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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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State moves killer Isaac Zamora from mental hospital to prison

Isaac Zamora, who killed six people in Skagit County four years ago, has become the first mentally ill patient to be transferred from a state hospital to prison without the approval of the courts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Isaac Zamora, who killed six people in Skagit County four years ago, was transferred Wednesday from a state mental hospital to the Monroe Correctional Complex, according to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Zamora, 32, is the first state mental patient to be moved to a state prison under a 2010 law that allows such a transfer without court approval, according to DOC spokesman Chad Lewis.

The move was made at the request of Robin Arnold-Williams, the secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), who said Zamora posed safety risks to the Western State Hospital staff, other patients and the public. DSHS oversees the Steilacoom hospital, where Zamora was housed since his 2009 plea deal in which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for two of the slayings.

A spokesman for DSHS declined to say, because of patient-confidentiality laws, specifically what prompted the transfer.

But Zamora's mother said Wednesday it was because her son had written letters to a friend discussing plans to escape from the mental hospital.

"He met this silly girl and they wrote to each other, tripping like crazy people do, about how they would escape," said Dennise Zamora. "I can't blame the institution for being concerned, but he doesn't know what he's doing. When did it become OK to send a severely mentally ill person to prison?"

On Sept. 2, 2008, Zamora broke into a neighbor's house and stole a shotgun and a rifle. He then went on a rampage, fatally shooting six people, including Skagit County sheriff's Deputy Anne Jackson.

In a plea deal that Zamora's lawyer said was designed to keep the severely mentally ill man out of prison, he pleaded guilty to four murders and was found not guilty by reason of insanity in two of the deaths by a judge. He was sent to Western State Hospital for mental-health treatment with the proviso that he would serve four life sentences in prison if he ever was deemed recovered.

Earlier this year, DSHS sought to have Zamora moved to prison, but a Skagit County Superior Court judge ruled that Zamora had not met the legal or hospital criteria to be released from Western State Hospital.

Judge Michael Rickert called Zamora "the most mentally ill criminal in the history of Skagit County" and said he would require "extraordinary care" wherever he's held.

Zamora, 32, will remain under the legal custody of DSHS although he will be housed at the Special Offender Unit at the Monroe prison. His status will be reviewed every 90 days, according to DSHS.

Criminal defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are sent to the forensic unit of a state hospital for treatment and can petition the courts for release if their mental health improves.

The new law, however, allows DSHS to petition for a patient's transfer to DOC custody, even if the patient opposes the move, when the patient is deemed to present "unreasonable safety" risks.

Critics of the law have said it is a step toward the criminalization of the mentally ill.

"As community resources and inpatient beds have become more scarce, the only thing left for people with mental illness who pose behavioral problems is the blunt instrument of the law," Christopher Jennings, an attorney who works in mental-health advocacy at Western State Hospital, has said.

Christine Clarridge can be reached at cclarridge@seattletimes.com or 206-464-898.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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