Nov 13, 2013 9 Share


Sign stating "Do Not Enter, Jury Deliberating."

First published May 16, 2012.

On November 12, 2013, James Torrey Hill was found legally sane and guilty of first-degree murder, according to the Monterey Herald. Hill is scheduled to be sentenced on January 8, 2014 and faces a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life.

A trial begins in California this week that has my attention. It’s not one that the national news media are covering, and the outcome will go unnoticed by most. A young man, James Torrey Hill, is facing a jury trial in the Superior Court of California, accused of killing a young autistic man, Matthew Paul Finnigan, in the fall of 2010.

The Monterey Herald reported testimony from police officers given at Hill’s hearing in February 2011. (Stories on the incident are available via archive search.) “Officer Jeff Gibson testified Hill answered the door [to his apartment] wearing blood-splattered shorts. At the end of the hall, he saw Finnigan crouched over, covered in blood, saying Hill had stabbed him without warning or cause,” the Herald story notes. The newspaper article goes on to recount testimony indicating that in Hill’s statement to police he said that he had been having hallucinations and had “been dealing increasingly with murderous urges in the weeks leading up to the attack.” Finnigan would die from stab wounds after being airlifted to a San Jose hospital. Hill went on to plead not guilty.

I am particularly interested in this story for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that the victim was an autistic adult. At the time of Finnigan's death, both men were enrolled in a postsecondary program for students with disabilities called College Living Experience (CLE). College Living Experience has a number of centers across the country—Finnigan and Hill attended one in Monterey, California. And at the time of the incident, I was the Director of the CLE center in Rockville, MD.

When I learned about the fatal stabbing at CLE-Monterey, my heart dropped. It shook me to my core. I know that my first response was as a parent. How must it feel to send your son to a support program, only have him to die allegedly at the hands of another participant in that program? My next response, frankly, was to be thankful it hadn’t happened at my center, on my watch. I felt terrible for the families involved, but my heart also went out to the CLE-Monterey staff and students who were dealing with such a tragedy.

And then I started to have other thoughts. I started to think about the admissions process at programs serving young adults with autism. What many people in special education and adult service admissions will tell you is that it can be difficult to accurately assess comorbidities. Many young adults with learning disabilities and autism have mental health struggles, due either to environmental stressors like bullying or from comorbid conditions like anxiety, depression, or mood disorders. What you see on the surface is not always what you get. In addition, some families do not include a complete mental health history with applications as they worry about admission denial. Then there are the fiscal pressures of running a resource-intensive program like those that serve students with autism. Decision-making gets complicated. 

In the coming months, Autism After 16 is going to turn its attention to mental health issues and autism. We are concerned that adults with autism are not getting their mental health needs met, and we are also concerned that because of behavioral issues, students with autism are often being lumped together in programs with students with mental illnesses that might not be compatible as regards treatment modalities. The lack of social fluency on the part of young people with ASD may not mesh well with program participants prone to extreme emotional response. Accounts indicate that Finnigan engaged in problematic online interactions. (Details can be found in an article entitled "Dragon Slain," published in the current issue of a California State University student publication called Scene Magazine.) The Herald reported testimony stating that Finnigan had a “bout with schizophrenia.” The paper also noted that “Two acquaintances told police disturbing stories about those preceding weeks. One of the men said he was watching television with Hill when Hill suddenly began choking him and asked him if he was ready to die. The man said he began to black out before Hill stopped. The other witness said Hill had told him he could kill Finnigan any time he wanted and get away with it.”

As an increasing number of students with autism leave high school in search of postsecondary options, we need to make sure we have choices available that are good fits. We need to be up front about comorbidities and we need to examine what types of supports young people with autism truly need. We also need to be aware that bullying—or in extreme cases, violence—can occur into adulthood, as noted in a recent UK survey. And as families, we need to insist that best practice in serving our young adults includes a real understanding of what it takes to keep them safe.


Editor’s Note: I resigned my position as Director of CLE-Rockville in November 2010 and left in February 2011. I gave a presentation on teaching strategies to CLE staff in May 2011 at which point my relationship with the company ended. 

Comment Options


Merope,This is a chilling and vitally important story. Thank you for reporting on it.



Wonderful article with many important points. Our symposium in Chicago on the topic of comorbidities just ended, with important take-away points. How can we buidl social networks for people with ASDs ?( Paul Shattuck)How can we train more clinicians to effectively manage emerging symptoms in this population ?( Ed Cook)What are the neoroprotective pracitces we can put in place in the prodromal state? ( Lin Sikich) 


Blood money

As a former employee of CLE (College Living Experience) I can tell you that Torrey Hill had no business being in the program, but because Stephanie Martin (Executive Director of the program) runs a money hungry company a great guy like Matthew paid the price. I hope CLE is pleased with their profits. It is nothing but BLOOD MONEY!



I'm the author of the Scene Magazine article. I'm wondering, how did you find it?I'm also wondering if you know what happened at the Jury trial. Let me know if you have any other questions about Starblade/Finnigan; I spent quite a while talking to people involved.Thanks! 

Matt was my best friend

Thank you for sending your comment and the pictures. Our platform doesn't allow me to import pictures into the comment space, but I appreciate that you included them.  I'm very sorry for your loss.


Matt was my best friend

Matt was a sweetie pie and my best friend.


Autism-specific CLE

Hi Merope,An excellent posting!  I will link to it from my Autism Employment Resources Facebook page!I wanted to see if you know about the College Internship Program (CIP).  Although I hd not heard about the CLE program previously, your description of it sounds similar to the 6-campus CIP program, except that CIP is focused primarly on autism/aspergers and related disorders. Altough the name sounds like it is housed on college campuses, in fact the programs are better described as transition-to-indepenedent-living programs focused on college or work life.  They are three-year residential programs, with sites around the country, most near college campuses but not affiliated with them.I don't have any direct experiences with CIP, but I have spoken with a couple of their administrators in the past and felt the programs were pretty solid.Their website is Scott Standifer, Disability Policy & Studies, University of Missouri


I am currently awaiting

I am currently awaiting selection as a possible juror in this case. I'll update with any information I may have if selected



weren't you asked not to do any research on the case, and not to discuss it with anyone?