The story behind Dan McDonald: A homeless man in jail for the 18th time in 16 years

National
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Sign on the outside of Robert Reyes’ home (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Less than a mile from the iconic El Arroyo marquee sign on West 5th Street, homeowners in the Old West Austin neighborhood are posting their own messages.

Robert Reyes has stapled brand new “no trespassing” signs on the fence outside his home. They’re posted close to the “WARNING: Security Cameras in Use” signs he tacked to the side of his house a while back.

It’s clear someone is not welcome.

“I want to see him stay in jail,” Reyes said without hesitation.

Reyes is talking about the person he caught on his home security camera. Several video clips show a man walk into his carport, open the door of a minivan and start rifling through the seat.

Reyes got an alert on his phone as soon as the motion was detected during the first week of May, but when he first glanced at the video clips, he thought it was his father who also lives with him. When he looked closer, it was clear the man was not his dad.

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Image from the security camera footage Robert Reyes sent to Austin police (Courtesy Robert Reyes)

Reyes sent the video clips to Austin police, and according to court records, officers were able to confirm he was the same guy other neighbors were calling about. An arrest warrant said a neighbor saw him fighting someone on the sidewalk while holding a knife, and another neighbor called 911 when she was shocked to find him standing on her back patio.

Austin police arrested Dan McDonald, 35, later that night.

It was a relief for Reyes’ neighbor, Carol Austin, who told KXAN someone walked into her unlocked home on that same day while she was taking a nap. She said she found her purse emptied and laying upside down on her driveway with $80 cash missing. Austin said she also noticed the milk was missing from her fridge, along with a loaf of banana bread that was sitting on the counter and some peanut butter.

“My feeling is when he gets out he’ll probably come back over here because he’s familiar with the area,” said Austin. “This is his workspace.”

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Carol Austin said $80 cash was missing from her purse (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Jeff Albrecht, who also filed a police report after his home was broken into, has added more security cameras to the perimeter. He’s reached out to KXAN looking for more answers about McDonald. He said a neighbor did some online digging and shared information on Nextdoor that suggested the suspect had been arrested and accused of car burglaries and criminal trespassing several times before.

“Is that what we do as a city?” Albrecht said. “Where we let people get arrested, let them break into homes and cars…and then let them back out on the street and do it again — or is there a plan? Or is there a failure of a plan?”

McDonald had dreams of playing college football

A criminal background check online reveals McDonald has been arrested 18 times in the last 16 years, with nearly half of the arrests in the last year and a half. His lengthy criminal history dates back to 2005, when he was 20 years old.

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Dan McDonald in his high school football uniform (Courtesy McDonald family)

Long before McDonald became a familiar face behind bars —serving time for about 20 crimes he was convicted of, including theft, aggravated assault and burglary — his family says he grew up in east Austin and was one of five siblings.

“We knew the Dan before the homelessness, before the drugs, before the mental health issues,” said a close family member who asked KXAN not to share her name.

Family members told KXAN that McDonald, who grew up in poverty, was a talented high school athlete with dreams of playing college football, but those goals were ruined when he got busted for marijuana. Family said he attended Huston-Tillotson University, but was unmotivated without sports in his life and started using harder drugs and alcohol to cope. The substance abuse eventually triggered severe mental health issues around 2008, according to family, which was compounded by the death of his mother in 2014 and the death of his father two years later.

According to family and court records, McDonald has been in and out of homelessness and jail ever since.

His family member, who was not aware McDonald was back in jail, said he used to keep in touch with his siblings and aunt, but they have not heard from him at all over the last year and a half.

In March of this year, when an Austin police officer informed McDonald he was being arrested on a burglary of a vehicle charge, the arrest warrant says, “he stated that he didn’t care, that he would get out and do it again just like last time.” Family does not believe he has the mental faculties right now to be successful in society and said it’s obvious that the unending pattern of cycling in and out of the criminal justice system is not working.

“If they have the power to say, ‘We’re gonna lock you up. You’re going to go to jail,’ they should also have the power to say, ‘We are going to put you in this institution, in this mental health facility or in this, you know, drug program,'” she said.

In her opinion, McDonald’s two biggest needs are getting access to mental health services and safe housing.

She said there was a three-year time period where he was living in a group home in Austin and doing well. He would keep in touch with family through writing letters, but eventually he went downhill again. They said he became homeless, which gave him easy access to drugs on the street, and slipped back into his old habits.

What are his options in jail?

The Travis County district and county courts have mental health, alcohol and drug diversion programs set up to connect suspects like McDonald with resources that aim to get people healthy and off the street.

But, even if McDonald chooses that path, which is voluntary, one of his former criminal defense attorneys Doran Sauer said there is no guarantee the help will be there.

“There’s just not enough housing, there’s not enough mental health beds,” Sauer said. “It’s a constant obstacle trying to find enough resources for everybody.”

Sauer represents many homeless clients, and said the mental health docket is always full. The lack of resources contributing to the revolving door at the Travis County Jail is one of the biggest issues the city and county are trying to solve.

Rickey Jones with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office runs all of the diversion programs for felony cases.

“I think the denial period is pretty much over and I think everybody is aware of these mental health issues, these drug issues,” Rickey Jones said, “And yes, I do believe that the county and the city will make a commitment and pretty soon get these projects started and get this help underway for people that need it.”

One recently proposed solution KXAN reported on in April that could help suspects like McDonald is a diversion center, which could be paid for with federal stimulus dollars. It would provide a place to go other than jail for people with untreated mental health and substance abuse issues.

Despite the lack of resources, Jones said the majority of suspects accept the mental health services being offered through the jail. Mental health screenings are conducted during the booking process, and Jones said suspects are given time to stabilize before making legal decisions for themselves.

Jones said so far this year, more than 400 inmates have accepted the mental health help.

It is unknown if McDonald will choose that path. His current defense attorney, Marc Chavez, appointed to him after the May arrest, said he has been trying to reach his client in jail. Chavez said McDonald has not yet reached out to set up a video conference call so he plans on going by the jail this week to visit him face-to-face. It’s a conversation that needs to happen before setting up a potential plan.

“I’ll be trying hard to get him mental health resources,” said Chavez over the phone. The decision is ultimately up to McDonald.

McDonald’s family hopes he chooses the help, and that the now 35-year-old will someday be on a better path.

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Carol Austin outside her home in Old West Austin (KXAN photo/Erin Cargile)

“Some people aren’t going to want the help, but they might want the help next week,” said Sauer, who said it takes time, patience and trust between suspects and mental health experts in the community.

Back in the neighborhood where McDonald was recently arrested, the opinions are mixed about what should happen next.

“He doesn’t want help,” said Reyes. “I know it’s a harsh thing to say, but I think jail would be the best place for him.”

Austin, who is now locking her doors at all times, hopes the resources come sooner rather than later for McDonald.

“There are people who just want these people off the streets, they don’t care what happens to them,” said Austin. “Well, we need to care about what happens to them or we are going to continue to be their victim.”

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