NOTTOWAY — A Virginia Army National Guard officer who mental health experts say was delusional when he took a nearly 12-ton armored vehicle on a joyride from Fort Pickett in Nottoway County to downtown Richmond last summer was found not guilty of two charges on Monday by reason of insanity.
Joshua Phillip Yabut, 30, a first lieutenant, entered pleas in Nottoway Circuit Court of not guilty by reason of insanity of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and violating the terms of his bond.
Judge Paul W. Cella accepted the pleas after Commonwealth’s Attorney Leanne Watrous summarized the evidence. She noted that clinical psychologists who evaluated Yabut determined he was suffering from psychosis and not legally responsible for his actions when he drove the armored vehicle off the base on June 5, 2018, and led police on a 65-mile pursuit that ended near Capitol Square.
Local and state police followed Yabut for nearly two hours. No one was hurt. The chase stayed mostly on highways and topped out at about 45 mph.
In her summary of evidence, Watrous said Fort Pickett personnel noted that Yabut had been “acting odd” on the day of the offense, but at the time they didn’t think his behavior was so out of the ordinary that it was a cause for concern.
However, Yabut told psychologists after his arrest that he believed he had been given orders to carry out a “confidential mission,” and that “he had to do something very public or he would be taken into federal custody,” Watrous told the court.
Further, Yabut believed that Fort Pickett military personnel and state police were “all in on it,” and that his pursuit from the base onto U.S. 460, to Interstate 85, and then Interstate 95 to Richmond was “all part of the ruse,” the prosecutor said.
When he eventually was apprehended after stopping the M577 — an unarmed, tracked armored command post vehicle — near Capitol Square on Broad Street and exiting on his own, his demeanor with law enforcement was “childlike,” Watrous said in her summary.
His delusional state apparently persisted after he was released on bond. After he traveled to Iraq in January, violating the terms of his bond, Yabut told a clinical psychologist that he was acting under the belief that “once he got there, he would solve everything,” Watrous said in her summary.
Watrous told the court that Yabut did not have authorization to drive the vehicle, nor did he have a license or the training to operate it.
After finding him not guilty by reason of insanity on Monday, the judge ordered that he be committed temporarily to the custody of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
He will be sent to Central State Hospital, where doctors will evaluate Yabut to determine whether he should be committed indefinitely or released with conditions. That hearing was set for Oct. 4.
Records showed Yabut has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
With the Nottoway charges adjudicated, Yabut now faces a more serious charge of eluding police in Richmond. Two other charges, including driving under the influence of drugs, were dropped earlier, and his case in Richmond Circuit Court was moved to the mental health docket.
His Richmond charge is scheduled for disposition on Sept. 6.
Yabut was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008-09 with the Illinois National Guard, and remains a member of the Virginia Guard, according to Guard officials, but he has not been drilling with his unit while his court cases are pending.
Attorney Amy Austin, who represents Yabut, said after the hearing that her client was evaluated on Aug. 18, 2018, at Central State Hospital by clinical psychologists Theodore Simpson and Maria Sverdlova, and they agreed he was incompetent to stand trial and was not legally responsible for his behavior.
He subsequently was restored to competency but the psychologists’ opinion that he was legally insane at the time of the offense remained unchanged, Austin said.
In July, at the prosecution’s request, Yabut was again evaluated and Evan Nelson, a clinical psychologist in Midlothian, came to similar conclusions about Yabut’s mental state at the time of the offense.
Yabut’s physical appearance on Monday was in stark contrast to what he looked like in police booking photos taken after his arrest. He appeared coherent and answered all the judge’s questions with no difficulty, but the image of a clean-shaven, short-haired Army officer in uniform has been replaced with that of a man with a lengthy head of hair and a scruffy beard and mustache.
Yabut’s case took a surprise turn in January when, while free on bond awaiting trial, authorities discovered he had researched bomb making and had traveled to Iraq.
“He had no coherent reason for the travel,” according to a report prepared by the Virginia Fusion Center, a partnership between Virginia State Police and the state Department of Emergency Management that deals with terrorism and criminal activity. According to another report, Yabut “reported traveling to Iraq to engage in photography.”
On Jan. 22, Yabut boarded a military flight from Norfolk Naval Air Station to Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Fla., and then took commercial flights with stops in Charlotte, N.C., and Canada, according to a violation report prepared by a pretrial/probation officer. The following day, the ankle monitor he was wearing failed to register his location.
Six days later, Yabut contacted an officer who oversees home electronic monitoring, saying he no longer had his monitor and requesting a new one be put in place, the report said.
The Virginia Fusion Center report said Yabut told investigators that from Canada, he flew through Iceland, Germany and Turkey before arriving in Irbil, Iraq. He returned to Norfolk two days later.
The center’s report also dug into Yabut’s Twitter account, which appears to have photos from a foreign airport on Jan. 29, when he would have been in Turkey and Iraq.
Yabut’s superiors took his military identification card — which he had used for the flight from Norfolk — when they learned that he had used it to violate the conditions of his bond. The card is also used for access to other benefits like medical care, which is why Yabut still had it.
His attorney also gave Yabut’s passport to a judge, according to court documents.