'It should have never happened,' chief says as 4 charged in deadly Hurricane Irma nursing home horror
Autopsies showed that all 12 patients died from heatstroke.
Calling it "a terrible tragedy that should have never happened," the police chief of Hollywood, Florida, announced on Tuesday the arrests of four staff members of a nursing rehabilitation center whose alleged inaction caused the deaths of 12 elderly patients who perished from heatstroke when they were left lingering for hours in the sweltering facility that lost power during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Chief Chris O'Brien released details of the arrests at a news conference attended by relatives of the patients who died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills due to alleged neglect by its former administrator, night nursing supervisor and two nurses.
"The families sitting here today should not have lost their loved ones in this way," O'Brien said. "They placed their faith and trust in the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills, its medical and administrative staff and that trust was betrayed. They have been living an absolute nightmare."
Jorge Carballo, 61, the former administrator of the facility, and Sergo Colins, 45, the facility's supervising night nurse, were each charged with 12 counts of felony aggravated manslaughter.
Tamika Tory Miller, 31, a nurse at the center, was arrested and charged with six counts of felony aggravated manslaughter and tampering with evidence in connection with patient medical records. Another nurse at the center, Althea Kenesha Meggie, 36, was charged with two counts of felony aggravated manslaughter and tampering with evidence in connection with patient medical records.
"These are trained professionals that should have been aware of the environmental hazards that were taking place in that facility and they chose to ignore them," O'Brien said of the suspects. "These individuals took an oath to provide care and safety for these individuals in their facility. They betrayed that oath."
Not only did they fail to properly care for the patients, he said, but Meggie and Miller allegedly attempted to cover up the neglect by manipulating patient medical records.
The charges resulted from what O'Brien described as the most extensive criminal investigation in his agency's history.
"This was a terrible tragedy that should have never happened," O'Brien said.
He said police were called to the facility on Sept. 13, 2017, after Hurricane Irma swept through South Florida and knocked out power to the rehabilitation center, which at the time was caring for around 140 patients.
When police arrived on the scene, they found three patients already dead and several others in varying degrees of medical distress, police officials said. Despite sweltering conditions inside the facility, the staff failed to evacuate patients despite there being a fully-functioning hospital across the street, officials said.
It was hotter inside the center than it was outside, officials said, and paramedics found patients overheated, including one who had a 107-degree temperature.
Police immediately began evacuating the center, saving the lives of most patients. But a total of 12, who ranged in age from 71 to 99, died, authorities said.
In November 2017, the Broward County Medical Examiner ruled all the deaths homicides and determined that the patients died from heatstroke, Major Steven Bolger, head of criminal investigation for the Hollywood Police Department, said at Tuesday's news conference.
"The actions and inactions of the four individuals -- the two nurses responsible for the hands-on care of patients, the nursing supervisor and the facility administrator -- led to the deaths of these patients," Bolger said. "Since September of 2017, it has been the goal of the Hollywood police department to get justice for the patients who where medically and physically vulnerable and did not receive the appropriate care at the rehabilitation center."
As loved ones of the victims listened, Bolger read off the names of those who died. They were Carolyn Eartherly, 78, Gail Nova, 71, Estella Hendricks, 71, Bobby Owens, 84, Manuel Mendieta, 96, Albertina Vega, 99, Betty Hibbard, 84, Carlos Canal, 93, Martha Murray, 94, Delores Beamonte, Miguel Franco, 92, and his wife, Cecilia Franco, 90.
Bolger said the nearly two-year investigation involved the State Attorney of Broward County and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Detectives interviewed more than 500 people, reviewed 400 hours of surveillance video and collected more than 1,000 pieces of evidence, including 55 computers.
Ilham Soffan, an attorney for Meggie, portrayed her client and the others charged as scapegoats. Meggie, Soffan said, was filling in at the center because it was short-staffed on the day the power went out.
"She did the best that she possibly could do under the circumstances," Soffan told ABC News affiliate WPLG-TV. "She actually is not a permanent employee. She came in to assist."
Another attorney for Meggie, David Frankel, said at a news conference on Monday that Meggie will fight the charges. He said Meggie and the other nurses called the Florida Power & Light Company numerous times in an attempt to get the power at the center back on.
"They were calling the emergency operations center from the governor's office and they were calling the governor himself who was posting his cellphone number on television saying for people to call if there was an emergency," Frankel said. "Those people never responded and never came."
Attorneys for the other suspects could not immediately be reached.
Asked why the owner of the center had not been charged, O'Brien said the investigation is ongoing and more arrests are expected.
"I head some comments that we arrested low-hanging fruit," O'Brien said. "I can tell you that somebody's status in the organization had zero impact on our decision to charge these individuals, whether they're the most junior person in the organization or the most senior."