A bipolar woman who walked into traffic on Interstate 10 and was struck by a taxicab within hours of her release from jail this week was declared brain dead Thursday at a local hospital, her family said.
Grief-stricken family members of Whitney Getz, a 31-year-old with a long history of mental illness, expressed frustration that officials at Orleans Parish Prison released the woman Monday without notifying her family.
They said a mental health advocate had phoned the jail on her behalf during her brief time behind bars on traffic violations, seeking to make clear that Getz needed psychiatric treatment at a hospital.
Police had taken Getz into custody Friday after she drove her motor scooter into the French Quarter without a license, and she spent the weekend in jail. She was released Monday but did not return home, prompting police to issue a missing-person alert while family members distributed fliers and drove around looking for her in panic.
It wasn’t until Wednesday they learned she had been struck by a cab early Tuesday and taken to the hospital in grave condition. The crash occurred shortly after midnight, according to police.
“She was extremely mentally ill and had been without her medication for days,” said the woman’s father, Harry Getz. “They just paid no attention and let her right out on the street.”
Whitney Getz’s parents “did not want her released on the street, especially without letting anyone know she was out there because she was so out of contact with reality,” said Getz’s brother-in-law, John Hall Thomas, a local defense attorney.
Philip Stelly, a spokesman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, said no psychiatrist at the jail had recommended Getz be transferred to a hospital for evaluation, adding that she was released “by order of the court.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Getz family for their loss,” Stelly said.
Harry Getz said his wife had telephoned the medical staff at the jail and informed them of their daughter’s bipolar disorder. “They said that Whitney was refusing to sign for anything, that she was putting ‘no’ on everything,” he said, “and it’s because of her mental health problem.”
Stelly said he had no information about what jail officials knew about Whitney Getz’s mental condition. Efforts to reach the advocate Harry Getz said had called the jail were unsuccessful.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said that while the crash was an unfortunate accident, no law requires jail officials to notify family members of an inmate’s impending release, regardless of any mental health complications the person may be experiencing. “From a legal standpoint, she’s no different than anybody else, unless there’s a court order that says she is,” Esman said.
Harry Getz said his daughter suffered from bipolar disorder and recurring bouts of schizophrenia over the past several years. Her first episode occurred in summer 2006, he said, though she then made it through several years without experiencing major problems.
Later, her struggles seemed to intensify each year around December, he said, and she would spend 30 days in the hospital, then be out the rest of the year. At some point, her trips to treatment facilities became more frequent, he said.
“She had a habit of leaving the house and walking downtown with just her pajamas on,” Harry Getz said. “Anybody could talk to her and know that she was mentally ill.”
More recently, Whitney Getz spent five months in a mental health facility, her longest such stay to date, her father said. She was released on her birthday in March and was living with her parents last week when she hopped on her motor scooter Friday and headed into the French Quarter.
She was pulled over and arrested about 1:30 p.m. at North Rampart and Toulouse streets for disregarding a red light, reckless operation, “failure to obey police signal” and driving without a license, according to New Orleans Traffic Court records.
Harry Getz said he decided not to bail his daughter out of jail because he was “afraid she might skip out on her court date and then be in more trouble.” He said he and his wife believed Whitney Getz’s mental health advocate was going to the jail to “tell them she had a mental health problem and that she needed to be taken to the hospital.”
He said they did not hear back from the advocate Monday evening, and his daughter was released. “In her state of mind, she didn’t call us,” he said. “She just took off walking down the interstate.”
Thomas, the brother-in-law, said the family began a frantic search for Whitney Getz. “We were calling everybody she knew and going on social media and asking if anybody had seen her,” he said.
The missing-person bulletin circulated by New Orleans police said Whitney Getz spoke with her mother at some point after her release but “refused to give her whereabouts.” After midnight Tuesday, she walked into oncoming traffic in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10 at the Metairie Road exit and was struck by a taxicab.
The driver of the cab was not cited, police said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter @JimMustian