Infamous Pizza Hut break-in shines light on mental illness

When Richard Lee Quintero called 911 and told the dispatcher he was Jesus Christ — and then confessed that he’d just broken into a High Point Pizza Hut, eaten a pizza and drunk a Mountain Dew — the story went viral almost immediately. Ironically, the incident happened four days before Palm Sunday — the date was March 21 — and by that Sunday, people all over the country were crucifying Quintero for his comical late-night adventure.

But what quickly became a punch line for much of the country became a punch in the gut for Quintero’s family members, who were profoundly saddened by his escapade. It didn’t tickle their funny bones — it broke their hearts.

“Oh, it was horrible,” says Quintero’s mother, Alice Yorks, who lives in Greensboro. “It was absolutely horrible to hear it.”

Yes, people mocked her son for his seemingly sacrilegious claims that night — and that was painful enough for a mother to experience — but then she had to watch in anguish as Quintero spent more than a month and a half incarcerated, being treated more like a criminal than a man with a mental illness, she says.

“After 47 days, they finally did a psychiatric evaluation,” Yorks says with obvious exasperation in her voice. “This is not to point fingers — it’s not my purpose to put the blame on anyone in particular — but I don’t understand why it took 47 days to get a psychiatric evaluation and finally get Rich moved to a psychiatric hospital.”

According to Yorks, her son wants to stay at the psychiatric facility.

“He says it’s safe there, that it’s too hard for him out in the world,” she says softly. “It breaks my heart that he believes he can be safe and survive in a psychiatric hospital and not anywhere else. But I also know that the longer he’s there, the more consistent he’ll be on medication and the more stable he’ll become. So I believe in my heart a long-term treatment plan is best for Rich — I’m just hoping and praying that that materializes.”

Quintero’s case is not an isolated one in North Carolina, where the number of hospital beds for the mentally ill ranks near the bottom in the country.

“The problem is that there’s a gap in service,” explains Dr. Kim Soban, clinical director of Mental Health Associates of the Triad, a mental-health advocacy agency based in High Point.

“A lot of these clients that are severely mentally ill have trouble navigating the system once they get out of jail, so we need more case management to help put them where they need to be. And a second piece to that is that we no longer have as many psychiatric hospitals as we used to…”

“Bottom line, the jails have become psychiatric hospitals. More and more of these clients are ending up in jail, and that’s not where they need to be. We need more resources. For many of these folks, they have committed crimes, but if they had the resources they needed and the proper treatment, we would not be seeing them in jail anywhere near as much as we do.”

Yorks is grateful that her son’s widespread exposure, while unfortunate and heartbreaking, has given her a platform to advocate for change.

“I think through Rich’s story, people are starting to see that there is a serious issue with the lack of treatment for the mentally ill,” she says. “They see that he’s a real person. He’s not just a comical sound bite — he’s a real person who has a mental illness.”

And for the state to incarcerate him rather than treat him? That, she says, is insane.

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