Homeless man wins $1 million after Bellevue ordeal

By Lincoln Anderson

Robert Lee Marion is called “Loan Shark Bob” around Tompkins Sq. Park, where he’s been known to lend money to the down and out at 100 percent interest. A sometime homeless figure, he’s also known for spouting his theory of “povercide” — that the government is killing the homeless through poverty.

But Marion’s days of usury and suffering from povercide may soon be over.

A federal jury last month awarded him $1 million in his lawsuit charging he was illegally held and injected with drugs at Bellevue Hospital over a six-day period five years ago. The defendants were two psychiatrists at Bellevue and the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation.

The amount is reportedly the most ever awarded in a United States psychiatric hospital case.

According to court records, the episode began Dec. 23, 1998, when Marion, then 57, went to Bellevue Medical Center for what was described as “very sensitive” surgery — a circumcision. He had been told that the operation, for a diabetes-related problem, was needed or it would compromise his health. However, when Marion — whom Bellevue psychiatrists diagnosed as having bipolar depression and also being “schizoid” — discovered the operation had been cancelled, he became agitated.

Marion, feeling “aggrieved and victimized as a member of the underclass…and angry at the government for canceling his appointment, starting talking about povercide and his other political principles to one or more people at Bellevue,” his attorney, William D. Brooks, told the court.

“I am the law; I can make changes. The government is killing poor people,” Marion ranted, according to the record. “Povercide” is a word Marion coined, a combination of “poverty” and “homicide.”

According to court testimony, Marion, also called the nurses “slaves,” saying they were being exploited by the government. City attorneys also stated he waved his finger and “got up in people’s faces.” Brooks noted Marion never touched anyone, though. A nurse — not police or a security guard — walked Marion over to Bellevue’s psychiatric unit.

As chance would have it, HBO was filming a documentary on the psychiatric unit. Marion said he was asked by the HBO producer if he wanted to be filmed and said yes. Jumping at the chance to express his political views to a wider audience, he went up to the camera and spoke, according to Brooks, “clearly, loudly and forcefully.”

On the witness stand, Marion, noting at one point he had attended film school, and describing himself a “film student,” said, “Instead of music and act [sic], dance and film…I speak out. And when I speak, sometimes I speak emphatically to inform, to persuade, to entertain. I am not threatening you.”

However, Bellevue psychiatric staff interpreted Marion’s mugging for HBO as “psychotic, delusional and dangerous.”

Marion was offered but refused medication. But Bellevue Dr. Robert LaFargue wrote out an order authorizing him to be injected with Haldol, an antipsychotic, and Ativan, a tranquilizer, and stating that, from then on, Marion was to take another drug, Depakote, orally, on threat of injection.

In his testimony, Marion described being strapped down to a gurney, a nurse hovering over him with a needle, then injecting him, “like in ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” referring to Ken Kesey’s novel about a psychiatric hospital from hell. Comparing himself to “Louima,” as in police brutality victim Abner Louima, Marion said, “They used a toilet plunger for him and a needle for me.”

“They Shanghaied me, if you will,” Marion added, continuing the “Shanghai” theme by contending that the psychiatric ward was full of young, doped-up Chinese men, one of whom made a sexual advance at him.

LaFargue authorized Marion to be committed to Bellevue, where he would stay until Dec. 29.

However, under the state’s Mental Hygiene Law, the only basis to commit someone who is mentally ill is if they are a risk either to harm themselves or others or can’t care for themselves. The Constitution also prohibits illegal incarceration. In addition, a court order is needed to inject someone against his or her will.

Following regulations, which require another psychiatrist to examine the individual after 48 hours to determine if the person should remain committed, another psychiatrist examined Marion, also found him to be a danger risk, and authorized him to be kept longer.

A nurse at one point during Marion’s stay jotted down an observation that he was still saying “I am the law” — as an indication he was still agitated.

Yet, Brooks and a witness, a psychiatrist who examined Marion in 2000, argued that though Marion had been agitated at Bellevue on Dec. 23, 1998, he was not dangerous.

“Certainly Mr. Marion is agitated,” Brooks said. “He’s locked up against his will and he’s unhappy.” Brooks argued that psychiatrists at Bellevue never took more than a few minutes to talk to Marion to determine if he really was violent, that minimal standards for diagnosing him weren’t met.

Brooks surmised Marion’s outburst was a case of “his long-held anti-government anger blended in [to his anger at the surgery’s being canceled] — and [being around] people working for the government…hospital staff.”

Presiding Judge Douglas Eton showed some apparent sympathy for Marion’s case at one point: The judge added, for the record, that Marion had talked to him “about how the police did in fact round up people in Tompkins Sq. Park and other locations. These are things that played a role in Mr. Marion’s mind,” Eton said.

Asked on the stand, if by his povercide harrangue he meant to threaten the government, Marion said no, but invoked the Declaration of Independence and Patrick Henry, stating, “We do have the right to bear arms.”

Bellevue has a court and Marion requested a hearing. On Dec. 29, a judge took “no more than 10 minutes” to determine Marion was not a danger risk and ordered him released.

The jury ultimately voted to award Marion $750,000 in damages for being held against his will for six days, $250,000 for being illegally injected with drugs and $1 for having to orally take medication.

The city has made post-verdict motions for “judgment as a matter of law,” arguing that a reasonable jury could only have ruled in favor of the defendant and that the award amount should be reduced. Given the high amount, there’s a chance it will be reduced, according to a source. Brooks estimated the case won’t be decided for another three months. Marion hasn’t received any payment yet.

Chlarens Orsland, assistant corporation counsel for New York City, issued the following statement:

“The Health and Hospitals Corporation strongly disagrees with this verdict, which it believes to be unfounded and excessive. Mr. Marion was found by hospital staff to be in need of immediate observation, care and treatment, in that he suffered from a mental illness likely to result in serious harm to himself or others. After six days of caring and humane treatment, his condition stabilized, and a state court judge found him suitable for discharge. The treatment decisions of the treating psychiatrists were made in full accordance with accepted professional judgment and standards and fully complied with the Mental Hygiene Law, which governs the rights of patients in these circumstances. We have filed a motion before the trial judge to set aside the verdict and will request that a new trial be ordered.”

Rumors of Marion’s big payout have swirled along Avenue A in the last few weeks. However, in contrast to the Bellevue case, neighborhood veterans and storekeepers paint another picture of Marion as “Loan Shark Bob,” someone who has more often been the victimizer than the victim.

“He talks about povercide, but rips people off, the junkies, the winos,” said Bob Arihood, a local photographer. “People on welfare go to him between checks and he charges 100 percent interest, and $50 to cash a check for people without ID. He sold them shots of Night Train for $1, or cheap vodka.”

Marion used to live in an apartment on Avenue A with a roommate, Anthony Piskin, a card-carrying American Nazi Party member who died of AIDS. Marion later became homeless and most recently had moved to the Union Sq. area, though now has reportedly possibly headed to the South, where he’s originally from.

According to those familiar with him, Marion has also spent time in the past at rightwing militia camps in the South.

“What’s sort of funny is that for years he’s been holding up these signs that all the homeless people should get $1 million for all the suffering they’ve been put through,” said John Penley, an East Village activist. “He finally got it.”

Penley said Marion won’t blow his money on drugs or alcohol, since he isn’t a substance abuser, though Penley joked, only half in jest, that he might give it to the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nations.

“Last time, I talked to him, five or six months ago, he was asking me about going down to Mexico,” Penley said. “He knew I go down there every year. He could live like a king. He was asking me how much things cost….

“All these years of screaming for the homeless,” Penley continued. “When he got the money, did he help anybody? He left town.”

Jibing with his enthusiastic reaction to the HBO documentary, Both Arihood and Penley said Marion loves the press.

“He would literally run at TV cameras,” said Penley, “wearing that upside-down American flag and holding out another one.”

Though not a squatter and having different views than them, Marion somehow always managed to get interviewed on the TV news during the squatter tensions of the 1980s and ’90s, Arihood said.

One local merchant, fearing retaliation, said, “Don’t put my name in the paper! I remember he used to lend money. He was unfair to the poor guys, Stanley [a local homeless man]….those poor guys. They had to borrow money and they had to pay back double in a couple of months. A lot of people didn’t pay him back — they just walked away. But others paid. He made his money.”

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