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Retarded Man Just Wants to Be Left Alone

February 18, 1990 GMT

OREM, Utah (AP) _ After decades of making people nervous, Bernt Murphy just wants to be left alone to pick up the pieces of a life misspent in a mental hospital.

He even bought a welcome mat for the group home he shares with other retarded men so his neighbors will know they are harmless. But it’s received precious little wear.

Sometimes Murphy can only laugh at the fright he inspires.

″We keep seeing this white car at the end of the street by the fruit stand,″ he said. ″I think one night I might go knock on the window with a flashlight and ask what he’s doing.″

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Mildly retarded at birth, Murphy was 19 when he was arrested in 1957 on charges he raped and beat a 5-year-old girl. During questioning about that crime, police said he confessed to a murder two years before of a 23-year-old woman Murphy had known as a student at the Utah State Training School for the mentally retarded.

He was judged incompetent to stand trial for rape and was never charged with the murder. His attorneys now claim Murphy was a convenient suspect who admitted responsibility for the slaying under intense pressure from police.

Declared insane, Murphy spent more than three decades at the Utah State Hospital in Provo until the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that Murphy was mentally retarded, not insane, and ordered a plan for releasing him.

Last month, after spending a year living in quarters on the edge of hospital property and holding an outside job, he was secretly whisked to the duplex in nearby Orem. He shares it with three other men who, like Murphy, hold day jobs and are supervised at night.

Within days neighbors discovered Murphy’s identity and stormed a City Council meeting to demand his removal.

A spokesman for the neighbors, Rich Persons, said their concern stems from lack of information about the residents.

″No one from the state will step forward and tell us if these people are dangerous or not,″ he said. ″If the innuendos are correct and they are dangerous, why dump them in the middle of 7,000 children?″

Murphy’s attorney, Lisa Marcy, said she repeatedly has assured the neighbors the men aren’t dangerous. ″How many times do they need to hear it?″ she said.

Nevertheless, the City Council voted to require the private operators of the group home to obtain a business use permit even though the area is zoned residential. Murphy’s attorneys say they are prepared to file federal complaints to keep the home open.

″The Fair Housing Act that applies to Bernt is the same one that prevents blacks, Hispanics or women from being moved out of neighborhoods,″ Marcy said.

John Anderson, program specialist with the state Division of Handicapped Services, scoffs at the idea that Murphy is a threat to anyone. He said the duplex should qualify as an apartment program for handicapped adults, which normally would not require a permit.

″I just wish they’d leave us alone and quit bugging us,″ Murphy said at the diner where he has worked for nearly a year as a dishwasher and janitor, helping pay for his living expenses.

Dressed in a 1950s-style suit coat for his first formal interview with a reporter, Murphy, 52, recalled his amusement at seeing 1960s TV footage of himself going to court in handcuffs.

″That didn’t even look like me,″ he said, an assessment echoed by his attorney, who has seen Murphy blossom outside the institutional environment. ″He’s a different person now,″ Marcy said. ″The longer he is away from the institution, the better he gets.″

Murphy proudly tells of losing several pounds following a vigorous walking program prescribed by his doctor and tries to avoid salt. Indeed, he looks far younger than his 52 years, despite chronic back trouble.

Murphy arises at 5 a.m. so he can be ready for work by 7:30. He is driven the two miles to and from the diner by a job adviser. He had been permitted to ride the bus until his neighbors learned his identity.

Murphy said that one of his first purchases after leaving the hospital grounds was a spotted dog he named Brittney.

″I’m teaching her to sit and stay,″ he said. Murphy also bought a doghouse and a down-filled blanket to keep Brittney warm at night.

Murphy’s duplex is staffed by supervisors 24 hours a day and he cannot go on unaccompanied outings.

Earlier this month, Murphy dated a woman from a neighboring group home. They went dancing in matching shirts and likely will do so again soon. ″She’s a real nice girl,″ he said.

His employer, Julie Rees, is pleased with Murphy’s progress but disturbed by the friction with his neighbors and the attention it received.

″I think the accounts of his life have been unfair,″ she said, ″If you plaster a person’s face all over the (television) screen, there will be no place he can live.″