A Young Man's Path Through the Mental Health Care System Led to Prison — and a Fatal Encounter | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Young Man's Path Through the Mental Health Care System Led to Prison — and a Fatal Encounter 

Published September 6, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated September 7, 2023 at 5:08 p.m.

click to enlarge Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta's yearbook photo - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta's yearbook photo

H e was being hunted — he was certain of it. Bus passengers studied him from the corners of their eyes. Trucks kept circling the block. Strangers hovered close. He heard shouts and screams, spectral sounds usually shrugged off as urban din. But on this windy December night in 2020, the young man took them as clues that assassins were closing in.

He hid inside a downtown café and called Burlington police for help. Soon, nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center were introduced to Mbyayenge Mafuta. Friends knew him by his nickname, Robbie, which he pronounced in an unusual way, ROW-bee, that sounded like the name of the six-inch Bowie knife he'd begun carrying for protection.

about this story

Our reporting is based upon hundreds of pages of court documents, police reports and interviews with Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta and people who know him. Seven Days also obtained Mafuta's medical records from his court-appointed attorneys, with Mafuta's permission.

Clinicians sketched a profile of the new patient: 19 years old, Black, clean-shaven, no known psychiatric history. He was paranoid, and likely hallucinating. "I am being followed by a group of people unknown to me," Mafuta told a nurse. She escorted him to Room 37, one of two in the emergency department outfitted with retractable metal screens used to shield medical equipment when patients lash out during a psychotic episode.

A specialist arrived two hours later and began asking questions. The first was easy: Where do you live?

"In my head," Mafuta answered.

Over the next two years, Mafuta's name and face would become familiar to doctors, police, correctional officers and residents of a city increasingly anxious about the interlocking problems of mental illness, homelessness and crime. He would return to the hospital again and again and take to sleeping on downtown park benches. He would be tackled and tased during a publicized run-in with Burlington cops, stoking a policing debate that had been ignited by George Floyd's murder. During a heated local election campaign, city officials would deploy Mafuta as a symbol of decaying public safety.

Then, in a matter of seconds inside a St. Albans prison last December, Mafuta beat and gravely injured his cellmate. Mafuta stepped outside their cell that day, dazed and bloody, as prison officers scrambled to save Jeffrey Hall, who subsequently died in a hospital. Last month, Mafuta appeared in a Franklin County courtroom to answer a charge of murder.

The bare facts of the attack seem to point to a dangerous and volatile defendant whose destructive impulses flared in prison. But interviews with Mafuta and people close to him, as well as a review of police records and hundreds of pages of medical charts, reveal a far more complicated chain of events.

This more disquieting account is the story of a young immigrant who endured childhood trauma but matured into a gifted and charismatic teen — only to sink into a quicksand of mental illness and homelessness from which an overtaxed, fragmented network of care was unable to rescue him. His descent offers a telling glimpse into the inadequacies of a system that provides limited support during the early stages of psychiatric illness, forcing the machinery of criminal justice to respond when crises result.

If Mafuta's murder case makes it to trial, his attorneys will seek to convince jurors that he was not guilty because he was insane when he attacked Hall, a finding no Vermont jury has delivered in living memory. Mafuta's future could hinge on what a dozen people in law-and-order Franklin County imagine was going through his mind during a 30-second spasm of violence.

But the path to the events of Cell 17 travels first, two years earlier, through Room 37 in UVM's emergency department, where a frightened teenager went to feel safe.

'I Had to Grow Up Really Fast'

click to enlarge Mafuta playing for the South Burlington Dolphins as No. 77 - COURTESY OF SOUTH BURLINGTON DOLPHINS
  • Courtesy Of South Burlington Dolphins
  • Mafuta playing for the South Burlington Dolphins as No. 77

Mafuta was suspicious of the man taking notes. Mafuta had been sitting in the emergency department for more than two hours, exposed in his hospital gown, nervously spinning the identification bracelet around his wrist. His eyes checked the doorway. Even here, he did not know whom to trust.

His interlocutor worked with an all-hours crisis service run by Chittenden County's mental health provider, Howard Center. At first, Mafuta evaded the queries. But the therapist, an immigrant like him, specialized in working with young, traumatized adults, and with gentle questioning Mafuta began to reveal some details about his life.

Again and again, Mafuta had lost people close to him: his biological mother, who lived on another continent; a caseworker who died of cancer; a friend who drowned in Lake Champlain. Now he felt alone and unmoored in the place where he'd grown up. Explaining that to the stranger in Room 37 transported Mafuta to the furthest reaches of his memory, to those of the young child who departed the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the United States.

Had they come as refugees? He wasn't sure. He knew he was 5 when he'd said goodbye to his mother and boarded an airplane to Indiana with his father, younger brother and stepmother. He was in elementary school when the family later moved to a brick apartment building in Essex, wedged into a suburban neighborhood of mostly single-family houses.

click to enlarge Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta' - COURTESY OF SOUTH BURLINGTON DOLPHINS
  • Courtesy Of South Burlington Dolphins
  • Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta'

Mafuta, outgoing and adventurous, wandered into the backyards of neighbors. He knocked on doors to ask for rides to school when he missed the bus. Some neighbors invited Mafuta into their homes to play Xbox with their kids. Others yelled at the Mafuta boys for playing with their family's toys, telling police they thought the children might steal them.

Inside the family's sparsely furnished apartment, Mafuta's father, Ponda, expected obedience, Mafuta would later recall. Mafuta had chores by the time he was 8 years old, and when he didn't do them, his father punished him harshly. When Ponda came home one afternoon to discover his son playing in the yard, Mafuta ran inside and pretended to sort the laundry, still dirty. The boy's screams reached the downstairs neighbor, Patrick Graziano, who was accustomed to loud noises from above, but nothing like this.

"You can tell when a child is in fear," he said.

Graziano ran upstairs, pushed open the Mafutas' door and found Ponda swinging a shoe at his son, who had curled defensively in a ball. Graziano pinned the man to the floor. The police took the father away in handcuffs.

It was the first of two times Ponda would face criminal charges for hitting his eldest child. The charges in both cases were later dropped, in one instance because Ponda agreed to go to specialized counseling for refugees and survivors of torture. (The elder Mafuta did not respond to interview requests.)

His son, nevertheless, was taken into state custody. Mafuta recalled moving from "one white house to the next" until he landed at Allenbrook, a South Burlington group home for teens with behavioral challenges. He'd been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, and he saw a youth therapist.

Allenbrook had its own strictures. The home ran on a system tied to privileges. Residents gained points for doing their dishes, lost points for taking too long in the shower. Mafuta got in trouble for running away. More than once, he turned up at the playground of the Burlington apartment complex where his family had since moved.

He missed the African dishes his family cooked at home: fufu, pondu madesu. He missed his siblings. Even though Mafuta was scared of his father at times, he missed him, too.

"I had to grow up really fast," he told a caseworker years later.

Most of Mafuta's middle school peers in South Burlington had cellphones. He stole a teacher's so he could have one, too.

click to enlarge Mafuta with the team - COURTESY OF SOUTH BURLINGTON DOLPHINS
  • Courtesy Of South Burlington Dolphins
  • Mafuta with the team

In sports, he found an outlet. The group home connected him to a youth football team, the Dolphins, and coach Rene LaBerge showed him how to channel pent-up aggression into something positive. "I used football as a way to express myself," Mafuta later recalled.

By high school, he was a five-foot-10, 215-pound defensive standout and a frequent presence in opponents' backfields, disrupting plays before they began. He was named all-state defensive lineman on the inaugural Burlington-South Burlington varsity football squad, the SeaWolves.

Once Mafuta learned to become a teammate, making friends came naturally. He brought dates to school dances and blew curfew to snack at Al's French Frys. He started making rap music with friends, including North Ave Jax, who now plays sold-out shows.

Around that time, Anais Carpentier, a junior, was struggling to find her place after moving to Vermont with her family. Mafuta introduced her to his friends and brought her to hangouts. "I got you," he told her. She'd drop him off at Allenbrook, and they'd lose track of time chatting in the parking lot.

"He's the reason high school wasn't that bad for me," Carpentier said.

Mafuta's senior classmates voted him as having the "most Wolfpack pride" — and roared when the high school principal called his name on graduation day in June 2019. His parents posed for photos alongside him in his cap and gown.

His time at Allenbrook was winding down. Mafuta hoped an athletics scholarship would propel him to college, maybe even Yale University. That didn't pan out, nor could he afford prep school. So as friends embarked for college, Mafuta went instead to Kentucky, where his father had found new work, to try to live with his parents again.

They continued to clash. Just before the pandemic, he moved back to Vermont on his own.

Assassins and a Tapped Phone

click to enlarge Mafuta and Anais Carpentier - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mafuta and Anais Carpentier

The crisis therapist at the hospital in December 2020 wanted to know about those months between Mafuta's return to Vermont and his current, paranoid state. Mafuta, though, was fixated on the previous week. He had been hearing noises inside a recent girlfriend's home, Mafuta explained, but she told him he was imagining them. Then the mysterious troupe began stalking him.

"Writer doubts that this is the first episode," the therapist noted. "It is more likely that he has not revealed it before."

Mafuta had been under enormous stress. After returning to Burlington, he stayed with a friend's mother, who kicked him out because, she said, he kept smoking weed in the house. He bounced from couch to couch. The pandemic hit, and Mafuta began staying in state-sponsored motel rooms. He had no car, and the rooms had no kitchens.

Carpentier visited him in the run-down motels. But he became harder to find, and, at the end of summer 2020, she lost his trail.

A separate friend picked up Mafuta at Oakledge Park one evening. Taylor Chibuzo had only known Mafuta for a couple of years, but he had become her best friend. She'd look in awe at his journals, full of deft drawings and doodles. On this night, Mafuta seemed agitated. As she drove, he directed her to take abrupt turns because someone was following them. He seemed convinced that her phone was tapped. That night, Chibuzo found him standing in her front yard, staring at nothing but the pitch black.

It was the first time Chibuzo had felt uncomfortable around her friend. His paranoia made her wonder about schizophrenia, a disease she knew little about.

It was months before clinicians would deliver such a diagnosis, though research on schizophrenia indicates that Mafuta's age, migrant background and history of childhood abuse put him at a higher risk for developing the disease. But psychosis has many causes, and diagnosing an underlying condition takes time. A hospital psychiatrist who assessed Mafuta that December night wondered whether his symptoms might have been a result of heavy cannabis use. The specialist encouraged him to stay at the hospital until his condition improved.

Mafuta seemed amenable, telling them his assassins would leave his body in a ditch if he returned to the street. Still, just a few hours later, he changed his mind and walked out.

Over the next few days, Mafuta contacted Burlington police repeatedly to express fear that he was being followed. Then someone called 911 from Lakeview Cemetery to report what they believed might be a body. It was Mafuta, alive but face down in the snow next to the grave of his friend who had drowned in Lake Champlain several years earlier. Mafuta refused help but later showed up at the fire department asking for a ride to the emergency room. He left the hospital shortly after, only to return hours later, explaining that he hadn't been in the "right headspace" earlier. He agreed to be admitted to the psychiatric unit.

That day, Mafuta took his first dose of an antipsychotic medication. Over the week that followed, doctors noted that his paranoia seemed to subside. On December 18, he told them that he'd stopped hearing from a joke-telling "imaginary friend" and assured them that he had thrown away the cellphone he believed was tapped. He asked to be discharged.

Doctors urged him to stay a few more days so they could discuss a treatment plan going forward. Mafuta said he would schedule follow-up appointments on his own and sleep at a friend's house. The hospital ordered him a cab to help him get there.

'Something Must Be Going On'

click to enlarge Mafuta with his lawyer Paul Groce - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Mafuta with his lawyer Paul Groce

Mafuta had reached a critical juncture. One or two psychotic episodes can cost someone a job, damage relationships and prompt encounters with the police. But intensive, ongoing care can, for some people, reverse that trajectory.

Vermont is the only state without an intervention program known as coordinated specialty care, which the federal government says is proven to work. It's meant to prevent someone in the early stages of psychosis from spiraling toward deeper trouble. Some Vermont mental health workers, with state support, have pioneered a similar yet distinct treatment approach that marshals a team of therapists, family and friends to help a person address their needs. This more collaborative technique is not widely available, however, and most Vermonters do not receive such treatment. Mafuta wouldn't, either.

In the weeks following his December discharge, he had no further contact with the hospital or Howard Center, according to his medical records. Instead, he tried to solve mounting problems on his own.

Mafuta went to Goodwill and asked to be hired back for a job he had abandoned weeks earlier. When the manager said no, according to a police report, he knocked over merchandise and was barred from the property. Mafuta told a South Burlington officer who responded to stay "six feet away." The officer placed a written notice of trespass on the ground.

Soon after, in early January 2021, a Burlington police officer flagged down Mafuta on an Old North End sidewalk while investigating a report that someone resembling him had tried to break into a parked car. Mafuta walked past the officer, who grabbed his shoulder. He told the officer not to touch him. The exchange became heated and turned into a scuffle. Mafuta was eventually subdued by an electric shock. He was booked for assaulting the officer and released.

Three days later, he showed up at the house of a New North End family he didn't know and demanded they let him inside because, he told them, his phone was dead, according to court records. After they shut the door, he broke into their garage and began smashing items. Police arrested him at gunpoint.

That prompted the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office to ask a judge to detain Mafuta while the cases played out in court. He was locked up for the first time in his life.

Soon, videos of his arrest-by-Taser received extensive news coverage in Burlington.

State's Attorney Sarah George began fielding calls from acquaintances who'd known Mafuta through their work at South Burlington High School. His recent behavior didn't add up, they told her; something must be going on. The calls surprised George: In her experience, people didn't usually speak up for homeless Black men.

The prosecutor said she asked the callers whether they knew anyone who could give Mafuta a place to live and watch over him. None came forward, so Mafuta spent nearly three months imprisoned while awaiting trial. "I don't think our intention was ever to have him be in that long," George said.

Incarceration had a "seriously adverse effect" on Mafuta because of his youthfulness and mental health issues, his public defenders argued in a bid for his release pending trial, which a judge granted in March. They hired a social worker to arrange for a hotel room, provide Mafuta with a cellphone and help him stay on top of his medication.

Meanwhile, a pair of psychiatrists evaluated Mafuta and determined that he was insane at the time of the January incidents. Prosecutors and his public defender began working out a deal to drop the charges in exchange for community treatment.

Then he was accused of another crime.

Mafuta had begun working in the kitchen at Olive Garden in South Burlington following his release but walked off during one of his shifts. When he learned days later that he no longer had a job, he hijacked a truck in the parking lot with one of its owners still inside and sped off toward a friend's house. He stopped to let her out, then continued driving until police pulled him over.

This time, a court-ordered psychiatrist concluded that Mafuta had understood his actions and was mentally fit to stand trial for the carjacking charge. He spent another four months in prison, until October 2021.

By then, as word spread of his erratic behavior, many peers were writing him off, his friend Carpentier said. She tried to stick by him, but it was growing more difficult.

Phone conversations with Mafuta devolved into arguments. He cussed her out and accused her of plotting against him. "That had never happened before," she said.

Trusted Voices

A second deal with prosecutors sent Mafuta to treatment court, a community-based program for defendants with mental health conditions or drug addictions. It entailed drug tests, therapy and regular visits before a judge.

He was assigned a caseworker from Howard Center, the county mental health agency. His caseworker tallied Mafuta's strengths: "good energy, trusting, motivated toward change, old soul." For needs, she listed "affection, encouragement." Mafuta said what he needed most was consistency. It had been 10 months and two prison stints since his initial hospital visit.

Treatment court offered structure and supervision. He sought out new work, joined a cooking class and showed up to mandated court hearings.

Still, Mafuta's housing situation was precarious, and he strained to make sense of the waves of psychosis that doctors now suspected were symptoms of schizophrenia.

"I had to be my own father, which is where this voice in my head came from," he told his caseworker. "It is my best friend. I trust this voice more than anything else in the world."

One of the only people outside the system still keeping tabs on Mafuta was a Burlington barber, Tony Clarke. Clarke had met Mafuta years earlier while working with his father at Magic Hat Brewing and had occasionally joined Ponda on visits to Allenbrook group home. After Mafuta returned to Vermont, he and Clarke grew close.

Mafuta was desperate to prove that he could make it on his own. In phone calls with his father, he betrayed little of his troubles. He put on a strong face whenever he spoke to Clarke, too.

Clarke saw through the façade. "I was telling his father, like, 'Yo, shit is not good,' and he couldn't believe it," Clarke said.

When Ponda found out his son was homeless, he flew to Burlington and paid a woman from their former church to put up Mafuta, Clarke said. The arrangement ended because, Mafuta said, he was caught smoking weed at that house, too. Mafuta's struggles were stressful for Ponda, Clarke said, "because he wanted to help him but couldn't."

Early one morning, Clarke was taking out the trash from his Main Street barbershop, Kut Masterz, when he heard someone rapping to himself at a bus stop. He rounded the corner and saw Mafuta, who by then was spending nights at a shelter on Shelburne Road. Clarke invited him inside.

Clarke started swinging by the shelter in case Mafuta needed a ride. Mafuta became a frequent presence at the barbershop, where he could count on food, comfort, conversation and a crisp haircut — usually a flattop or a fade.

When Mafuta said odd things, such as declaring that the left side of his body "walked with death," Clarke would tell him to "knock the bullshit off, man. I know you; this is not you." He didn't know what else to say.

Mafuta relied increasingly on doctors, yet the medication gave him tremors that got so bad in January 2022 that he went to the emergency room. A doctor suggested he stop taking the pills and visit his primary care physician in Colchester.

It's unclear whether he ever followed up. But when Mafuta returned to the UVM Medical Center emergency department again in April 2022, he disclosed that he had not taken his medication in three months.

Mafuta now said the Ku Klux Klan was following him and that his medications were being used for mind control. He tried to "cast spells" on one clinician and told another he might need to harm her so that she would stop writing things down.

"Just kill me now!" he screamed.

He shook the stretcher in his room, slammed a stool on the floor, and ran down a hallway with security and staff in pursuit.

The doctors decided that his threatening words and behavior were grounds for emergency inpatient treatment, otherwise known as involuntary commitment.

He spent another night in an emergency room, waiting for a bed.

'Swath of Destruction'

click to enlarge Mafuta being brought into court by Sheriff John Grismore - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Mafuta being brought into court by Sheriff John Grismore

Mafuta ended up at the Brattleboro Retreat, a nonprofit psychiatric hospital two hours away.

"Get out," he told the first nurse to enter his room.

He did not want to be in a hospital. His 21st birthday was coming up. He'd only gone to the emergency department in Burlington because he was looking for someplace to sleep, he told another nurse. Being homeless, he said, made his symptoms worse.

He struggled to explain the voices he heard in ways that doctors and nurses could understand — or he'd deny hearing anything. Like many people thought to have schizophrenia, he questioned his diagnosis. In time, Retreat staff persuaded Mafuta to try different antipsychotic medicines, which he said helped settle his mind. He went to peer meetings and made snacks using recipe cards. He wrote poetry.

As his stay neared the one-month mark, Mafuta wanted to return to Burlington so he could take more cooking classes. His treatment team began making plans for his discharge in May 2022.

One of the providers noted that Mafuta might benefit from residential treatment upon release. They placed him in a short-term crisis stabilization center, ASSIST, run by Howard Center.

During Mafuta's fourth day at ASSIST, house staffers made him take a Breathalyzer test because they thought, incorrectly, that his drink contained alcohol. Mafuta lost control. He thrust his elbow through a wall, causing his arm to bleed, and smashed a window. Employees hid in their offices while the police came.

The manager said Mafuta had to leave. But, she told police, he was unsafe to be on his own. An officer drove him to the UVM Medical Center.

Later that night, the hospital discharged him. Mafuta was back on the street — what would become his final, crushing stint. At a homeless shelter, he damaged property and was told to leave. He slept outdoors, usually on park benches, and lost track of his medications. His hallucinations became overwhelming, and he got more criminal citations and made more trips to the ER. "I just want to get my fucking medications so I can sleep," he yelled during one visit, before punching a machine. He was given an injection of a powerful antipsychotic drug.

Nighttime could be terrifying. He sought out safety in City Hall Park, a popular homeless hangout, only to wake up to the patter of rain and realize that everyone else had left. Mafuta wandered empty downtown streets, panic mounting, wondering where the other homeless people had gone. "I'm hearing people talking to me," he remembered later. "I'm seeing shadows walk across the streets." He huddled near Wi-Fi hot spots so he could listen to music on his headphones until daybreak.

Feeling suicidal, he jumped in front of traffic on Shelburne Road. He had outbursts at the library and at a pharmacy. He was accused of smashing windows at churches and businesses and of stealing clothes, a phone.

Burlington residents, meanwhile, were losing patience with the sort of public displays of homelessness, disorder and property crime that Mafuta was coming to represent. Those concerns fueled the August 2022 primary battle for Chittenden County state's attorney, in which George's challenger, backed by the Burlington police union, pledged to clean up the streets by keeping more suspects behind bars.

Mafuta's personal crisis crashed into the politics of public safety during the final 72 hours of the campaign. Police again found Mafuta jumping in front of traffic. The next day, he was removed from a daytime shelter after ripping the door handle from a car in the parking lot.

On the eve of the primary election, Mafuta smashed windows at the bus station downtown, court papers allege. Then, in the early morning hours, he walked to the South End home where one of his former foster families lived. He asked to stay there, but they declined. Mafuta launched rocks through a bedroom window. He went on to damage more than 30 other nearby homes, prosecutors allege.

Voters awoke on primary day to headlines dubbing the vandalism spree a "swath of destruction." The phrase had been plucked straight from a press release sent out by then-acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad. The release noted that Mafuta had accumulated more than 100 "police involvements," including one occasion in which he'd asked police to take him to jail so he could get his medication.

Mayor Miro Weinberger called on authorities to do more to "sustain the peace and safety that this community has long enjoyed."

George, who won reelection, said the police chief spoke dismissively of Mafuta's struggles during an administrative meeting a few days later. "Everybody has mental health issues these days," George said she heard him say.

In an email to Seven Days, Murad said he didn't recall his exact words. His point, he said, was that most people with mental illness don't harm others, and those who do must be treated in ways that also preserve public safety. Absent effective treatment, prison is sometimes the only option, Murad wrote. For too long, he added, Mafuta "was able to repeatedly victimize others."

Staring Blankly

click to enlarge A cell in Northwest State Correctional Facility - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • A cell in Northwest State Correctional Facility

The vandalism spree convinced Superior Court Judge John Pacht that efforts to help Mafuta in the community were not working.

He ordered Mafuta to be kept at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin until a psychiatrist could evaluate whether he needed a prolonged hospital stay. A few weeks later, a state psychiatrist found Mafuta fit to stand trial, and he was transferred to Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

"Client will be better served by the correctional facility where he is currently held," a note in his Howard Center file concluded.

The Department of Corrections deemed Mafuta to have "serious functional impairment," a designation for prisoners with debilitating mental illness. Only 40 or so Vermont inmates meet the narrow criteria for the designation at any given time. Most are housed at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, which maintains more extensive medical resources, including a residential psychiatric unit.

Mafuta was one of three inmates in St. Albans with the high-needs designation. He met periodically with social workers and a psychiatrist employed by the state's private medical contractor at the time, VitalCore Health Strategies, to plan treatment.

He was assigned to a general-population unit with narrow cells and a shared bathroom. Fellow inmates said they soon noticed him acting strangely. He told them he could hear their thoughts. Some days he stared blankly at the wall.

Even so, Mafuta was unusually "genuine," fellow inmate Daniel Mitchell said. The pair sometimes walked circles together around the unit. Mitchell learned that Mafuta didn't have family members who visited or money to buy items from the commissary. He sometimes asked to use other inmates' tablet computers so he could listen to music.

As winter set in, Mafuta was struggling. He asked Mitchell for help getting a job in prison, but Mitchell said the correctional officers didn't think Mafuta was reliable enough. He asked a psychiatrist for a higher dosage of his antipsychotic medication, but records show he was denied; his dosage had just been increased.

Some inmates worried. One spoke to a correctional officer, who told the inmate to put his concerns in writing, according to a court affidavit filed by a Vermont state trooper. The inmate wrote that the way Mafuta looked at him and others "has me thinking he's going to hurt someone really bad." But he never submitted the note.

On December 19, 2022, Mafuta's public defender and a Chittenden County prosecutor told a judge that they were nearing a deal to close his pending cases, so long as they could find him a place to live — typically a condition for release.

Later that day, Mafuta began screaming and throwing things inside his cell. He was taken to the segregation unit and placed on suicide watch because he said he planned to kill himself.

Prison officials returned Mafuta to the main unit the following day at his request, despite his refusal to take some of his medications, medical records show. "He was able to process what happened last night and create a plan," a VitalCore therapist wrote in an email to prison officials.

He was placed in Cell 17 — and assigned a new roommate.

A Scream for Help

Jeff Hall, like Mafuta, had fallen into homelessness in the place where he grew up.

The 55-year-old had attended Burlington High School but did not graduate. He worked for a time stocking shelves at a grocery store but spent much of his adult life in trouble with the law.

His problems in recent years appeared to be intertwined with addiction. By last December, Hall was awaiting trial on several charges, including allegedly stealing a MacBook, $500 Gucci sunglasses and other items from a parked car. Police met the victim at City Hall Park, where she recovered some of her belongings from a cart Hall pushed around.

He had a mixed reputation in prison. One former cellmate recalled Hall fondly. The only frustration, the cellmate said, was Hall's insistence on watching every NASCAR race, even the monotonous qualifying laps. "Doesn't make sense to watch the race if you're not gonna watch the qualifier," Hall would say. Others said they knew Hall for his sticky fingers. He once managed to swipe a cup of Red Bull from a correctional officer's desk, Mitchell said, impressed. Hall's family, through an attorney, declined interview requests.

Prison officials were unaware of any trouble between Mafuta and Hall, according to court records. Four inmates interviewed for this story said the same.

But inmates said they were alarmed by Mafuta's state of mind following his brief time on suicide watch. As Mafuta walked with Mitchell on December 22, Mafuta's distress was obvious. And for the first time, according to Mitchell, his comments suggested violence.

"He was like, 'My voices keep telling me to hurt people ... I keep telling them I don't want to hurt anyone; I'm not a hurtful person,'" Mitchell recalled. "He kept trying to hold them back, basically."

Mitchell gave Mafuta scoops of instant grounds so his friend could make coffee.

Officers soon came to the unit to perform the afternoon head count, during which inmates are told to wait in their unlocked cells. Hall walked back to the one he shared with Mafuta. Seconds later, a scream for help escaped from behind the steel door.

Officers scrambled to find the source. Officer David Lumbra headed first for Cell 12, where he had heard the cellmates were not getting along. But the cries were several cells away.

As Lumbra continued his search, Mafuta walked out of his cell, expressionless, his hands and pants covered in blood, and sat at a nearby table, according to court records and accounts of inmates. The officer looked in, saw Hall on the floor and radioed for backup.

Mafuta sat quietly until officers handcuffed him and hauled him away. He was strip-searched and placed in a cell outfitted with a security camera.

Matt Engels, a longtime prison supervisor and trained EMT, shined a penlight into Hall's eyes. They were dilated and unresponsive, a sign of possible brain injury. An ambulance rushed Hall to the hospital, where he was placed in a medically induced coma. He would die within three months.

State troopers who investigated were escorted by prison staff to Cell 17, which had been cordoned off with evidence tape. They noted bloodstains on the floor and the edge of the metal bunk bed.

They also noticed a separate, lighter stain nearby — a cup of coffee spilled during the rush to aid Hall.

'He's Gonna Get Smoked'

click to enlarge Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta' - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta'

In the days that followed the episode, Mafuta offered varying accounts that are hard to reconcile. He told a psychiatrist by phone that his voices hadn't instructed him to harm anyone. Instead, he knew Hall had been making disrespectful comments and stealing things from other inmates, "so I decided to handle the situation because I thought it was the right thing to do."

That conversation, a week after the attack, took place because corrections staff were concerned that Mafuta needed to be hospitalized; he was refusing his medication and had spent hours the previous day speaking to himself in a mirror. "I'm seeing shit and hearing shit all the time ... You are using my words," a security camera recorded him saying.

Two weeks later, a correctional officer overheard Mafuta speaking to inmates. They were laughing, and Mafuta didn't seem to understand how seriously he'd injured Hall. "What? He's still in the hospital? That's crazy," the officer heard Mafuta say. One of the inmates told investigators that Mafuta said he'd "spazzed out, came to and there was blood all over him."

Investigators have not offered evidence that Mafuta plotted the attack. No one claims to have seen what happened inside the cell. Mafuta declined to talk to the police, and his attorneys instructed him not to answer questions about the encounter during interviews with Seven Days.

In August, the state charged Mafuta with second-degree murder. At his arraignment in St. Albans, Mafuta, who had grown a patchy beard and put on weight, looked older than his 22 years. Shackled and dressed in thin, red prison clothes, he sat quietly as his public defenders entered a not-guilty plea.

This was no longer in Burlington, where prosecutors in George's office had worked with defense attorneys to find ways to limit Mafuta's time behind bars. George had established a track record of choosing not to pursue murder charges when experts believed the defendant was insane.

Mafuta was flanked by two public officials who were continuing to enforce the law despite their own alleged misdeeds. To his left stood Sheriff John Grismore, whom voters elected even as he faces an assault charge for kicking a handcuffed detainee. To Mafuta's right sat Franklin County state's attorney John Lavoie, who at the time was facing impeachment proceedings before the Vermont legislature over his use of crass, racist and sexist language with his employees. Lavoie submitted his resignation hours after Mafuta's arraignment. On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott appointed former state prosecutor Bram Kranichfeld as Lavoie's interim replacement.

If Mafuta is found not guilty, or has the charges dismissed because of his mental health, the state will then face another, politically charged question: what to do with him next.

Meantime, other questions surround the case, including whether Mafuta should have returned to general population from mental health watch so soon. The Department of Corrections reviewed its own handling of the matter, including decisions made by its health care contractor, and found no missteps, according to Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml. "There's really nothing in the record that would have led us to a different conclusion," he said.

Independent investigations are standard whenever someone dies in prison. But none was performed in this case because Hall was no longer in state custody when he died months later. Department leaders could have commissioned an independent report anyway but didn't.

Mitchell, Mafuta's prison friend, wonders whether Mafuta should have been incarcerated at all, given his need for psychiatric care. Even Deml acknowledges that his agency is relied on a lot — perhaps too much — to care for sick people.

"I feel like he's gonna get smoked and be in here even longer," Mitchell said, "when he should have never been in here in the first place."

Mafuta spoke to Seven Days for three hours over separate phone calls this summer. He frequently struggled to find his words but discussed his relationship with his father, his experiences at the hospital and the desperation he had experienced living on the street.

Asked what he needed during that time, he answered in the present tense, as if he were not sitting behind bars and could remain so for a long time to come.

"I need permanent housing, I need clothes, and I need a way of getting a job so I have money so I can pay for stuff," he said from Southern State Correctional Facility, where he has been held for most of this year in a restrictive unit. "I don't like waking up every day thinking I need to steal or I need to starve."

Mafuta also seemed to acknowledge, in a way he hasn't always, that if he were freed, he would not be able to rebuild his life alone.

"I just don't see myself going anywhere," he said, "if I have to do all this on my own."

A question weighs on his two close friends, Carpentier and Chibuzo: Could I have done more?

Chibuzo now lives in West Virginia with her husband. She still thinks about Mafuta every day.

"I still would put everything on it that he's not evil," she said. "I just think, clearly, there's something very, very wrong. And I think he's been trying to tell people."

Carpentier is starting her final semester of college, where she's studying psychology and criminal justice. Her memories of visiting Mafuta in motel rooms inspired her senior thesis: a study of how children in state custody can be better supported into adulthood.

During their final days together in Burlington, Carpentier said, they would sit in her car and she would try, the best way she knew, to get him to open up.

"Where's the kid I know, who always smiled and laughed?" she'd ask, encouragingly.

"Stuff happened, and it changed me," he'd tell her.

"That's pretty much all he would say."

The original print version of this article was headlined "From Room 37 to Cell 17 | A young man's path through the mental health care system led to prison — and a fatal encounter"

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About The Authors

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer is a news reporter at Seven Days, focusing on law enforcement and courts. He previously worked at the Missoula Independent, a Montana alt-weekly.
Colin Flanders

Colin Flanders

Colin Flanders is a political reporter at Seven Days, covering the Statehouse. He previously worked as a reporter at a group of Chittenden County weekly newspapers covering Essex, Milton and Colchester.


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