Oak Cliff Veteran Found Dead After Exiting VA Hospital Despite Signs of Dementia

Everyone who knew him could agree that Odell Lee was a nice guy. He was known to pull out his own wallet if you told him money was tight. He would offer you one of his cigarettes when the two of you were talking. He made a point to be friendly with his neighbors. Lee enjoyed living alone, but had a wide circle of friends and relatives in the Dallas area, including two children and 10 grandchildren.

On July 20, Lee was reported missing, and Dallas police issued a critical missing person alert. The next day Lee was found unconscious, and because he was a Marine veteran, Dallas Fire-Rescue brought him to the North Texas VA Medical Center. After roughly 24 hours at the hospital, Lee walked away. He was found one week later, on July 28, in a creek off Simpson Stuart Road and Interstate 45. Friends say his body was badly decomposed.

The VA Hospital would not comment on specific patients' cases because of privacy laws. "In these types of scenarios, when a patient decides to leave against medical advice we have no way, and neither does private sector, to stop them from leaving the facility," said Froy Garza, a spokesman for the North Texas VA Medical Center. "It's unfortunate that usually the slant to this story is that something was done wrong."

The hospital performs a basic psychological exam on each incoming patient. Garza said that if a patient is determined to be a danger to themselves or someone else, they are not allowed to leave the hospital. Garza said that signs of dementia would qualify a person to be a danger to themselves, but that the hospital would have to obtain a court order to make the person stay.

Those close to Lee say that the hospital should have seen signs of his slipping memory. Karim Farishta, who manages the motel where Lee lived, said Lee was a kind, generous man but not always mentally sharp. "He's older, and he's been losing his mind," Farishta said of Lee. "Some mental issues. He'd forget his keys, things like that. And he'd go to the same places over again." Faye Hopkins, Lee's close friend and caretaker, also says his mind has been fading in recent years. "The ball was dropped when he got sick," she said. "He should have never been let out of the hospital."

Michael Lee is Odell Lee's son. He was cleaning out his father's apartment, which had recently been robbed, when he spoke about the circumstances of his father's death. When Odell Lee was first admitted to the VA hospital, Michael Lee says hospital personnel did not even record his father's name right at first, switching Odell Lee's first and last name repeatedly.

There's also some confusion between the VA hospital and the Dallas Police Department. In a press conference last week, the DPD said that Odell Lee had stayed at the the VA hospital for around 24 hours before he was released.

But a frustrated Garza said that the DPD was incorrect about the amount of time Lee spent at the hospital. He would not elaborate on how long Lee was really at the hospital, saying only that he needed to call the DPD to correct them. DPD has not corrected the originally given time, only saying in an email statement that every question was answered in the press conference.

In any case, the discrepancy raises another doubt about how Lee was handled. "On his documentation, they said that he wasn't in his right frame of mind," said Michael Lee. The hospital report, which was given to him after his father's death, described Odell Lee as having an "altered mental state" and said he was "likely transient."

Michael Lee thinks his father was disoriented when he left the VA hospital. "I guess he was just trying to get home. He didn't really know where he was going, but they just let him go. They just booted him out of there." Lee plans to acquire an attorney to look into his father's case. "What they did at the hospital was wrong," he said. "He was not totally in his right mind, and they just let him walk away."