, informing him whose dinghy Powell was touching and telling Powell that he will be reported to police.

Powell denied the accusation and yelled invectives until the man pulled away from shore.

The St. John man said he approached Powell that day because he recognized a friend’s distinctively marked dinghy. He called that friend, who could be seen later in the video with Powell, retrieving his stolen boat. The man added that he returned to the area that same evening to retrieve another friend’s dinghy, but failed.

“I sure tried to,” he said. “I went around the point and it was dark out and Dalton was sitting there with a flashlight guarding his dinghies, screaming at anybody who came by, saying ‘Don’t steal my boats. Don’t steal my boats.’”

The Jan. 11 video sparked a torrent of responses from other St. Johnians who reported their dinghies stolen or items removed from the vessels. One St. John woman reported hearing of the dinghy thefts as early as Dec. 7, but even after she and her boyfriend took precautions to deter removal of their boat – removing the gas can and lines, and mooring the boat in chest-high water – the vessel went missing on Jan. 4. They reported the dinghy stolen to National Park, the VIPD and Coast Guard, she said, and went looking for the boat the next day, finally finding it on the other side of the island with Powell on board.

Powell, according to the woman, claimed that he owned the boat and was fixing it for National Park, resulting in a verbal confrontation. National Park law enforcement came to the scene, took the report, but failed to apprehend Powell, who ran to the police station, the woman said. Police officers did not detain Powell that day, and did not take a statement from them.

“Our boat had just been restored and put in the water but never even got the chance to leave Coral Bay harbor. The bottom is completely damaged and the vessel now takes on too much water to be operable,” the woman said, adding that the cost to purchase and repair the still-inoperable vessel amounted to $6,000.

On Jan. 13, Powell was apprehended by National Park law enforcement for taking a gas bottle from a dinghy at the National Park dock. According to Deputy Police Chief David Cannonier, no charges were pressed, so Powell was escorted to his residence. Then VIPD Spokesperson Glen Dratte said that on Jan. 17, National Park law enforcement again apprehended Powell, who is now in the custody of the federal government.

A Long List of Police Reports
Months before the January incidents put the spotlight on Powell, he was reported to police at least 20 times, according to St. John’s police blotter. During the St. John Festival, a group of mostly female college students came down from upstate New York to volunteer with cleanup efforts. Powell, who met them in Cruz Bay, allegedly later went to their campsite in Cinnamon Bay and yelled at them, scaring them but not causing physical or property damage.

Dalton Powell
Dalton Powell

Between Sept. 24 and Oct. 19 alone, incidents implicating Powell appeared on the blotter eight times, including an incident during which he allegedly thrust a knife at a man several times and pointed a gun at him. On Sept. 29, a man reported to police that Powell yelled at him; on Oct. 9, Powell allegedly tore a banner from a political campaign headquarters. The next day, Oct. 10, Powell told police that someone stole his check, and that same day, FirstBank on St. John reported him to police for creating a disturbance.

The incidents continued. On Oct. 17, local pastor David Obanda reported that Powell threatened him. Two days later, on Oct. 19, a woman told police that Powell jumped out of the bushes and scared her; that same day, a car repair shop reported Powell for removing a key from a car in the premises and returning it later.

In December, the reports involving Powell took a more disturbing turn. On Dec. 16, police received a report that Powell was seen “dancing with two dead cats.” Then on Dec. 24 he was reported to police for trespassing on the grounds of the St. John Animal Care Center, with one source saying Powell took at least one animal from the shelter.

A Mother’s Defense
On Thursday, Yvette Stapleton, who saw news coverage of her son, stepped forward saying Powell was diagnosed with multiple types of mental illness, which she chose not to specify.

“We are trying to find help, we’ve been trying to find the help for him, but it’s hard. It’s hard,” Stapleton said.

Stapleton, who expressed fear for Powell’s safety after reports of his actions gained a wider audience, painted a different picture of her son.

“He was always joyful, fixing things,” said Stapleton about a younger Powell. “He liked helping people, especially children and elderly. He was known as the class clown for his graduation because he liked to crack jokes.”

Powell’s life trajectory seemed headed for a career as a mechanic. After attending Julius Sprauve School and Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Powell went to the North American Trade School in Baltimore to study mechanics, Stapleton said. Then Powell went through severe trauma that turned his life upside down in 2009, and within two years, his Facebook postings, mostly of a smiling Powell caring for and reading to young children, stopped.

Stapleton declined to specify what kind of trauma Powell went through, but said that he immediately got help at that time, spending some time in the behavioral health department on Schneider Hospital’s fifth floor before getting sent to a mainland facility. He was away for more than a year, said Stapleton, and when he came back, he was off of his medications.

“He went to the doctor, got into some trouble, went back to the doctor, they gave him medication again, but then they weaned him off the medication. Not sure why,” Stapleton said.

The last time Powell saw a doctor was in 2017, when he was slowly taken off of his medication, according to Stapleton, and “when everything started again,” possibly triggered by “a similar trauma or a reminder.” Stapleton added, “If you smoke marijuana, it tends to trigger your imbalance.”

Stapleton’s account seems corroborated by that of the St. John man who filmed the viral video. The man said he was acquainted with Powell for several years, even getting rides from him. Powell seemed normal in these encounters, he said, until an incident on Thanksgiving Day. The man said he received a call from a friend who needed help transporting some building materials for his boat, but was surprised when they met him at the dock.

“[My friend] was standing next to a pile of lumber, flabbergasted, with a raging Dalty screaming how he was going to kill him. That was my introduction to this new version of Dalty now,” the man said.

Powell currently lives alone in a family house on St. John, Stapleton said, even though his sister also lives on the island. Stapleton said she is not aware of every single incident that involved Powell, but would get calls from concerned St. Johnians.

“I would get a call saying, ‘He did this,’ and then he calls me, I would ask him about it, and he would be, you know, ‘That’s not how it went,’ but again, I don’t know,” Stapleton said, adding that Powell has the compulsion to fix or repair things, “like a crooked picture on the wall. It has to be straight.”

According to Stapleton, sometimes Powell would sound coherent when he called her, asking her how she was doing. At other times, he would sound upset, and when asked why he was shouting, he would insist he was just expressing how he felt.

Stapleton said Powell also remains resistant to getting help, in spite of her efforts to convince him. And because Powell has no legal guardian and is currently responsible for himself under the law, Stapleton cannot force him to get treatment.

“There’s resistance because I don’t think, as a mental patient, you understand that you need help. You feel as though nothing is wrong,” said Stapleton.

A Broken System
Powell’s situation drew attention to the lack of a mental health safety net in the Virgin Islands and the limitations of the local police department in dealing with reports involving the mentally ill. Some St. John residents expressed frustration at what they perceived as a lack of police response, with some wondering why Powell was still freely roaming public spaces in spite of multiple reports, photos and videos of Powell caught in the act of performing the reported offenses.

In October, Cannonier told a Source reporter, “We have some mentally ill people that need to be housed. Remember, it’s intent. If you can’t prove culpable intent, it’s tough to proceed with an arrest.”

Acting Police Commissioner Jason Marsh also said that, unlike felony offenses, misdemeanors mean police officers cannot make an arrest unless they were present at the scene, or unless a citizen performs a citizen’s arrest.

On Jan. 14, Cannonier, who was aware of the prior reports involving Powell, said he has not received reports of a string of dinghy thefts. The following Wednesday, VIPD Spokesperson Glen Dratte said police are looking into the matter after being sent a list of dinghy-related reports involving Powell.

Former Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, a staunch proponent of various mental health legislations, offered an explanation for what she called the police department’s reluctance to bring in the mentally ill.

“Because they have to record every use of force, it would really affect their consent decree, but now that they have been slowly removed from their consent decree, maybe that’s not an issue anymore,” said O’Reilly, adding that there may also be a danger of the family suing the police for using force to arrest or detain a resisting mentally ill person.

But according to former judge and mental health advocate Soraya Diase-Coffelt, an arrest by police could only be the beginning of a cycle mentally ill offenders go through in the territory, one that does not help them nor address the problem of recurring offenses in the long term.

“What do you do as a police officer? You arrest them and put them where?” Coffelt said.

“As a judge, what I saw was the treatment of the mentally ill being a revolving door,” added Coffelt. “They have to be arrested if they’re a danger to themselves or the community. Then they’re brought before a judge and then they would be sent either to the neuropsychiatric unit or kept in the Bureau of Corrections and treated.”

According to Coffelt, some monitoring occurs during this process, with the mentally ill being brought before the judge over a period of time, as the law requires, to make sure they are getting treatment until they are no longer a danger to themselves and others. But once released, the problem starts again, Coffelt said, because of the lack of follow-up. With St. John lacking a government staff psychiatrist, the mentally ill would need to be brought to St. Thomas, Coffelt said.

“That’s why it is critical to have a vibrant division of mental health, a neuropsychiatric unit, a psychiatrist on staff to help the person, the community, and the family,” Coffelt said. “It keeps the community safe, you don’t have someone like Dalton who has fallen off his medication, needs help, the family is crying for help, and their cries aren’t heard.”

Coffelt also cited a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the V.I. government and the Bureau of Corrections more than 15 years ago because of the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in the territory’s prisons.

“That case is still pending; it’s reviewed periodically. But what does the government say? They don’t have money to correct the situation in the BOC, to properly fund the division of mental health, to hire a psychiatrist and be able to treat many people like [Powell],” Coffelt said. “It’s at crisis level right now.”

The 32nd Legislature took a step toward addressing the issue on Dec. 28 by approving O’Reilly’s Bill No. 32-0247, which appropriates $3 million to build a St. Croix behavioral health care facility. But although former Gov. Kenneth Mapp approved the bill before he left office, it might take years to see fruition. If the planned facility existed today, O’Reilly said it would help Virgin Islands residents like Powell not only get the immediate treatment they need but the necessary follow-ups after release from the facility.

“Then the services go to them. That’s why [the bill has] the mobile vans that can go into the communities to make sure the individuals are still on their medication,” said O’Reilly, adding that the mobile vans would also serve other members of that community who have behavioral health needs.

In the short-term, O’Reilly said Powell’s family might have no other option but to conduct an involuntary commitment of Powell into Schneider Hospital, where he could get help from behavioral health doctors, some of whom receive federal funding that allows them to offer free counseling and medication. If Powell becomes a Medical Assistance Program beneficiary, the government might offset a significant amount of the costs associated with treatment.

As for Stapleton, she said high medical costs play a part in the lack of a robust, continuous treatment for Powell.

“We were able to find help for him [in 2009],” said Stapleton. “But now, it’s the cost … It’s easier if we had the help here. As for Dalty, I just need him to get some help, and not just him but others,” Stapleton said.

The woman whose boat Powell damaged also said she would prefer Powell to get the help he needs instead of being sent to jail, saying she understands “that this is a result of the lack of mental health care” in the territory.

“His actions were unacceptable and we feel frustrated that our case was not enough to bring a halt to those actions. Because of this, more people and vessels suffered,” she said. “We truly hope the situation brings with it some awareness to the lack of mental health care in the V.I. and also allows him to get the help that he needs.”

Stapleton, meanwhile, urges community members to educate themselves on mental illness.

“People need to be aware that mental illness can happen to anyone at any time,” said Stapleton.

According to VIPD, prior complaints and reports by St. John residents involving Powell are under investigation. Dratte said local police need to wait until the National Park, which keeps information “close to the chest,” he said, finishes processing Powell before they can take further steps. As of Sunday night, the VIPD has provided no further updates.