Woman Walks Nude Into Airport & Is Arrested. What Happened Next Was Worse. A Mother’s Struggle To Rescue Her Daughter

Happier Times: Mariel and her mother, Lisa

(11-3-20) This is part one of Lisa Aneiva’s struggle to help her daughter, Mariel, who was arrested in April after she walked nude into a New Orleans Airport. Mariel has a mental illness and was jailed rather than diverted into treatment. )

“What kind of mother are you?”

Lisa Aneiva, a single mother living in Northern Virginia, didn’t understand why she was being criticized on her Facebook page in early April.

Seconds later, another Facebook attack: “How could you let this happen?”

That second comment came with a link to a Fox News article.

“Woman arrested for entering New Orleans airport naked amidst coronavirus lock down.”

Lisa clicked on the link.

“People used to get dressed up to fly. A woman was recently arrested after allegedly arriving at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans completely naked. According to local reports, she refused to leave when the airport staff told her that she could not fly with no clothes on.”

The naked woman was Mariel Vergara. Lisa’s 27-year-old daughter.

“Mariel suffers from schizo-affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is on the autism spectrum,” Lisa told me. “At first I was relieved when I read the article.” Mariel had disappeared two weeks earlier after getting into a squabble with a relative. “I was so happy we knew where she was.”

At that moment, Lisa didn’t realize that she and her daughter were about to be swept up in a frustrating and frightening nightmare that continues today. Sadly, what happened to Lisa and Mariel is an all too common experience for parents of adult children who become one of the 2.2 million Americans with mental illnesses who are booked into jail each year.

Rather than getting mental health treatment, their adult child is punished.

Could This Arrest Been Avoided?

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department in Louisiana prides itself on having a robust Crisis Intervention Team training program for its officers. One of its detectives was named the International CIT Officer of the Year in 2016. CIT teaches officers how to recognize mental illnesses and de-escalate situations. Those techniques don’t appear to have been practiced on April 4th when sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from a Spirit Airlines agent at the New Orleans airport.

The sales agent reported that a woman had walked into the terminal naked and was trying to purchase a ticket. When the agent told the woman that she couldn’t fly nude, the woman slipped on a dress but refused to leave the terminal and continued to insist on buying a ticket.

By the time deputies arrived, Mariel Vergara was wearing a dress but no underwear. The deputies said the dress did not properly cover her, in violation of decency laws. (Attempts to get information from the Jefferson Parish about this incident went unanswered.)

Mariel was arrested on charges of obscenity, resisting an officer, battery of a police officer and simple battery. She was booked into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, which is part of the Greater New Orleans Region. The jail holds an average of 1200 inmates. A study of data by ARC Associates from 2011-2012 found that 33% of inmates booked into the facility have a mental illness, the most common being anxiety/depression, followed by bipolar disorder and finally 10% with schizophrenia.

Lisa Immediately Called The Public Defenders Office

Because Mariel had been naked in a heavily traveled airport, her arrest made national headlines. Lisa found more than 25 stories on the Internet about her daughter. Almost immediately, Mariel’s Facebook page began getting hits and personal photos of her were being copied by strangers and circulated.

“There were lots of comments from people who were trying to find photos of her naked,” Lisa recalled. “Nasty stuff.”

Lisa would later learn why Mariel had flown to New Orleans. “She was looking for a book in the French Quarter.  She does not know the name of the book or the author. She told me she would know it when she found it.”

Lisa called the jail, but was told she couldn’t speak to her daughter. Mariel would have to call her if and when she wanted to speak to her mother. That would require either Mariel or Lisa to prepay for phone calls through a private company, a standard practice. Lisa paid $50 so that Mariel could call her. Meanwhile, Lisa telephoned the Jefferson Parish Public Defender’s Office and spoke to an attorney who’d been assigned to Mariel’s case. He arranged for Lisa to appear via ZOOM at Mariel’s arraignment hearing a few days later.

“It was the first time I saw Mariel and she had a black eye and chipped tooth. She’d obviously been hit in the face.” Lisa told the court about her daughter’s lengthy mental history, including physical abuse that she suffered as a teenager. Because Lisa had been dealing for several years with Mariel’s delusional behavior, she’d already thought ahead and had called Beacon Behavioral Hospital in New Orleans. It had agreed to accept Mariel as a patient if the court approved her transfer.

“I thought I’d made a good case during the ZOOM call for getting her outof jail and hospitalized because of her history. She was ill and didn’t need to be in jail. I was afraid she was suicidal.”

The court disagreed. A bond was set but no bond company that Lisa called would post it. She was told it was too risky because her daughter was mentally ill, had no known address, no job and had no local ties.

After that initial contact with the public defender, Lisa’s calls were unreturned. She was told that the attorney represented Mariel, not her.

Lisa tried to get word inside the jail for Mariel to call her. “I was desperate. At one point, the jail told me to stop calling.” Lisa began writing letters, hoping her daughter would receive them.

In May, Lisa’s phone rang and the caller ID showed the area code was from New Orleans. She assumed it was the public defender’s office but when she answered, a recording told her it was a call from an inmate in the jail.

“I was so excited. I said, ‘Mariel!’ but someone else’s voice came on. It was an inmate in the cell next to Mariel.”

Lisa said the inmate told her that Mariel was being locked in her cell 23 hours a day.

“She told me the officers were treating her badly and no one was helping her. I said, ‘Can you give her a message, please?’ and I could hear her yell to Mariel, ‘I’m talking to your mom.’ And I could hear Mariel yell something back.”

When Mariel finally was able to make phone calls, Lisa became even more concerned.

Mariel Claims She’s Being Abused 

In conversations, Mariel told her mother that guards in the jail had accused her of being “argumentative” and had pepper-sprayed her three times. She said they’d also struck her with their fists twice, including punching her in the face and stomach.

At about this same time, Lisa learned that Mariel had been charged with three additional criminal charges because of her conduct inside the jail, including simple battery of an officer.

She now was facing eight criminal counts – all clearly linked to her untreated mental illness.

Prisoners with mental illnesses often are difficult to control when incarcerated. Those with schizophrenia often don’t understand or are capable of following simple commands. This is why prisoners with mental illnesses spend twice as long in jail as other prisoners charged with identical crimes. It is not uncommon for them to rack up additional charges for being disruptive or refusing to obey orders. Mariel’s combination of schizophrenia, autism and PTSD from past experiences, Lisa said, made it nearly impossible for her to stay out of trouble.

Because it was obvious that Mariel was mentally ill, she could not be tried without first being declared competent. Much to her surprise, Lisa learned evaluators requested by the jail had declared Mariel competent.

Being declared competent is not the same as being mentally stable or free from delusions or symptoms. Simply put, it’s a decision about whether a person understands they’ve broken the law and are capable of aiding in their own defense. (When I was researching my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, I found a homeless defendant with decades of being severely mental ill declared competent because she was coached at the state hospital until she could tell an evaluator where a judge sat in a courtroom. That was enough to check off the box.)

Lisa discovered a new public defender had been assigned to Mariel’s case. This attorney told her that Mariel “wasn’t making sense.”

The photograph of Mariel now making the rounds on the Internet was much different from those fun shots on her Facebook page.

COVID’s Impact On Justice

All of this was unfolding during COVID. In April, the Parish courts began using ZOOM for hearings. Communication between public defenders and their clients in jail became more difficult. Defense attorneys were told that they would have to begin paying for video calls to their clients in the jail. The public defender’s office was cash strapped. There wasn’t enough money for its attorneys to check on prisoners regularly. Mariel told Lisa that she had sent eight letters to her public defender without getting a reply. In August, the jail went on lockdown after 44 inmates tested positive for Covid.  Court dates scheduled for mid-August and September were postponed.

Mariel still was able to telephone her mother – often two or three times a day. Lisa didn’t want to shut off those calls, but one week she ran out of money for paying them and told her daughter that they’d have to stop talking until Lisa’s next pay day. Mariel wasn’t happy. During calls, Mariel’s mood would shift from that resembling a scared child to an angry daughter, lashing out at Lisa, blaming her for the arrest. In a letter to Lisa, Mariel wrote:

“The problems I’ve been having here look a lot like the problems that get children diagnosed with Autism and I’ve been having those problems all my life. I just keep getting into trouble and I don’t understand why. Maybe if I had real through autism therapy, I could get better. I don’t understand why I’m getting in trouble. Please help.”

A few sentences later, she mentioned that she’d been writing songs and thought there was a good chance she could get a recording contract when released although she’d never sold lyrics or a song. Pages of lyrics followed. In another letter, “I saw on the news that the average IQ here in Jefferson Parish is only 80. That has to be of relevance. They’re mishandling me because they’re stupid. The police, inmates, and courts.”

Mariel had always called her mother on Sept. 19, which was Mariel’s birthday. Lisa was expecting a birthday call. When her phone didn’t ring, Lisa became alarmed and began calling the jail. She finally reached a worker willing to check on Mariel.

“The worker called me back and said, ‘Don’t worry, everything is good. She’s fine but she can’t call you because she is in disciplinary lockdown.” Mariel had gotten into trouble again and was back in solitary confinement.

“How long will they keep her in there?” Lisa asked. The worker said Lisa would be kept in disciplinary lockdown until mid-November. In addition, Mariel was being charged with three more criminal charges, including battery of an officer and resisting orders.

That brought the total number of criminal charges against her to eleven.

Lisa couldn’t believe the sheriff’s office was adding more and more charges rather than addressing Mariel’s mental illness. She was worried that Mariel would be trapped in the jail for months and months. She’d already been there six months and the public defender’s office had stopped communicating with both of them.

Plus, Lisa was terrified about what might be happening to her daughter in jail. Mariel already had claimed the guards had beaten her.  She knew that no one would believe her daughter if she complained. After all, she was both an accused criminal and had mental illness.  If Lisa complained about her daughter’s treatment, she was afraid the guards on duty would retaliate against her daughter.

She felt helpless.

Tomorrow: Lisa gets help from a New Orleans mental health advocate and a frightening night camped outside the jail hoping for Mariel’s release.





About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.