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Assaults on Elderly Probed

A man molested at least two women when he entered a Santa Ana Heights nursing home in July. The facility has been fined $1,000.

September 08, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Orange County sheriff's deputies are looking for a man who sneaked into a Santa Ana Heights nursing home July 27 and sexually assaulted at least two elderly women.

According to investigators, the assailant entered the Country Club Convalescent Hospital just before 5 a.m., using a back gate that had just been unlocked for the day.

A report by the state Department of Health Services, which regulates nursing homes, said two women -- ages 81 and 92 -- were molested. But sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said the number was higher. He said he could not be more specific because of the investigation.

"I think you have to be very mentally disturbed to do this," Amormino said. Although no similar incidents have been reported at other facilities, "I doubt if it's the first time he's done this and, unfortunately, I doubt if it's the last."

The state report concluded that the intruder entered the rooms of five patients. Several woke up with him standing next to their beds. One patient said the man faced her bed and when she said, "Hi," he left.

The Sheriff's Department said the nurse heard someone enter through the back door but assumed it was the cook. The nurse saw the man leave the building and took chase but was unable to catch him and called sheriff's deputies. The intruder is described as white, 5 feet 9 inches tall, 175 to 180 pounds, cleanshaven, with dark hair combed back. He was wearing dark pants and a dark coat and a gray T-shirt.

The Department of Health Services fined the nursing home $1,000 for "failing to ensure the mental and physical needs of the patients." Country Club also was cited for failing to notify patients' doctors and the Department of Health Services about the incident. The nursing home is appealing the citation.

According to the state report, the nursing home's assistant administrator acknowledged that an intruder entered the home. But the official said she did not believe one of the victims and that "no harm" resulted in the other case. Another official, identified in the report only as "the administrator," agreed with this assessment, telling the investigator he did not think "touching Patient A's breast was an assault."

But sheriff's investigators are treating both women as victims of a crime. "We're definitely not in the business of calling victims liars," Amormino said. "We believe it occurred."

The 54-bed nursing home is across the street from the greenery of Santa Ana Country Club in Santa Ana Heights, an unincorporated part of the county. Pink mandevillas climb up trellises against the one-story beige stucco building, and roses show their pink and yellow flowers.

Gary Hernandez, the nursing home's administrator, said his family has owned the facility since 1972. State records show Country Club had never been cited until the sexual assaults occurred.

He said the nursing home had made many improvements since the incident, but he declined to go into specifics. "We're working diligently with the state," he said, declining to answer further questions or discuss the July incident.

Nursing home experts said it is extremely rare for someone to break into a facility and assault patients. Abuse is far more likely to come from staff or other patients, they said. "You could call this by far the exception," said Pat McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform in San Francisco.

Skilled nursing homes provide care 24 hours a day to residents who can't care for themselves, usually because they suffer from dementia or severe physical infirmities.

State regulations do not specify when nursing home doors should be locked or what security measures must be taken but speak more broadly of ensuring the welfare of residents, said Robert Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Health Services.

Nursing homes must balance residents' safety against providing a sense of openness that allows families and doctors to visit almost any time and spares patients the feeling of living in a locked facility.

Pat Rune, an ombudsman with the Orange County Council on Aging, said the vast majority of nursing homes are easily entered by visitors, frequently without challenge. She and other experts said security is often lacking at night when staffing is lower.

Ruane said the Council on Aging has been distributing fliers about the molestations to nursing homes and talking to their management about increasing security. "I'm not sure it's a top priority," she said.

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