The family of a nuclear physicist who killed himself while locked in a Virginia prison cell is suing the U.S. government, arguing the scientist would still be alive if his medication hadn’t been stopped and he hadn’t been denied admission to a federal medical prison.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday on behalf of Christopher Lapp’s 16-year-old daughter, alleges that mistakes by several correctional officers, federal marshals, prosecutors and doctors led the scientist to take his own life.
“Several public servants apparently failed to act properly and one man died. Now his 16-year-old daughter has to take them to court,” said Victor Glasberg, a lawyer for Lapp’s family.
Lapp was being held in an Alexandria prison awaiting sentencing on a federal bank robbery charge when he was hanged in May 2001, even though a judge had ordered him transferred to a federal prison medical center in North Carolina to continue receiving mental health treatment.
He was 62 when he died.
Lapp held several degrees, including a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father, Ralph Lapp, was a famous scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project.
In November 2018, Lapp walked into a Wells Fargo with a gun and demanded the teller give him money. He hitchhiked to flee the scene, prosecutors said. He was located by a K-9 officer and arrested.
At the time of the robbery, the successful scientist was living in a $1.3 million home in the affluent town of Great Falls in Fairfax County.
Prosecutors alleged that Lapp had multiple romantic interests, including a Playboy model, and that he was “trying to keep his romantic love interests happy with extra money.”
A federal judge said Lapp was having a manic episode at the time, and Lapp’s family attorney described it as a psychotic break. He was initially found mentally incompetent to stand trial, but was restored to competency at North Carolina’s Butner Medical Prison Center.
Once he returned to a competent mental state, Lapp decided to plead guilty to the bank robbery charge. The judge, TS Ellis III accepted the plea deal but ordered that Lapp be returned to the prison medical center in North Carolina to continue his treatment.
However, the facility refused his return, claiming that their policy prohibited them from taking an inmate who had not yet been sentenced for “continuing care purposes.”
Instead, Lapp remained in prison in Alexandria. He was evaluated there by a doctor who stopped Lapp’s medications after he told the doctor he didn’t need them. The doctor said the North Carolina facility failed to send Lapp’s complete medical records.
He hanged himself in his cell about a month after pleading guilty. He left behind a note for his daughter, writing that “some bad guys have been after me for a while. I tried to determine who they are, but things are not good. It’s better for everyone that I’m not around so they can’t hurt others.”
After Lapp’s suicide, Ellis blasted officials at the Butner facility for refusing his orders.
The judge admitted he was also partly to blame — Lapp’s defense attorney had filed a notice in court in late April that Buttner had refused to accept Lapp, but Ellis said he didn’t know Lapp was ever transferred.
By postal cables