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UNM Psychiatric Center settles lawsuit for $1 million

Ian Mathew Mascarenas, 9, Olivia Mascarenas, 6, and Elijah Mascarenas, 5, were shot to death by George Wechsler. (Courtesy of the Mascarenas Family

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The state of New Mexico has paid more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who was critically wounded and her three children shot to death in a 2016 attack by her ex-boyfriend, who then killed himself.

After nearly two years of litigation over whether the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center was negligent and could have prevented the tragedy, both sides reached the settlement before the case was to go to trial in Albuquerque on Nov. 17.

The case helped fuel the drive to pass New Mexico’s red flag extreme protection law last year. The law empowers a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from those posing an “immediate danger” of harming themselves or others with a firearm.

UNM still disputes the charge that the center’s response to the suicidal George Daniel Wechsler a month before the shooting contributed to the events of the evening of Dec. 5, 2016. That day, Wechsler, 45, asked to drop by Cheryl Mascarenas’ home in Four Hills to give Christmas presents to the children he subsequently killed.

George Wechsler

“Our hearts go out to the Mascarenas family for their tragic loss,” UNM said in a statement. “While we disagree with the allegations in the case, we hope this settlement brings some peace and closure to the family.”

Asked whether the shootings prompted any changes in policies or procedures at the mental health center, UNM spokesman Mark Rudi replied in an email, “We will continue to strive to provide the best patient care possible through continual evaluation and improvement processes.”

Cheryl Mascarenas and her ex-husband, Josh Mascarenas, also a plaintiff, along with their attorney, Lisa Curtis, declined comment. They filed the lawsuit against the UNM Board of Regents, and the total amount paid was $1.09 million, according to state Risk Management Division records.

Arrests, suicide attempts

Wechsler had an arrest history involving assault, harassment and stalking of ex-girlfriends. Court records show he had been hospitalized because of suicide attempts in 1998 and 2002.

Cheryl Mascarenas said at a deposition in the lawsuit she had no idea he was dangerous.

Divorced from the children’s father, she dated Wechsler for 13 months before breaking up with him in August 2016.

The evening of Dec. 5, Wechsler lay in wait until Cheryl Mascarenas drove up to her home with her children, Ian Mathew Mascarenas, 9, Olivia Mascarenas, 6, and Elijah Mascarenas, 5, and got out of their car. Mascarenas recalled Wechsler saying she had made a “big mistake” before he opened fire.

Wechsler killed the three children and critically wounded Cheryl Mascarenas by shooting her in the chest and extremities. Wechsler then killed himself inside her home with the gun owned by his 81-year-old father.

The settlement is the second one by the UNM Psychiatric Center since 2015. The earlier case, which was settled for $550,000, involved a man who told center employees in March 2009 that he was hearing voices “telling him to kill his mother.” Two days after he was discharged from the center, he choked his mother to death.

Evaluation questioned

In their lawsuit, filed in 2018, Cheryl and Josh Mascarenas alleged the center failed to properly assess Wechsler after he was taken by ambulance for an evaluation and released two hours later. That occurred Nov. 3, 2016, about a month before the shooting.

Albuquerque Fire Department had transported Wechsler to the UNM center after he admitted that he considered “using a gun that belongs to his father” to kill himself, according to an exhibit in the case. The AFD report quoted him as saying, “My life is a mess … my father won’t miss his gun if I take it.”

At the time, Wechsler also had an active case of shingles.

Once evaluated, according to UNM attorneys, he denied having suicidal thoughts and was given a prescription for pain medicine from the psychiatrist, Dr. Mohamed Khafaja.

“After completing his evaluation, Dr. Khafaja determined, in his professional judgment, that the pain that Wechsler was experiencing from his shingles was the primary acute cause of Wechsler’s earlier suicidal ideation and that Wechsler’s suicidal ideation was resolved.”

“At no time did Wechsler indicate any desire or intent to harm any third party,” UNM attorneys wrote in court filings.

Khafaja told Wechsler he could come back for therapy or medication management, and center staff made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact him after his discharge.

Attorney Curtis has said previously that a five-minute phone call by the Psychiatric Center asking Wechsler’s father to secure his weapon might have saved the children’s lives.

In text messages included in an exhibit in the lawsuit, Wechsler asked Mascarenas if he could stop by with Christmas presents for her children about an hour before the shooting.

Then, he texted, “Gonna ask a quick question? Is your life so much better without me now?”

“It’s not a matter of better,” she replied in a text. “I made the best choice I could under the circumstances.”

Wechsler then texted: “One more question just for my soul if you don’t mind. Are you seeing someone?”

“Yes. I am,” she replied at 5:48 p.m.

“Ouch” was his response.

She then texted: “Are you sure coming by is the best idea? I know this is a difficult conversation and probably not the answers you want.”

“Not going to talk bout any of that,” he replied by text. “I’ll be fine. See you around 6:30.”

Mascarenas in a deposition said she had no idea why Wechsler shot her, and killed her three children and himself.

“I think it’s inexplicable,” she said in a deposition.

Warning signs

Wechsler had been arrested a number of times before the shootings, and he had been hospitalized because of suicide attempts.

“An appropriate psychiatric evaluation would have uncovered that Wechsler had multiple prior highly lethal suicide attempts, which were each related to the breakup of a romantic relationship, and prior violent criminal behavior, including a year’s long history of restraining orders and a guilty plea to aggravated stalking,” the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleged.

In one instance, he allegedly cut the brake lines of a vehicle belonging to a woman who broke up with him.

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