Mark D. Latunski was mentally ill for nearly a decade before killing 25-year-old Kevin Bacon and eating a portion of his body on Dec. 24, 2019.
He’d previously been medicated, forced to receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals, and arrested at least three times. Also, two men in separate incidents called 911, claiming Latunski held them captive in his basement.
Latunski’s ex-wife and former employer both urged him to get help.
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His mental illness was not a secret to anyone close to him, nor the courts, multiple doctors or police, yet no one was able to sufficiently intervene before his psychosis led to murder.
Latunski is one among tens of thousands of Michiganders who have struggled within Michigan’s flawed mental health system that faces a shortage of beds, resources for long-term care, as well as training for law enforcement who encounter the mentally ill.
“Why is it we have so many thousands of people with mental health conditions who probably need in-patient services, maybe in a state hospital or an acute hospital setting?” said Marianne Huff, a therapist and president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan. “Why are they in jails or prisons?
“This problem gets talked about, and talked about, and talked about and there are solutions, but it’s tough.”
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‘We couldn’t force him to get help’
In the 1700s, the mentally ill roamed the countryside.
People gave up on them. They didn’t know how to help or didn’t have the time.
Three centuries later, society has much better public funding, understanding, medication, therapy and hospitals — and yet many of the same challenges exist. Instead of the countryside, untreated mentally ill often remain isolated and paranoid on the streets, or in their own homes, roaming the internet.
The U.S. approach to treating mental illness began to shift with President John F. Kennedy, whose compassion for the mentally ill arose out of personal experience with his own sister, Rosemary Kennedy. She received a lobotomy in her early 20s that left her incapacitated and institutionalized until her death.
Kennedy in 1963 called on Congress to replace what he called the “cold mercy of custodial isolation” with “open warmth of community concern and capability.”
Funding shifted from institutions and long-term in-patient care to community health departments focused heavily on out-patient prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.
But, that system isn’t without its flaws.
For nearly a decade, untreated mental illness tormented Latunski, and those closest to him. It chased him down a well-worn, frustrating path that played a significant role in transforming Latunski, 54, of Bennington Township in Shiawassee County, from a clean-cut, gentle father and successful chemist to a paranoid, wild-haired cannibal.
He spent months researching and discussing cannibalism online, arranging sexual trysts and building what prosecutors described as a “custom killing room.”
Latunski rejected doctors’ diagnoses, refused medication, spent time in jail and psychiatric wards, was fired from his job, nearly lost his home and pushed away family and friends.
“When the people around him, who loved him, knew he wasn’t doing OK, we couldn’t force him to get help,” said Emily Latunski, 47, of Morrice, Latunski’s wife from 2001 to 2013. “And I understand that people have rights, but at some point, there’s got to be a way to get people the help they need, even if they don’t want it.”
Huff with the Mental Health Association in Michigan said it’s common for patients to resist treatment.
“When you have a person saying, ‘I don’t need treatment,’ it’s usually the family that ends up being the ones to petition the person for (court-ordered treatment), and that doesn’t exactly always help the relationship,” she said. “It can become very, very nasty” and “there comes a point when the family sort of gets tired of it.”
Four police encounters, no action taken
Police had four separate encounters with Latunski in the five months leading up to Bacon’s death. Despite a history of mental illness, he was never forced to seek a psychiatric evaluation, which would have required court intervention.
On July 19 and Dec. 10 of 2019, police arrested and jailed Latunski related to unpaid child support. Booking records indicated he didn’t appear to be suffering from any psychiatric issues either time; he denied having prior psychiatric diagnoses.
A man on Oct. 10, 2019, called 911, claiming he was drugged and chained up in the basement of a home, later determined to be Latunski’s. He cut a leather ankle restraint and escaped with a butcher knife in hand at 2:30 a.m.
The man flagged down police, who were looking for the 911 caller. They didn’t attempt to identify his captor, citing the victim’s reluctance to cooperate and lack of information, according to the police report.
On Oct. 15, a woman reported that a man, later identified as Latunski, had about five days earlier parked his vehicle in her driveway. Latunski was searching a nearby ditch and “something was off about him,” the woman told police. Police didn’t take further action but told the witness to call 911 if the man returned or she felt threatened, according to the report.
A second man escaped Latunski’s home on Dec. 10.
“I’m trying to get away from some creepy guy,” the caller told 911. “He had me tied up in his basement.”
Police questioned him, but he told police he didn’t want to pursue charges, according to the police report.
Police questioned Latunski and connected him to the previous escape in October. They did not arrest him, search his house or request a mental health evaluation.
State Police Sgt. James Moore, the lead detective in the Bacon homicide, said there was no evidence Latunski committed a crime during either of the reported escapes. Both men said they intended to have consensual sex, and both refused to pursue charges.
MLive asked Shiawassee County Prosecutor Scott Koerner if police missed an opportunity to intervene during those escape calls. “You’d have to ask that to law enforcement,” he said.
Police often run into the same roadblocks as families while trying to get treatment for citizens, said Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Director Robert Stevenson.
“Unfortunately, the majority of the time that the police (encounter) somebody with some type of mental illness, there is not a lot that they can do,” he said. “It can be extremely frustrating, because the person is obviously mentally ill, but not mentally ill to the point that they’re demonstrating that they’re a danger to themselves or somebody else.
“And that’s where there’s a hole in the system.”
Stevenson said an increase in crisis intervention teams that partner mental health professionals and police in the field are improving access to treatment.
Not nearly enough beds
Police are able to file a petition with the court if they feel someone is in need of psychiatric help and may pose danger to themselves or others.
Michigan’s process for forced psychiatric committal isn’t easy to navigate, and when it is granted by a judge, rarely results in an extensive in-patient stay.
Predominantly, treatment is handled outpatient through counseling and medication, due to a lack of psychiatric-designated beds, inadequate public funding and private health insurance limitations, Huff said.
About $5.3 billion of Michigan’s current $24.3 billion medical services and behavioral health budget is pegged for behavioral health, which includes both substance abuse and psychiatric care.
Michigan has five state-run hospitals with approximately 700 beds, in addition to nearly 2,300 beds offered by 60 private hospitals. According to a 2021 report compiled by the Certificate of Need Commission, the average in-patient stay was 9.5 days.
A 2022-published Michigan Health Endowment Fund report estimated 640,000 Michigan residents suffered from untreated mental illness in 2019, the year for which data was reviewed.
“We have many thousands of individuals with mental health conditions who need to probably be getting in-patient services,” Huff said. “We still don’t have enough in-patient psychiatric beds for people. We have people that are being incarcerated or committing crimes while they’re in the throes of significant psychiatric symptoms.”
Latunski was court-ordered to receive in-patient treatment at least twice, for 11 days in May 2012 and 16 days in September 2013, in addition to five days of voluntary in-patient treatment in 2010, according to a court competency report reviewed by MLive.
The problem was: Latunski wouldn’t stay on his medication when released and soon slipped back into his delusions, believing people were watching and trying to poison him.
“There are a lot of people with schizophrenia, who, when they’re on medication, they can function fine,” Huff said. “They can have families, they can do things. There’s a term, anosognosia, which is a lack of awareness, when they clearly have mental illness but they don’t understand or perceive their illness.
“And so, sometimes people will go off their medications, thinking they’re fine.”
‘It becomes a choice’
Until the early 1950s, the lobotomy, a surgical procedure that involved severing of part of the brain, was used to subdue mentally ill patients exhibiting chronic mania or psychosis. Antipsychotic medications, like chlorpromazine — better known by the brand name Thorazine — replaced the lobotomy in subsequent years, but caused tremors and dulled the patient’s personality.
Modern-day medications used to treat mental illness are significantly better but remain imprecise, don’t always work and are accompanied by serious side effects, including severe weight gain, diabetes, liver or kidney damage and bladder problems, Huff said.
“People will complain that the medications do dampen their emotions, make them tired, feel less like they want to engage with other people and things like that,” she said. “People with severe mental illnesses, they really do need access to these medications, but the medications also come with some pretty significant side effects that people aren’t always sure they want to deal with.
“It becomes a choice between: do I live as long, or do I take the medication and maybe die sooner?”
‘Living on the edge’
Michigan law allows anyone to petition for court-ordered, inpatient treatment. If granted, someone may be taken to a psychiatric hospital against their will for up to 72 hours.
During that time, they are evaluated and medical staff determine if ongoing inpatient care is needed. The patient may then request a court hearing to contest the recommendation, which Latunski did both times he was kept beyond the 72-hour hold. In those cases, the judge sided with the medical recommendations and he was hospitalized longer.
However, a severely mentally ill person doesn’t always fit the criteria for a “person requiring treatment,” under law. To be committed, the person must have been observed by the petitioner within the last 14 days threatening violence or self harm. Otherwise, they must be unable to attend to their own basic needs — food, clothing or shelter — and be at risk of suffering serious harm because of it.
“There are people living on the edge of that borderland between functioning and succumbing to these significant symptoms of a mental health condition,” Huff said. “It sounds like that was one of the issues that was going on with Mr. Latunski. He was sort of in that borderland functioning for a very long time, and then something pushed him over the line.”
Latunski, for most of his illness, didn’t threaten violence or suicide. While his delusional thoughts were rampant, he still had a good job as a well-paid chemist, a nice house, he ate and wore clothes. There was nothing in the law that could compel him to get treatment.
“That’s where the civil rights aspect comes into this,” Huff said. “We can’t just take people and drop them off at the hospital and say, they’re causing problems, put them in, and they go in.”
While violent outcomes, such as the killing of Bacon, are rare, they aren’t nonexistent. The criminal justice-mental illness overlap is significant, and police are often among the first with an opportunity to intervene.
A 2019 MLive investigation revealed 30% of police killings over the prior two decades involved suspects who suffered from mental illness or who were amid a mental-health crisis. Nearly 40% of civilians killed by police suffered from mental illness.
A 2015 Council of State Governments Justice Center report found nearly 1 in 5 jail inmates nationwide suffered from serious mental illness.
The criminal justice system is slowly changing to address the impact of mental illness on crime. Police departments are incorporating more social and mental health workers, and specialized courts have been developed to deal with crimes committed by defendants with a history of mental illness.
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But there’s a long way to go, said Detroit attorney Sanford Schulman, who’s defended numerous mentally ill clients, including Marquise Cromer, who killed a Detroit police officer in 2016 at age 21 after a mental illness history that tracked back to a bipolar disorder diagnoses when he was 4.
“It starts long before Cromer or this cannibal are sitting in that chair next to me,” he said. “Once they’re there, it’s not the story” that’s reported in the news. “It’s a whole story that started much earlier.
“And I always wonder: who had signs, who knew, and what could we have done differently.”
MLive’s “Michigan Crime Stories: The Christmas Eve Cannibal” podcast further explores the killing of Kevin Bacon in a four-part series available on most popular podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please listen and subscribe. Spotify links are available below:
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