HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Additional arrests are expected in the case against a Florida nursing home where 12 patients died in sweltering heat after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning in 2017, Hollywood Police said Tuesday.
The announcement came one day after they charged four people — three nurses and an administrator — with aggravated manslaughter, capping a two-year investigations the agency said was one of the most extensive investigations ever done.
Police Chief Chris O’Brien said it took three weeks just to process the crime scene at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills where they collected more than 1,000 pieces of evidence. They said they interviewed more than 500 people in the case over the past two years and seized 55 computers.
The chief said investigators met with family members of the victims Monday night “in an emotional meeting” to explain the process and let them ask questions.
“The families sitting here today should not have lost their loved once this way. They placed their faith and trust in the facility … and that trust was betrayed. They have been living an absolute nightmare,” the chief said as several family members stood solemnly behind him.
Nursing home patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, ranging in age from 57 to 99, began dying three days after Hurricane Irma swept through in September 2017.
The center, which housed about 150 patients at the time, did not evacuate any of the residents as the temperature began rising, even though a fully functional hospital was across the street, investigators said. The home’s license was suspended days after the storm and it was later closed.
Former Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills administrator Jorge Carballo and nurses Sergo Colin and Althia Meggie were granted release on bail by a Broward County judge Tuesday. Carballo and Colin, both being released on $90,000 bail, face 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter. Meggie was granted $17,000 bail on two counts of aggravated manslaughter and two counts of evidence tampering.
A fourth defendant, who is also a nurse, is being held in Miami-Dade County pending her transfer to Broward County.
David Frankel, attorney for nurse Sergo Colin, said prosecutors are overreaching with the charges and that staff at the nursing home did everything they could to keep the residents safe, bringing in small air conditioners and fans. Frankel said they also repeatedly reached out for help to everyone from Florida Power & Light to then-Gov. Rick Scott, who had supposedly offered up his cellphone number to anyone looking for hurricane assistance.
“Nobody came,” Frankel said. “For three days, these people did everything possible they could to keep everyone stable. And they were stable.”
Scott said in a statement that the facility should have called 911 and FPL pointed out in a statement that the hospital across the street had power.
But attorneys for the defendants criticized the notion from investigators and some family members of the deceased that staff should have taken the patients across the street to the air-conditioned Memorial Regional Hospital. Frankel said the hospital had been sending patients to the nursing home.
Paramedics from Hollywood Fire-Rescue testified last year that they were haunted by the deaths of patients there. Fire Lt. Amy Parrinello said one of the female patients had a temperature of 107.5 degrees (42 Celsius), the highest she had ever seen in her 12-year career. Later that morning, she said, another patient topped that with a temperature so high it couldn’t be measured.
Hollywood Police said they aggravated manslaughter charge was most appropriate because the victims were elderly and incapable.
“These individuals took an oath to provide care and safety to individuals at that facility. They broke that oath,” said Maj. Steven Bolger.
Kennedy and Anderson reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.