Ex-chief judge sits down with EWN

February 4, 2009 6:13:31 PM PST
He was once the most powerful judge in New York. The career of Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge, came to a screeching and scandalous halt 16 years ago. Now, he is talking for the first time about his personal battle with mental illness and his mission to fight it.

The Investigators' Sarah Wallace has the story.

It's an extraordinary story - how a man at the pinnacle of power became consumed by an obsession fueled by a mental illness.

Sol Wachtler's crime and punishment in prison isolation left him forever changed. His crusade now is to change the way the criminal justice system deals with the mentally ill.

"What I was doing was wrong, but I didn't think it was anything criminal," he said. "I was playing a mind game with this woman."

It was a stunning fall from grace. In November 1992, one of New York's most powerful figures was arrested by the FBI in a bizarre plot to blackmail and threaten his former mistress, Joy Silverman.

"I decided that if she came back into my life, my life would be whole again," he said. "So rather than calling her up and meeting with her, I thought I would send these letters and that she would then come to me for help."

They were letters that Wachtler wrote, but they were signed by a made-up stalker.

Sarah: "In your mind, this all made sense."
Wachtler: "At the time, it made perfect sense."

Wachtler now reveals he had been suffering from a deepening and consuming mental illness.

"The fact is that I am bipolar," he said. "That is another word for manic-depressive illness."

But he refused to get treatment. He was, after all, the state's top judge, with even greater delusions of grander.

"Rather than see a psychiatrist, because of my own narcissism and political ambitions, and because of the fact that I had aspirations to one day, perhaps, run for governor, the thought of going to a psychiatrist was out of the picture," he said.

Sarah: "When did you realize you were mentally ill?
Wachtler: "When I was arrested. About a day after I was arrested."

Wachtler, after a year of house arrest for therapy and detoxification, was sent to the mental health unit at Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina, where he was relegated to solitary confinement, twice.

"After a month or so, I was stabbed by another inmate," he said. "And because they couldn't find the assailant, they put me back in solitary confinement for my protection."

Sarah: "You got worse."
Wachtler: "I was hallucinating. I remember a huge spider I kept seeing. I found mystelf doing what the other inmates were doing in solitary, yelling at the guard for help, because of these delusions."

Wachtler, released after a year, finally won his law license back last spring. He's now teaching college and advocating on behalf of the mentally ill. He helped draft a new state law taking effect this summer, which will prevent mentally ill inmates from being placed in solitary confinement, or the SHU.

Sarah: "When you were in the SHU, what was going you're your mind?"
Former inmate Wayne Smalls: "That they're trying to kill me."

Wayne Smalls, 23, of Hempstead, was arrested on a gun charge. He was diagnosed as a young child with a severe mental illness. He says he spent nearly half of his four years in prison in punititve solitary confinement.

Sarah: "They said you assaulted an officer."
Smalls: "I was acting out because I wasn't getting any medication."
Sarah: "So, do you think you're worse now?"
Smalls: "Prison just made me more, like, wild and bad."
Smalls: "Yes?In an angry way."

Which is why Sol Wachtler is now on a mission of mercy to help mentally ill offenders, like Wayne Smalls, get treated in the community through mental health courts. Wachtler once sentenced those people to prison.

Sarah: "Why are you taking this as your cause?"
Wachtler: "Because I don't want to see people who are mentally ill put in prison. Simple answer...If you're sick, you get treatment...Had I been intelligent enough and not so driven in wrong directions to seek treatment, I could have been governor."

Perhaps the former judge found a higher calling.

On Friday on Eyewitness News at 5 p.m., we will take you inside Brooklyn's mental health court. We were granted rare access. It is the model for the nation, and we'll show you how this court is saving lives.