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Officials Seek Nurse in Death of Surfer

The former Oxnard healthcare worker fled after being charged with dependent adult abuse.

July 26, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Jeremiah Allen seemed to have it all: Good looks, mad skills on a surfboard and the good fortune to attend the University of Hawaii -- where he could catch monster waves between classes.

But on Oct. 20, 2003, the 20-year-old college student from Fillmore ran into trouble in the water off Hilo, Hawaii. There were no witnesses, but officials believe Allen fell off his board, hit his head and was unconscious before he reached shore.

Comatose, Allen spent more than two months in a Hawaii hospital before his parents transferred him to a CareMeridian assisted living facility in Oxnard that specializes in patients with brain and spinal cord injuries.

On the night of June 2, 2004, licensed vocational nurse Sandra Monterroso -- who had been fired from the facility for missing work and rehired in the fall of 2000 -- allegedly ignored a doctor's orders not to touch Allen's feeding tube and instead attempted to reinsert it when it came loose. Officials said the fresh tube was too large and was placed in Allen's abdominal cavity rather than in his stomach.

Twelve hours later, Allen was dead of peritonitis -- inflammation of the membrane lining the abdomen.

Last week, Monterroso, 49, was declared a fugitive from justice when she did not show up for her arraignment in Ventura County Superior Court. Judge Bruce Clark issued an arrest warrant and set bail at $50,000.

The nurse, whose last known address is in Las Vegas, is charged with two felony counts in Allen's death: dependent adult abuse and involuntary manslaughter.

California Deputy Atty. Gen. Natasha Fagan said she would seek the help of Nevada law enforcement agencies to apprehend Monterroso.

"We'll do whatever is necessary to find her, whether she may be in Las Vegas or elsewhere, and bring her back to Ventura County to face these charges," Fagan said.

Also charged in Allen's death is Chad Medlin, 61, of Ventura, a registered nurse who at the time of the incident was the chief administrator and director of nursing at the Oxnard facility.

Medlin, who rehired Monterroso, is charged with one felony count of dependent adult abuse. His attorney requested a continuance until Aug. 18 to give him more time to review the facts before Medlin enters a plea.

"I don't even have the police reports yet," said attorney Louis "Chuck" Samonsky, who was hired in mid-June. "Why they believe that he, as supervising nurse, is guilty of a crime, I haven't been able to figure that out yet."

Jamison "Jim" Ashby, a top executive and co-owner of CareMeridian, said his company is proud of its record. The Oxnard facility, in the 1500 block of Teal Club Road, has served about 100 patients in the last 12 years "and has historically earned positive survey results from the state of California," he said.

Ashby said privacy laws prohibited him from discussing specifics about Allen's care or about former or current employees. CareMeridian was not named as a defendant in the state's criminal case involving Allen's death, he noted.

In January 2005, however, the company was fined $25,000 by the state's Health and Human Services Agency in connection with the Allen incident. The citation concluded that "the facility's failure presented either imminent danger that death or serious harm would result or substantial probability that death or serious physical harm would result and was a direct proximate cause of the patient's death."

Oxnard lawyer Mark O. Hiepler has filed a civil suit against the facility's parent company, Aliso Viejo-based Meridian Neuro Care LLP, alleging wrongful death and dependent adult abuse by former employees Monterroso and Medlin. The civil suit was scheduled to go to trial in March, but a judge postponed it because of the ongoing criminal action.

Hiepler said he planned to go into court next week to ask Judge Frederick H. Bysshe Jr. to reschedule the civil trial to proceed concurrently with the criminal action.

"CareMeridian's disregard for the law and its patients, like Jeremiah, is exemplified by its chosen employee who is now a criminal fugitive. CareMeridian should not be rewarded with a civil trial continuance," said Hiepler, who won a landmark $89-million jury verdict in 1993 against Health Net Inc. for denying a bone-marrow transplant to his sister, a breast cancer patient who died that same year.

"We understand that, as a personal injury lawyer, Mr. Hiepler has a job to do, and that it is in his financial interest to paint the organization with a broad brush and undermine our track record as a provider of high-quality care," Ashby said. "We are proud to have helped hundreds of patients achieve positive, life-enhancing outcomes. Nothing Mr. Hiepler alleges can change that fact."

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