A Commodore man was found not guilty of criminal charges and was released from jail Thursday after two psychiatrists agreed that he was legally insane when he shot his girlfriend at the front door of their home almost two years ago.
John Reome, 43, was cleared of 10 counts including attempted murder for the Jan. 29, 2012, shooting of Billie Jo Varner, following a non-jury trial before Indiana County Judge Thomas Bianco.
Because the psychiatrists also agreed that Reome was no longer insane — that his mental condition had stabilized during the 20 months he spent under medical care in Indiana County Jail, and that he was competent to participate in the court case — he was not required to remain under court supervision or further mental health care.
While defense attorney David Shrager said Reome’s family would take him in and get mental health treatment for him, Varner and District Attorney Patrick Dougherty condemned the outcome as a failure of Pennsylvania mental health laws that allow mentally ill defendants to be left unaccountable for their conditions.
“This is one to those situations where someone has fallen through the cracks of the mental health system,” Dougherty told reporters following the hearing. “I have been talking about mental health issues and how they relate to domestic violence throughout my whole term. This case should get someone’s attention in Harrisburg that this Mental Health Procedures Act should be tightened and changed.”
Dougherty and Varner sharply criticized Section 302 of the Mental Health Procedures Act, the provision that enables five-day involuntary commitment of people for examination. Officials commonly use the number 302 to refer to commitment procedures.
“This man should be going to a mental hospital. He should not be walking out of the jail doors today,” Dougherty said. “Unfortunately, the laws of Pennsylvania provide that this is exactly what happens, because we don’t have a psychiatrist that says he’s a danger to himself or others.
“Am I upset about this decision? Absolutely,” Dougherty said. “Do I think this is the way the system works? Yes. Am I happy about it? Absolutely not.”
According to investigators, Reome had minor mental health problems, particularly a social anxiety disorder and paranoia that worsened in the days before the shooting. Varner said Thursday that she tried to have Reome committed for mental health treatment but was turned away and told he was not a danger.
Less than a week before she was shot, Varner said, Reome threw peroxide on her, pulled her hair and threatened to kill her. She moved to her parents’ house and tried to get Reome taken for mental examination.
On Jan. 27, 2012, she said, “I got a phone call from the mental health crisis center in Indiana County, A New Hope. They told me that he was calling them and hanging up, and could I come to the hospital, meet them there, and 302 him.”
Varner said she and her relatives went to Indiana Regional Medical Center and Reome’s mother was on the telephone, and all asked to have Reome committed.
“In the end, a man who never even spoke to John … made the final decision. He never spoke to me, only to his workers, and said (Reome) was not suicidal or homicidal enough to warrant 302ing him at this time.
“You tell me what is enough? Obviously you were wrong because less than 48 hours later, he shot me,” Varner said.
“And 20 minutes before I went there and got shot, I called that center again and they said ‘we can’t even talk to you. HIPAA laws prevent us from telling you anything.’
“I said all I want to know is whether it is safe for me to go over there. They said, ‘We just can’t talk to you.’
“It is nearly impossible to have another person 302ed,” she said.
Varner said she still fears that Reome will find and assault her and her parents, and said the law doesn’t give her a way of knowing where he will be and whether he is getting mental health care.
She also said she doubts that Reome has fully recovered from what officials called the “mental defects” that rendered him incapable of understanding what he was doing when he shot Varner.
“I think John should be given an Oscar for the performance he gave to these doctors. I’m not sure. What I do know is I lay in a coma for five days while my children, my family and my friends waited to see if I would live.”
Dougherty said the system is overly strict in the conditions for having someone involuntarily taken for mental evaluation.
“My understanding is that because he did not make an overt effort to go get a gun at the time he threatened to kill her, in the days prior ... that they did not feel it was an imminent threat,” Dougherty said.
“In light of what’s happened at Sandy Hook and other places all over our country, we know we have a mental health crisis on our hands. It is time that our legislators get up and do something about it. Because all the gamesmanship and all the problems that happen — they don’t affect the people in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C. They affect Billie Jo Varner, because she is still suffering from the injuries she sustained back in January 2012.
“She tried to get him help. The Friday before she was shot, she tried to have him 302ed and do you know what she is told? He does not meet the criteria.
“Our system does not work. It is time that we start to do something to get our system to work.”
Dougherty charged that the system is weak in two ways, in failing to get help before a mentally ill person becomes violent, and in failing to keep a defendant under proper care.
“On the front end, when a family member tries to get their loved one 302 committed, or in this case her boyfriend … the mental health help that he needs, and she has the door slammed in her face. The system is not user friendly.
“In other states, he would have been committed to a mental hospital and a doctor would determine at what point he is medically stable.”
The second problem, Dougherty said, is that “at this moment in time, is he a danger to himself or others? Our psychiatrists say no, he isn’t because he has been in jail and medicated since January 2012. When the doctors meet him, he is not the same person he was that Sunday morning, but he still has an underlying mental health issue that needs addressed. He is going to walk out of here and we believe that he’s going to go to Florida and receive mental health treatment there. But there is nothing that the courts of Pennsylvania have to ensure that that happens. And that’s what’s very frustrating to me. There’s nothing legally binding to make him get that treatment, and if he doesn’t, we have no legal recourse.”
Following the hearing, the defense attorney said Reome only wants to rebuild his life and has no intention to contact Varner.
“I do believe he is not a threat. He has been incarcerated almost two years,” Shrager said. “He has a family who loves him and will be taking care of him.
“He is very remorseful — he could not be more remorseful. He has lost his family, he hurt the woman that he loved, and has lost the ones that he considered his own children.”
Reome and Varner had lived together for 11 years, with Varner’s three grown children from a previous marriage. They had no children of their own.
“It is important to know justice was served today,” Shrager said. “But it is not a day to celebrate. It’s a day of sadness. He only wants to let them heal.”
At the hearing Thursday in Bianco’s court, Reome admitted that he shot Varner with a .12-gauge shotgun as she entered their home along Fisher Street in Commodore on the morning of Jan. 29, 2012.
The trial lasted less than 20 minutes.
The only evidence presented to Bianco were two psychiatric reports on Reome.
Dr. Christine Martone, of Pittsburgh, who was hired for Reome’s defense, examined Reome in August 2012, and Dr. Neil Blumberg, of Timonium, Md., an expert retained by the district attorney’s office, evaluated him on March 19.
Both concluded Reome was criminally insane on the day he shot Varner, but with the benefit of regular mental health treatment in Indiana County Jail, was competent to take part in his defense in court.
According to state police, Varner returned to the house with her father, Beryl Shaffer, after Reome asked her to come and take care of some newborn puppies.
After Varner was wounded, Shaffer convinced Reome to lay down his weapons and assisted his daughter until police and paramedics arrived.
Reome told Bianco that he did not contest the allegations in the criminal complaint.
In addition to attempted homicide, he was charged with four counts of aggravated assault, two counts each of recklessly endangering another person and simple assault, and one count of making terroristic threats.