A Waco man charged in the 2016 stabbing and beating death of a longtime AT&T worker was found not guilty by reason of insanity Thursday during a hearing that featured emotional statements from three of the victim’s seven daughters and a granddaughter.
After hearing testimony from a psychiatrist and a psychologist, Visiting Judge David Hodges ruled Zachary Lamone McKee, who has a long history of schizophrenia and substance abuse, was insane when he killed 61-year-old Kenneth Cleveland.
Hodges ordered the 30-year-old McKee to be held at a maximum-security state hospital for at least 30 days while officials conduct a threat assessment. After that, his commitment will be reviewed annually by the court.
McKee, who was heavily medicated at the hearing, sat motionless and expressionless, appearing to nod once while one of Cleveland’s daughters was giving an angry, emotional victim-impact statement.
The judge said that from the evidence presented at the hearing, there was only one conclusion for him to reach, which did not sit well with Cleveland’s family and friends who packed the courtroom.
“You took my hero,” one of Cleveland’s daughters said in her statement to McKee. “You took my daddy. For this, I hope you burn with the devil.”
Two of the family members said McKee was “playing the system” by pretending to be insane, which one said “was a big slap in the face to this family.”
McKee was charged with murder in the April 2016 death of Cleveland, who worked as an AT&T technician for 43 years. Cleveland’s clothes were set on fire after he was stabbed more than 20 times and beaten with a shovel in an alley where he was working near the 1400 block of Barron Avenue.
An Austin psychiatrist and a Waco psychologist found McKee insane at the time of the offense, while a Waco psychiatrist found that he was sane.
Prosecutor Robert Moody offered the reports of Dr. Maureen Burrows and Dr. Lee Carter into evidence and called them as witnesses at the hearing. He did not introduce into evidence Dr. Steven L. Mark’s report that found McKee sane at the time or call Mark to testify.
Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court appointed Burrows to evaluate McKee after Mark and Carter issued conflicting opinions of McKee’s sanity.
McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson, who obviously was moved by the family’s emotions, called the resolution of the case “a sad and tragic day for the people of McLennan County.”
“It was a horrific and gruesome murder, and this is one of those times in the district attorney’s office that is super frustrating that we were not able to get what we would call justice for the victim’s family,” Johnson said.
“The way he was murdered angers all of us. It is gruesome. It is horrific. There are not words to describe it. The only real justice, we are not able to seek because of the law. So we have to put our anger and our feelings aside and we have to follow the law. And the law as it pertains to insanity is complicated,” he said.
McKee’s attorney, Chris Bullajian, said after the hearing that “it’s a sad situation for both of the families and for everyone involved.”
All the doctors agreed that McKee has a long history of schizophrenia and drug abuse. Carter testified Thursday that it was not a close call to arrive at his opinion that McKee was insane at the time he killed Cleveland.
Carter wrote in his report that McKee “freely broached the subject” of Cleveland’s murder and did not deny his involvement in his death.
“He reported that on the date of the index offense, ‘ravens, you know, crows, were crowing and communicating … they were crowing and speaking English… they were saying, ‘sting operation, sting operation.’ I told that to the detective. … I thought it was all a part of God’s plan…I had heard God speak out of the sky saying, ‘take bag — B-A-G..sort of like saying go ahead,’” according to Carter’s report.
McKee told Carter he went into the alley and Cleveland came down from the pole where he was working.
“What I did was real stupid .. when I say it was stupid, I mean it was real stupid … even though I heard them voices, I should have known better,” Carter’s report states, quoting McKee.
McKee said he wondered if Cleveland was a police officer. He started swinging a “kitchen appliance knife” at Cleveland and stabbed him seven or eight times. Carter told him the autopsy showed Cleveland was stabbed more than 20 times, and Cleveland was surprised, according to the report.
“He clarified, ‘I was trying to do ventriloquism through the birds’ voice … he was on a ladder and the bird was talking and talking … I asked the bird if (Cleveland) was a police officer because (the bird) was so experienced … on the third time I talked to (the bird) that’s when he said, ‘this is a sting operation.’.. I didn’t know what the man was but I felt like I had to attack him,’” according to Carter’s report.
Burrows testified that McKee was suffering from several symptoms of schizophrenia at the time, including both auditory and visual hallucinations. She said he is not malingering, or exaggerating his symptoms to beat the murder charge.
Hodges, noting the statewide shortage of mental health beds and an overburdened mental health system, asked Burrows what, if anything, could have prevented this tragedy.
She said the only way to lessen the likelihood of such incidents is to provide early screening for those suspected of mental illness and to be vigilant about following that up with continued treatment.
In Mark’s report to the court, he said McKee showed signs that he knew what he had done was wrong and he took measures to try to cover up his crime. That led Mark to conclude he was sane and knew what he had done was wrong.