By Kathy Jefcoats
A Henry magistrate condemned the conditions in a Hampton personal care home where an unsupervised client died last month as "disturbing."
Magistrate Marty Jones found probable cause Wednesday morning to bind over charges against Mitchell and Glenda Cook to Henry Superior Court for grand jury presentation. They are charged with reckless conduct and unlawful acts under the Disabled Adult/Elder Abuse Act and out on $10,000 bond.
"It's rather disturbing," said Jones of an escape route provided four mentally challenged men living in the Cooks' personal care home. "This gave them access to wander off if left unsupervised."
Personally Yours Personal Care Home at 220 Water Oak Court, owned by the couple, is under investigation by three state agencies. All clients have been removed, state Department of Human Resources Lola Russell said.
Donald Henry Lee, 51, was days away from moving out of the home when he died suddenly Sept. 22. An autopsy revealed 10 pounds of feces in his body, said Henry police Detective Rene Swanson, but an exact cause of death will be released later with the formal autopsy report.
Lee family members said at the time of his death that he suffered from chronic constipation. At Wednesday's hearing, Swanson testified that the medical examiner opined that Lee might have been saved if he'd been given an enema to relieve his impacted intestines.
"He was so impacted it was up into his stomach," Swanson said, moving her hand up her chest from her abdomen toward her throat.
But defense attorney Philip Ruppert argued that Lee died so suddenly that he doubted he could have been saved.
"Even if they were there, I don't know if there was anything anyone could have done," he said. "It was sudden, like a heart attack or stroke. Nothing could be done."
Jones said whether or not that is true was not something to be decided during a probable cause hearing. He said if medical evidence shows intervention could have saved Lee's life, prosecutors could present a charge of manslaughter to the grand jury.
That the men were left alone was undisputed. However, Swanson testified they were alone about six hours where Ruppert said the period is closer to four. There is also conflict over whether the men were to be left unsupervised at all.
Swanson said state officials told her the men required care 24/7 but Ruppert said they were allowed to take neighborhood walks by themselves.
"No way were they confined to the facility," he said. "They were free to go on their own."
State Department of Human Resources spokeswoman Kenya Bello, who did not attend the hearing, confirmed later that the men required 24-hour supervision.
Ruppert argued that only Glenda Cook was the designated caretaker and said her husband should not be held responsible. But Jones said the state code section concerning the alleged violation refers to "any person," not just a caretaker.
Swanson outlined Lee's last hours beginning with a chicken dinner Glenda Cook bought and brought down to the four men in their basement living quarters. A receipt from the fast food chicken place was time-stamped 4:35 p.m. Sept. 22, Swanson said. Swanson said the Cooks left about an hour later.
Lee and the other men, including Shawn Phillips, ate the chicken and Lee went to his bedroom. Phillips told police that he and the others watched television and noticed that Lee had not emerged from his room. When he went to check on him, Phillips found Lee on the floor, unresponsive, she said.
The door from the basement to the rest of the house was locked, said Swanson, and so was a door leading to the outside. Phillips told her he went in search of the couple, who he called Mom and Dad.
"He opened a window, crawling over a roll of carpet and a water heater," she said. "He ran around to the front door, which was unlocked, and screamed for ?Mom' and ?Dad.'"
Realizing the house was otherwise empty, Phillips found a neighbor who is a nurse and who tried in vain to resuscitate Lee. Henry police responded to a 911 call and Swanson, the detective on call that week, arrived just after 8 p.m., she said. Swanson and Phillips' caseworker began trying to call the Cooks.
"She tried at least 11 times," said Swanson. "At 11:15 p.m., I left a message but still no one called. At 11:35 p.m., they came home."
The couple told police they were at church having left home around 7:30 p.m. Ruppert said after the hearing that he can produce witnesses to corroborate that.
Ruppert said he would likely represent only Glenda Cook during any subsequent court proceedings. The next step is to present the case to the grand jury for indictment.
"But all this is premature until we get the autopsy back," he said. "This is about as loose a case as I've seen."
Donald Lee's mother, Wanda Lee of Morrow, said neither she nor her daughters were able to attend the hearing but said she is pleased to learn the criminal charges are being bound over to Superior Court. She is still mourning the loss of her only son.
"It's heartbreaking," she said. "Some days are better than others."