Family of man who crashed Erlanger ambulance was trying to get help

  photo  Contributed Photo / Timothy Burt

The family of an Alabama man who allegedly stole an ambulance from Erlanger hospital last year was trying to admit him to a psychiatric facility when he was arrested, his sister told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"He had never stole anything in his life," Donna Kling, Timothy Burt's sister, said in a phone interview with the Times Free Press.

On July 5, Burt, 66, was arrested and taken to Silverdale Detention Center after he walked out of Erlanger hospital, got into an ambulance, drove off and later crashed it, according to a sworn affidavit from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office seeking Burt's arrest.

He was taken to Parkridge Hospital with a medical issue and died of a heart attack Aug. 27.

"He should have been left at the hospital, so he could have been placed in a mental facility like we were originally trying to do," Kling said. "He needed help, not (to be) thrown in jail."


The Times Free Press reached out to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office for information about how mental health calls are handled.

"No person is to be taken involuntarily into custody by reason of mental illness alone, but rather is to be taken into custody only if such person has also committed violation of the law," the department's policy states.

The Sheriff's Office said Burt was arrested on outstanding warrants from the Chattanooga Police.

"The past year, before he went to jail, you could tell something was going on with him," Kling said. "He was admitted to the hospital on May the 28th, and he stayed in intensive care for a month until June the 28th, that's when they found out that he had a form of dementia from drinking."

Burt struggled with alcoholism for most of his life and was diagnosed with encephalopathy of the brain, according to Kling, who was granted temporary guardianship of Burt by a probate judge in Dekalb County Alabama on Aug. 18, according to documents provided by Kling to the Times Free Press.

Ryan Marten, a doctor with the DeKalb Regional Medical Center, declared Burt unable to care for himself, stating Burt "would need someone to represent him to gather financial information to assist in further placement," in a June 22 letter provided to the Times Free Press by Kling.

"He needed to have a heart catheter... but while he was withdrawing from the alcohol he couldn't be still," Kling said. "So the doctor said he couldn't do it, but he had had intentions of doing it. Well, it went on for so long. The doctor went on vacation and they decided that they're just going to let him out."

Kling added that Burt's insurance would no longer pay for the extended hospital stay, so he was released from DeKalb Regional Medical Center. The next day, Burt wandered off on his own, until one of his relatives saw him.

"He was found on the side of the road, walking in a neighborhood and my sister's husband went along and saw him and so he picked him up, took him home," Kling said. "The next day they took him to Erlanger."

Burt was taken to Erlanger by Kling and other family members June 29, with hopes he would be admitted into a long-term care facility that would provide the necessary assistance with his recent mental health diagnosis from the emergency department, according to Kling.

"While he was in the hospital there, we didn't get to visit," Kling said about Burt being on a psychiatric hold.

In an Erlanger medical note by Dr. Joseph Gray, provided to the Times Free Press by Kling, Burt presented with "altered mental status."

"My sister told them he tries to get out and do things and he won't be still, you've got to watch him, but they told him they could leave," Kling said. "The next morning, he walked out and got an ambulance and drove off."

As the family mobilized to get Burt out of Silverdale and back to a hospital, Kling said she called the detention facility regularly.

"I called Silverdale and told them he didn't know what he had done, that he needed help," Kling said. "The woman I spoke to said he had to stay there until he figured out what he had done."

Kling also shared the Aug. 18 intake assessment note on Burt from Silverdale -- over a month after his arrest -- which noted that Burt's physical health was of concern.

Intake nurse Susan Taylor wrote that Burt "should be placed with family, with referral to the Choices (counseling) program."

Knowing her brother's mental health status, Kling said, she did everything she could to get him out of Silverdale and released into her custody as soon as possible.

On Aug. 29, Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes released Burt into Kling's custody, according to a document signed by Starnes and obtained by the Times Free Press.

(READ MORE: Two more lawsuits filed against Hamilton County involving Silverdale)

Armed with the order, Kling and her family went to Silverdale to pick Burt up.

"I'm there to pick him up, and they tell me 'OK, wait, it'll take a little bit to go get him,'" Kling said. "It was about 30 minutes later, a lady hollered at me and said somebody's going to come out here and talk to you first, and I said, OK. Probably close to two hours later, (staff member) Denise Short calls me and my sisters into a room. She shows me a mugshot. She says, 'Is this just your brother?' I said yes. She said, 'Well, he passed away two days ago.'"

According to Kling, Short said she wasn't aware that Burt had a family.

"Her answer to everything is, 'I don't know, I didn't know he had family,'" Kling said. "I said, 'He has a social worker and a public defender, and you couldn't tell nobody?'"

In response, the Sheriff's Office said officials attempted to notify the family on several occasions.

"If an inmate's condition worsens and death is imminent, our personnel will make every attempt possible to notify the inmate's emergency contact if one is available and facilitate visitation," said J. Matt Lea, the spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.

"The HCSO did attempt to make notification to inmate Burt's family including reaching out to the Sheriff's Office in Alabama in attempts to locate his next-of-kin using the address listed as his emergency contact," Lea said. "Personnel from that agency went to the noted address multiple times to no avail."

According to Kling, Burt's ex-wife was listed as his next-of-kin.

Kling remembered Burt before his diagnosis as a smart, talented person who loved to laugh.

"He had a hobby on the side from working, that he redid cars," she said. "He would trade them for fire trucks and big trucks of all kinds.

"At one time he even had an ambulance."

Kling said the family has been deeply affected by her brother's death.

"None of us are doing well, I can say that," Kling said. "We don't know how ... I don't know how to move forward from something that's like this."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at or 423-757-6476.

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