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Suspect in Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant’s killing found competent

Updated October 7, 2020 - 1:31 pm

The suspect in the deadly March shooting of a Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant has been deemed competent to stand trial following roughly two months of treatment for bipolar disorder at a maximum-security psychiatric facility.

“Based on the reports that have been filed and the entire record, the testimony of the doctors and stipulations of parties, the court finds that John Leonard Dabritz has the present ability to understand the nature of the criminal charges against him,” White Pine County District Judge Steve Dobrescu said Tuesday after a virtual competency hearing.

Dobrescu ordered that Dabritz, 66, be held at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center for “safekeeping” as he awaits trial in the murder case, which has been on hold since April 20, when Dabritz was ordered to undergo treatment at Lakes Crossing Center in Sparks.

Dabritz, 66, faces capital punishment if convicted, and his attorneys plan to use the insanity defense at trial. He attended Tuesday’s hearing via camera from the psychiatric facility.

Sitting alongside the suspect on Tuesday, Dr. Steven Zuchowski testified that Dabritz had been diagnosed with Type 1 bipolar disorder, which, he said, is the “more serious and pervasive” form of the mental disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are three types of bipolar disorder, but those suffering from Type 1 experience manic episodes that last at least a week or suffer from symptoms “so severe” that the person needs immediate hospital care.

Zuchowski said Dabritz had a “very classic presentation” of Type 1 bipolar disorder. Some symptoms, he said, that led to the suspect’s diagnosis included paranoia, extreme irritability and anger “that was very difficult for him to control and would have been impossible for someone to fake in any kind of a sustained way.”

Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins with Thor, his K-9 partner, in 2016. Jenkins was fatally ...
Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins with Thor, his K-9 partner, in 2016. Jenkins was fatally shot in the line of duty near Ely on March 27, 2020. (Nevada Highway Patrol)

In late March, hours after Dabritz was arrested in connection with the killing of Sgt. Ben Jenkins, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was the first to report that the man had long suffered from bipolar disorder and had spent the weeks leading up to the shooting on a paranoid quest to warn people of his theory that COVID-19 was spreading through the water and sewer systems.

His efforts landed him at William Bee Ririe Hospital in Ely on a legal mental health hold before he was flown around March 14 to Desert Parkway Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Las Vegas. He was released on March 20, court records show, a week before Jenkins was killed.

Authorities have said the shooting unfolded early March 27 on a remote highway north of Ely, shortly after Jenkins had pulled over to check on a stopped motorist.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.