Feb. 6—A care worker on duty the day Hazel Place died after being left unattended for six hours in 100-degree weather at a Grand Junction assisted living facility was sentenced to 60 days in county jail on Monday in Mesa County district court.
Jamie Johnston, 32, was also sentenced to three years of probation and 150 hours of community service in connection with the June 14, 2021, death at Cappella of Grand Junction.
Johnston changed her plea in December 2022 to guilty of criminally negligent homicide, a Class 5 felony. Initially she was also charged with negligent death of an at-risk person, a Class 4 felony, and a misdemeanor charge of forgery in connection with falsifying information in the facility’s computerized system to make it appear that Place was monitored throughout the afternoon and evening when , in fact, she was not.
The more serious felony charge and the forgery charge against Johnston were later dropped in exchange for pleading guilty.
A Cappella surveillance tape of the courtyard revealed Place wandered onto the unshaded courtyard at 2:19 pm on a day when the National Weather Service had issued an excessive heat warning. The tape showed that Place tried to get up but was unable to, before she fell back onto a patio love seat. She stopped moving entirely just after 4 pm and was still not discovered until around 8:15 pm when the husband of another resident in Cappella’s memory care unit saw her crumpled body through a hallway window and notified staff.
Her gruesome death and the events that followed share striking similarities to other assisted living deaths in the state.
On Feb. 26, 2022, an unattended elderly resident became trapped outside of a Boulder County assisted-living facility in subfreezing temperatures for more than five hours and froze to death.
A year before, in Colorado Springs, an 88-year-old woman also froze to death after wandering away from Union Printers Home assisted-living facility despite repeated warnings that staff needed to keep a close watch on her.
These tragedies raise troubling questions about the care given to Colorado’s most vulnerable elderly population and the level of accountability by facilities and state officials when something goes wrong.
Hazel Place’s death was the subject of a Jan. 19 Investigation Gazette.
“If she could take back that day, she would,” Johnston’s attorney, Kevin Pauly, said during the sentencing, according to those in the courtroom on Monday. He said his client acknowledged responsibility for her part in the preventable death and offered an apology to Hazel Place’s family who were in the courtroom as they have been in every legal proceeding in this case.
Letticia Martinez, also on duty in the memory unit when Place died and who also pleaded guilty to reduced charges, was sentenced late last year to 30 days in Mesa County jail, three years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Martinez served 18 days after being booked Jan. 6 and then released early on Jan. 24, according to a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson.
Jenny Logan, another care worker that day, pleaded not guilty and was acquitted last week on all charges after a trial in which her lawyer argued it was the other two defendants who were to blame.
As in the Martinez sentencing, Johnston’s lawyer suggested that the facility’s supervisors and parent company, Englewood-based nonprofit, Christian Living Communities, also bore some responsibility for failing to adequately train staff and ensure resident safety.
District Judge Valerie Robison, who has presided over all three cases, again on Monday appeared disturbed by the details, according to those in the courtroom. She decried the finger pointing that has followed and suggested that the low-wage earners at the facility have borne the brunt of it. Robison declined a request for an interview.
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“Today’s sentencing of Jamie Johnston, who was terminated for her role in the unfortunate passing of Ms. Hazel Place in June of 2021, closes a very difficult chapter in the criminal proceedings. We believe the legal outcomes of all three cases speak for themselves, Pam Sullivan, vice president of strategy and communications for Christian Living Communities, said in an emailed statement Monday. “We are so sorry the family had to endure this tragic loss and endure these legal proceedings. We continue to hold them in our thoughts and prayers.”
Attorney General Phil Weiser also issued an emailed statement on Monday: “Our hearts go out to the family of Hazel Place. We were able to obtain pleas and acknowledgment of responsibility from two caregivers who were directly responsible for Ms. Place’s care and safety.”
Weiser added that the cases “bring attention to the need to protect older Coloradans with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as the need to account for their safety when they are entrusted to care facilities.”
After Place’s death, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment launched an investigation and found nine violations of state assisted-living regulations, plus an additional informational citation that carries no punishment.
The facility was ordered to submit a plan to correct the violations and issued a $2,000 fine — the current annual maximum in Colorado no matter how many violations found in a year. The facility was also able to keep its license. After the assisted-living facility paid the fine and submitted corrections, the state agency re-inspected in December 2022, eventually closing the case.
For those following what happened in Grand Junction, the more recent death of Mary Jo Staub at a Louisville assisted-living facility last year feels familiar.
In that case, a surveillance video also tells the story: The 97-year-old who wandered outside in subfreezing weather can be seen frantically screaming and pounding on a locked glass door with her fists and a broom at 12:40 am at Balfour Senior Living’s Lavender Farms facility. She wore only pajamas, a robe, boots and gloves, according to a lawsuit filed by her family against the parent company and two employees.
The door is adjacent to the nurses’ station, but it was unoccupied for more than five hours. No one noticed Staub was missing until just before 6 am
By then, she was dead.
She collapsed on the concrete around 1:40 am, according to the lawsuit, and her body can be seen on the surveillance video moving slightly until 4:23 am when she was finally still.
In the lawsuit filed by Staub’s daughters on Jan. 17, much like in Hazel Place’s case, the family says they were assured their mother would be closely monitored, as she often became confused and disoriented. Staub’s family said they were told their mother would be checked every four hours during the night.
But after Staub’s death, Lavender Farms employees and officials told investigators there was no policy in place at the time to keep the nurses’ station staffed overnight. The lawsuit also states caregivers told investigators they were only required to check on Staub once per night, which a staff member said she did around midnight.
But the lawsuit alleges the employee who said she checked on Staub at midnight had left the building just before midnight and did not return until after 1 am, according to the facility’s exterior video surveillance footage.
Elizabeth Hart, one of the attorneys representing Staub’s daughters, declined to comment because the case is ongoing.
Balfour executives did not immediately return telephone and email requests for comment.
A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment investigation in April 2022 issued eight citations and fined the owners $1,500, according to agency records. No criminal charges were filed.
In the February 2020 death of 88-year-old Margarita Sam in Colorado Springs, all charges filed by the Attorney General’s Office against three workers at the now-closed Union Printers Home were ultimately dropped — including those against a nurse whose case was dismissed less than three weeks before she was scheduled to stand trial.
Sam’s body was found on a bench 40 yards from the facility. The El Paso County Coroner’s Office ruled the cause of death hypothermia. Union Printers Home was permanently closed by CDPHE, and all residents were moved to other facilities.
“We can no longer excuse such deaths as ‘accidents’,” said Shannon Gimbel, ombudsman manager for the Area Agency on Aging for the Denver Regional Council of Governments. “These deaths are homicidal negligence, and until they are treated as such, they will continue.”
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