Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Waialua man
admits vacuum
salesman’s murder

Michael Lawrence claims
insanity, saying voices
ordered him

By Debra Barayuga

A 26-year-old Waialua man on trial for murdering and dismembering the body of a vacuum cleaner salesman did so because he was tormented by voices telling him to kill and chop people up, two doctors testified yesterday.

Court-appointed doctors Dennis Donovan and Robert Collis said that because of a severe psychotic disorder, Michael Lawrence did not know what he was doing was wrong and therefore could not conform his conduct to the requirements of law.

The body of Melchor Tabag, 41, who was demonstrating vacuum cleaners at the Lawrence home when he disappeared March 27, 1999, has never been found.

Lawrence, after initially denying that he was responsible for Tabag's death, later admitted to doctors at the Hawaii State Hospital that he had struck the salesman, stabbed him and dismembered the body.

He said he placed the parts in dog-food bags and disposed of them at a refuse station between Haleiwa and Waimea, Collis said.

Carolyn and Frederick Lawrence began noticing a marked change in their son after he was involved in a car crash in September 1997 in which his car was totaled, they told doctors.

Their usually outgoing son began staying at home, withdrawing into his own world. He began spending an extraordinary amount of time in his bedroom with the door closed, spending less time with his parents, spurning visitors and phone calls. He stopped helping around the yard or going hunting or fishing with his dad.

He was 23. The onset of schizophrenia is typically seen in young males in their 20s.

His parents noticed his "bizarre" obsession with a computer monitor they had purchased for his use. Michael would be fixated by the monitor, which was not connected to the computer. Once, he put the monitor on the garage roof and would not take it down. On another occasion on Halloween, he placed the monitor in the front yard of the Lawrence home where it was visible to passers-by.

And on the evening of March 27, 1999, hours after Tabag disappeared from the Lawrence home, Frederick Lawrence entered his son's room and noticed the computer monitor on.

The parents could not fathom their son's strange behavior, and he did not explain why, probably because people with mental illnesses often hide it and do not disclose what they are going through, his defense attorney said.

What the Lawrences did not know was that their son was hearing voices -- voices that sometimes spoke in German -- and having strange thoughts about chopping up people.

Later, those thoughts and voices began commanding him that his mission on earth was to kill and chop up people, said deputy public defender William Jameson.

"Michael was in this world on the morning of March 27, 1999 -- the same world Melchor (Tabag) unwittingly and tragically walked into."

While Lawrence fit the definition of a schizophrenic, he did not have paranoid or persecutory delusions where the individual feels someone is after him and feels the need to defend himself, the doctors said. "He felt more like the hunter," said Donovan.

When talking about what he did to Tabag and his mission, Lawrence was very detached and showed no remorse, Collis said. "He feels he's done no wrong because he's on a mission."

The doctors also found no reason to believe Lawrence had been faking his mental illness before or after the murder.

Donovan said Lawrence's illness underwent a full a psychotic "break" at Oahu Community Correctional Center where he was held after the murder. His behavior, which included smearing his defecation and hoarding his urine, was controlled with medication.

Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Takata countered the doctors' diagnoses by questioning why only after Lawrence's admission to the State Hospital he admitted to murdering Tabag, and claimed he did so because he heard voices. Takata also questioned why it was then that Lawrence inquired about the possibility of an insanity plea.

If Lawrence did not believe he had done anything wrong, why did hospital records show he was beginning, since November 1999, to accept that he faces indefinite incarceration in prison or the hospital? Takata asked.

If convicted of second-degree murder, Lawrence faces life with the possibility of parole. If acquitted by reason of insanity, the court is likely to commit him to the Hawaii State Hospital where he will not be released unless by court order. Typically, defendants committed to the State Hospital spend a longer time hospitalized than what they would otherwise spend in prison.

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