Florida nursing home workers surrender to face charges in post-hurricane deaths
By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Four Miami-area nursing home workers have been arrested to face criminal charges in the deaths of a dozen patients exposed to sweltering heat during a post-hurricane power outage two years ago, defense attorneys said on Monday.
Three employees of the now-closed Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, including its administrator, Jorge Carballo, turned themselves in at the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, at about noon on Wednesday, lawyers said.
Carballo, 61, and Sergo Colin, 45, who was the charge nurse on duty, were each booked on 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter by neglect of an elderly, disabled adult, jail records show.
Another nurse who surrendered on Wednesday, Althia Meggie, 36, was charged with two counts of manslaughter and two counts of evidence tampering.
A fourth defendant, a nurse identified as Tamika Miller, was taken into custody by police in Miami, said the lawyers, David Frankel and Lawrence Hashish. Jail records show Miller was booked on Saturday, but it was not clear what charges she faced.
Arrest warrants for all four were issued over the weekend in the deaths, which the Broward County coroner ruled homicides, lawyers said. The defendants were expected to make their initial court appearances on Tuesday.
Defense lawyers said their clients were innocent of criminal wrongdoing, arguing that the victims, who were already in frail health, died under extreme circumstances beyond anyone's control in a natural disaster. Frankel said most of the dead had been under hospice care.
"I believe these charges are meritless, and it's outrageous for them to charge these individuals, the night shift, with manslaughter," Hashish said.
"The real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless care givers," said Hilham Soffan, an attorney for Meggie.
The 12 victims, ranging in age from 57 to 99, were found to have died from heat exposure after being left with little or no air-conditioning in the nursing home for days after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility's cooling system on Sept. 10, 2017.
Hollywood police declined to release details of the case, but said Chief Chris O'Brien and other law enforcement officials would announce the charges on Tuesday at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT). Frankel told Reuters that prosecutors had yet to decide how, or whether, to formally charge the four.
The nursing home deaths have been the subject of a criminal investigation since they were first reported in the immediate aftermath of Irma, which killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and on the U.S. mainland.
City officials said the rehab center continued to operate without central air conditioning as daytime temperatures in the Miami area rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
Portable air coolers and fans were placed throughout the building but were ineffective in curtailing the heat, state authorities said.
Patients in the facility was finally evacuated to an adjacent hospital - in an operation that medical workers later described as chaotic - when four residents died on the third day after the storm hit. Four others died at or en route to the hospital, and four more ultimately succumbed to the effects of heat exposure.
More than 100 patients ended up being evacuated to the hospital, where most were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and other heat-related ailments, hospital officials said at the time.
Patients taken to the hospital had temperatures ranging from 107 degrees to 109.9 Fahrenheit (41.7 to 43.3 Celsius), the agency said. Average normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees F (37 Celsius).
Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the facility's license after determining that medical personnel had delayed in calling for emergency assistance when temperatures inside reached excessive levels. The center was subsequently closed.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Editing by Matthew Lewis, Sonya Hepinstall and Leslie Adler)