Scratching the Bitch

Joseph Paiva was born defective, but prosecutors stamped him a habitual criminal.

Paiva spent three years at the Brown School. He remembers the Brown School as the sole positive experience in his long history of institutions. "The best place I ever went to was Brown School," he says with unusual clarity. "I had a one-on-one tutor, was getting my education. I didn't want to leave, it was so good there. In my mind, I knew I was doing good -- real good."

Assessments made by mental-health workers at the time confirm that Paiva was making some slow progress in learning to control his behavior. But they also noted severe limitations. With the chronological age of a high school sophomore, Paiva was still a "non-reader.... Neither return to public school nor obtainment of a GED are seen as viable goals. Due to the severity of his dyslexia, Joe will probably not be able to develop his reading skills to a literate (fourth grade) level."

Despite his improvement, Paiva was discharged from the San Marcos, Texas, facility in June 1980. A report says simply that "the local department of social services had discontinued funding." By then, at the age of fifteen, he had spent nearly half of his life in various homes and institutions.

Hadley Hooper
Despite his disabilities, Joseph Paiva is a talented 
sketch artist.
Despite his disabilities, Joseph Paiva is a talented sketch artist.

With no place else to go, Paiva returned to his mother's house in Aurora. Again, however, she was unprepared to care for him. Less than two months later, she placed him on a bus to go live with his father in Pueblo -- a plan that Robert Paiva was apparently unaware of or simply decided to ignore. Instead of his father, who was nowhere to be found, Paiva was met at the bus station by a social worker and taken into "emergency custody" by the local social services office.

Records show that three security guards were needed to control him. His furious behavior -- understandable but not acceptable -- earned him immediate admission to the Colorado State Hospital. He was discharged to a foster home three months later, again with minimal hope. "The prognosis is guarded in view of Joe's long history of institutionalized care and his continuing need for a very highly structured setting to help him function adequately," his final hospital report reads.

Even those low expectations turned out to be optimistic. Within months, Paiva had been moved from his foster home and installed in Savio House, a Denver-based treatment center for troubled adolescents. While there, he attended West High School for several months. He was subsequently removed from Savio, however, after he assaulted a staffer and poured lighter fluid on a windowsill and ignited it. By August 1981, he was back at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center for the third time.

Now seventeen years old, Paiva was an experienced patient. The intake interviews, group counseling sessions, communal living arrangements and constant testing were familiar ground. His problems -- angry outbursts, difficulty in getting along with others, a burgeoning drinking problem, slow learning and effective illiteracy -- were well-known and extensively documented. After three months of group and individual therapy at Fort Logan, he was released to the Emily Griffith Home, where he stayed for nine months.

From here the trail of Paiva's teenage years grows faint. One report states that he spent the remainder of his teens in foster homes. Paiva himself says he returned to Wallace Village -- a version another report supports. His mother doesn't remember much, perhaps because by that time, her contact with her son had dwindled to little more than occasional visits and sporadic letters.

What is known is that once he turned eighteen, Paiva had reached a sort of social services purgatory. Not handicapped enough to earn 24-hour in-patient mental-health care, yet too disabled to hold a steady job, he was turned loose to live on his own. He applied for and began receiving disability payments from Social Security -- his mother recalls that the checks were for about $400 a month. Paiva says he lived for a while at a boardinghouse in Pueblo, during which time he didn't do much: "Nothing, really. Go out, explore. Made a couple of friends."

Although Joseph Paiva's learning and social development had stalled, one thing that had changed by this time was that for the purposes of crime and punishment, he was now an adult; his transgressions were no longer incidents that could be considered youthful offenses, deserving of yet one more program.

Legally speaking, he'd grown up. The cops didn't have to wait long.

In January 1986, at the age of 21, Paiva was busted by the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office for stealing a couple hundred dollars. He was sentenced to six months' probation.

The incident seemed to be an aberration. For the next six and a half years, Paiva stayed out of trouble -- or at least out of the sight of local authorities. Toward the end of 1992, however, something happened. Paiva himself is unable to explain it, other than to say he got mixed up with the wrong people. Looking back, it doubtless had to do with his newfound interest in cocaine. But whatever the catalyst, over the next three months, he would, block by block, begin laying the foundation for a life in prison.

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