The Department of Youth Services is conducting an internal review to determine how an 18-year-old with a lengthy criminal record walked out of a “staff secure” group home in Fall River and seemingly vanished, only to be arrested and charged with murder 18 days later.
Alexander Mills was committed to the group home as a youthful offender in November after he punched a boy and took his cellphone and was supposed to remain under DYS supervision until the age of 21. Mills walked out of the unlocked facility Nov. 10, a spokeswoman for the agency said last week.
Although DYS promptly informed local police of Mills’s departure, officials said State Police were not notified until he had been missing for two weeks — giving state authorities a late start in their search for Mills.
Four days later, cab driver Donald A. DePina was shot and killed in New Bedford. Fingerprints, surveillance videos, and witnesses led prosecutors to charge Mills with the Nov. 28 shooting of the beloved Army veteran.
The state’s internal review will determine how Mills — whose lawyer says he has a history of mental illness and hears voices — managed to leave the group home undetected.
The Fall River facility at the Old Colony YMCA on North Main Street is one of about 25 “staff secured” residential programs across the state, where young offenders gradually earn the ability to participate in educational activities and work, officials said. The department could not immediately say how many offenders abscond from the facilities.
Michelle Hillman, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said DYS alerted New Bedford police moments after staff at the facility realized Mills was missing at 10:40 p.m. on Nov. 10. Fall River police were notified the following day.
Hillman would not explain why State Police officials were not notified until two weeks after Mills’s departure.
“Law enforcement officials were immediately contacted, and the department worked closely with local and state police to locate the individual. DYS will conduct an internal review of the matter,” Hillman said.
Hillman also would not say when Mills was last seen by group home staff; the director of the group home did not return a call seeking comment.
Once State Police were notified that Mills had left his group home, he was then added to a “sweep list” — a roster of people that the State Police Department’s Fugitive Unit searches for daily — State Police spokesman David Procopio said.
“They were looking for Mills and went to a family address, where he was not located,” Procopio said. “A family member was interviewed to gather more information, but we were not able to locate him.”
Mills’s mother, who lives in New Bedford, did not return calls seeking comment.
Four days after State Police were asked to look for him, Mills and a 16-year-old allegedly climbed into the back of DePina’s taxi and directed him to a remote location in Brooklawn Park where prosecutors say Mills shot DePina in the back of the head before getting out of the car and shooting him a second time.
Mills then removed DePina’s body from the cab, took his belongings, and attempted to steal his taxi, but crashed into a curb, a prosecutor said at Mills’s arraignment last week.
DePina died at a local hospital an hour after the shooting.
Mills was charged with armed robbery, murder, and carrying a firearm without a license. A judge ordered that he be held without bail at Bridgewater State Hospital, where he will have a mental health evaluation. The day Mills was arraigned, he told a court psychologist that he hears voices that sometimes encourage him to harm people.
His attorney, J. Drew Segadelli, said it was difficult to communicate with Mills. At his arraignment, Segadelli said there were “prior indications of him needing medication and going off of it.”
Prior to being sent to the group home, Mills was held at Worcester State Hospital, a state psychiatric facility, following the unarmed robbery. His attorney said the court determined Mills was no longer in need of hospitalization, and he was later sent to the Fall River group home.
The home has licensed clinical social workers on site to address residents’ “behavioral health challenges,” Hillman said. She declined to comment on whether Mills received treatment for psychological issues, citing privacy and confidentiality rules.
Segadelli said that after Mills left the facility, he hopped onto a Greyhound bus to Florida to see a girlfriend.
Segadelli said his client suffers from “significant mental health issues.”
“Whether they come from a mental illness or a simple mood disorder, I can’t go there yet without the appropriate evaluation,” Segadelli said.
DePina’s son, Barry, who spoke on the phone to his father shortly before he was killed, said he was infuriated that Mills was able to leave the group home.
“I hope something happens so that this does not happen to another family,” Barry DePina said. “I don’t want to see another family go through the pain I went through.”
Barry DePina said his father’s funeral was Monday morning at the Saunders-Dwyer Home for Funerals in New Bedford. He was buried at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
“It’s very frustrating. The system is not perfect and I know that the only thing I can hope for is justice,” Barry DePina said. “My father’s gone. There’s nothing that can change that.”