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"Two owners, two staffers arrested in fatal Citrus Heights care home fire "

Original source:

The Sacramento Bee

By Christina Jewett And Phillip Reese –
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, October 25, 2007

As flames tore through a Citrus Heights elder care home late the night of Nov. 26, two elderly women could not escape their beds, one of them blocked by rails and another trapped by a locked wheelchair, according to an investigation by the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

In all, the fire killed three women. On Wednesday, Metro Fire arson investigators arrested the care home's two owners and two staff members on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Metro Fire spokesman Capt. Jeff Lynch said investigators worked months with state Department of Social Services officials, determining that the care home had violated a state law when it placed the restraints in the residents’ way.

Three other elderly residents whose paths were not blocked escaped the fire, Lynch said.

Lynda Williams, the daughter of Marjorie Leroux, who died after the fire, said her 80–year–old mother’s death was a horrible loss for her family.

"She had Alzheimer’s, and that in itself was difficult enough," the Placer County resident said. "But for her to die like this is very, very difficult to accept."

Lynch said lead investigator William Gorwood arrested the operators of the home on Canevalley Circle in Citrus Heights – now an empty lot – Wednesday morning at their Roseville residence.

The home’s owner, Teodor Costea, 58, was arrested on a warrant alleging three counts of involuntary manslaughter, as were care home staffers Virgil I. Popa, 65, and Ligia Popa, 65.

Co–owner Mihaela Maria Costea, 56, was arrested on a warrant alleging four counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of elder abuse.

Lynch said the elder abuse charge and the additional manslaughter charge stem from the December 2005 death of William Weimer, a man who died at a care home after Mihaela Costea allegedly ignored an order to provide him with additional medical care.

Bail was set at $1 million for the Popas and Mihaela Costea, who posted bond and was released on Wednesday. Teodor Costea was also expected to be released on bail, according to jail records.

In a response to a civil suit filed by family members of one of the victims, attorneys for the Costeas said earlier this year that many of the accusations were based on factors essentially beyond the care home owners’ and staffers’ duty or control.

Teodor and Mihaela Costea owned three elder care homes on Canevalley Circle in Citrus Heights and one on Topaz Court in Roseville.

State DSS officials in August revoked the couple’s license to operate care facilities. Also that month, the couple signed an agreement with the state to never work in a licensed care facility.

In addition to violating state law by placing restraint devices on patients’ beds, other violations have become apparent since the night of the fire, officials say.

Residential care home operators are not supposed to give patients with dementia access to lighters or allow them to smoke except in designated areas, DSS documents say.

However, Lynch said, the fire got its start when a resident ignited a stuffed chair in her bedroom with a cigarette.

Virgil Popa poured water on the tiny blaze about 9:30 p.m., and then placed the chair on the house’s deck. Lynch said the fire began to smolder again in the chair, then crept to the house’s wooden eaves and took off.

Neighbors and firefighters attempted to rescue the residents. However, Virginia Esler, 84, and Doris Bower, 86, died in the home, which had no sprinkler system.

Esler’s bed was blocked by a wheelchair locked in place, meant to keep her from getting out of bed, Lynch said. Bower’s bed was surrounded partially with bedrails, he said.

Marjorie Leroux, 80, was in a bed fully surrounded by rails. She was taken to a hospital the night of the blaze but died days later as a result of trauma sustained in the fire, officials said.

DSS inspectors, who in recent years had logged many violations at the Costeas’ homes, conducted another investigation after the fire.

Inspector Tami Adge focused on the obstacles placed around the residents’ beds.

"Based on evidence gathered, it appears that (two residents) may have made an attempt to get off their beds, however were restricted due to the restraints," she wrote in a report.

Adge also noted that during an interview with Metro Fire investigators, Mihaela Costea denied that the restraints were in place.

"(Mihaela) Costea does not direct the work of staff in accordance to regulations and lacks good character and personal integrity," Adge wrote.

The case underscores statewide problems that can exist in the 7,600 residential care facilities for the elderly, said Terry Donnelly, deputy director of San Francisco– based California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. Donnelly said the smaller homes are not required to install sprinklers, and legislation to mandate them is routinely defeated.

Further, he said, state inspectors in 2004 ended their practice of inspecting the homes annually. Now the homes are inspected every five years unless a resident, advocate or family member complains to the state.

Donnelly said the homes – 70 percent of which are small and tucked in neighborhoods – are proliferating rapidly.

"You have a recipe for disaster here," he said. "The fire shows a lack of oversight and monitoring from a minimum–standards position."

Tammy Torti, who spent years living next to the Costeas’ facility, was surprised to hear on Wednesday that they had been arrested.

"They were great neighbors," she said. "The people there seemed happy and friendly."

Still, Torti said, it would bother her if it was proved that negligence caused the fire. Her home of almost 20 years nearly went up in smoke.