Devil’s Slide crash: Accused driver bound for admission in mental health diversion program after judge’s ruling

The Pasadena radiologist accused of driving his family off a Highway 1 cliff during an apparent psychotic break last year appears bound for admission into a mental health diversion program on Thursday morning, one that could force prosecutors to completely dismiss his criminal case.

Dharmesh Patel, 43, could be released from jail this summer for the first time in nearly 18 months after San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Susan Jakubowski found that he is eligible and suitable for the diversion program. It was established by state lawmakers in 2018 as a way to help stem the tide of mental illness in jails and prisons, usually by dismissing cases and offering treatment for the underlying conditions behind a defendant’s arrest.

The ruling means Patel could be released this summer to live with his parents in San Mateo County, while he begins a two-year treatment program overseen by the head of Stanford University’s forensic psychiatric fellowship. If he successfully completes the program, then prosecutors will dismiss all of the charges against him, including three counts of attempted murder.

In making her ruling, Jakubowski said that Patel appears “by all accounts a kind and loving” person who would best be served living at home and getting treatment, as opposed to waiting for trial in a jail cell.

“He wants to continue psychiatric treatment,” Jakubowski said, while issuing her ruling from the bench. “The court believes he now realized the importance of being forthright.” Further, he appears to have a strong support system ready to help him get better, the judge added.

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Patel was told to appear in court for a hearing on July 1, during which his release could be addressed. Until then, Patel will remain held without bail at the San Mateo County jail.

Sitting in a red-orange jail jumpsuit, Patel appeared to wipe a tear from his cheek after the ruling. In the gallery, his family hugged each other. Afterward, one of those relatives said he was “just pleased with the outcome,” but he did not volunteer his name and other family members declined to comment.

Patel’s attorney, Joshua Bentley, declined to comment after the hearing.

The judge’s decision capped a three-day hearing in April and May that included combatting views on Patel’s mental state, along with an impassioned plea by the radiologist’s wife that “we need him in our life.”

Patel was charged in early 2023 with three counts of attempted murder after prosecutors alleged the Southern California radiologist drove his family’s Tesla off Highway 1 and down a 330-foot cliff onto a rocky beach north of Half Moon Bay.

Patel later pleaded not guilty, claiming the family’s Tesla had been experiencing tire issues that may have caused the crash. That narrative ran counter to statements his wife made to first responders that her husband was “depressed” and that “he purposely drove off” the cliff. Investigators also said the Tesla’s self-driving features did “not appear to be a contributing factor” in the incident.

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Psychologists later testified that the crash appeared to have been a desperate bid by Patel attempt to kill his family, as the radiologist figured that his children — ages 4 and 7 at the time of the crash — were better off dead than being forced into sex trafficking by shadowy kidnappers tied to the accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. His fears were all rooted in delusions that also touched on the nation’s fentanyl crisis and the war in Ukraine, according to court testimony.

Yet exactly what caused his psychosis became a subject of intense debate among clinicians who examined him.

Multiple psychologists diagnosed Patel with major depressive disorder in the weeks and months following the crash. One clinician based his diagnosis on 18 tests given to Patel, as well as multiple discussions with him and his brother and sister.

Yet another psychologist — the lone clinician called to testify by prosecutors — argued that Patel instead suffered from schizoaffective disorder. The new diagnosis came just days before Patel’s hearing began, raising concerns that Patel was not being appropriately treated and, thus, not ready for release.

“What is most frightening is no one saw this coming,” said Dominique Davis, a San Mateo County deputy district attorney, while arguing last month against Patel’s release. She noted that Patel appeared “able to mask his symptoms,” which “increases his danger exponentially.”

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“The bottom line is with mental health diversion, we just don’t have the ability to act in time” should Patel once again become deluded and suffer a psychotic break, she added.

On Thursday, Judge Jakubowski cast a skeptical eye at the notion that Patel was suffering anything other than major depressive disorder.

The prosecutor’s portrayal was at odds with an emotional plea by Patel’s wife, who argued that “we’re not a family without him.” In pleading for her husband’s release, Neha Patel stressed she “will not hesitate to seek help when needed” under a treatment plan that relies, in part, on Dharmesh Patel’s family to report any signs of further mental instability to the court.

“Not one witness came in to testify that Mr. Patel poses a risk of danger to society,” added Bentley during a hearing last month. Plainly said, the doctor “is a decent human being, with zero criminal history,” he added.

To be eligible for the diversion program, defendants must be diagnosed with a mental illness that has a direct connection to their alleged crime. The mental illness also must be treatable within the duration of the diversion program, which is two years for felony cases and one year for misdemeanor cases.

People accused of serious felonies, such as murder, are ineligible for the program. However, the charges that Patel faces, which include attempted murder, make him eligible.

Check back for updates to this developing story.

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