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Original source:

Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken

Waynesville, North Carolina

She is 53 and trapped in a facility for the old. Her left arm hangs limply at her side; in the right she cradles a baby doll she named Little Missy. Saliva drips from the corner of her mouth as she talks about her invisible boyfriend.

She speaks with a Southern accent and sounds like a much older woman, partly because of a massive stroke a dozen years ago. So it's jarring when she suddenly switches to the high-pitched, sing-songy voice of a little girl and speaks with shocking clarity about one night in October 2015.

She was living at a different place then -- the Brian Center, a 77-person nursing home on the outskirts of this mountain town.

"I had been attacked, attacked by a man sexually," she tells us, lying in her bed and fully dressed in high-heeled boots, with other clothing and shoes mixed in with her sheets. "I was cornered between a closet and a bathroom, me with one arm. ... I couldn't breathe."

Occasionally, as she recounts her story, she closes her eyes and looks as if she is falling asleep. Then she's suddenly alert again. She's proud of her reputation for being feisty and difficult -- she says she's always being told she complains too much. She recites -- correctly -- the phone number for the state hotline where nursing home residents can lodge their grievances.

It could be tempting to dismiss her story as drug-induced hallucinations or the confusion of a stroke survivor. Police might find her the very definition of an unreliable witness. But she is adamant she is telling the truth.

She says the man who aggressively cornered her that day, sticking his hand up her shirt and fondling her breasts, was a nursing aide named Luis Gomez.

"It sticks in my mind the same way every time," she says. "After it's over is where the anger comes in. While it's happening, you want to cry. You think, why is this happening to me?"

It took her about two weeks to summon the courage to report what happened. She uses the word violated.

"I was embarrassed. I thought, 'I need to tell someone,' but I was afraid no one would believe me."

She was right. At first, no one did.

The woman told police that the director of nursing at the Brian Center Health & Rehabilitation, Gail Robertson, reacted to the story with disbelief. She told the resident "to go live under a bridge, because nothing like that happened" in her facility, the woman recalled.

The police showed up -- but not to investigate the allegation of sex abuse. Instead, an officer was asked to take the woman to a nearby hospital. There she was escorted to the sixth floor and locked in the psychiatric ward.

No one there believed her either.

"I am really telling the truth here, and it's really not fair you're turning a deaf ear to what I'm saying," she remembers telling hospital workers in the ward, where she had been a patient before.

Discharged after a few days, she had no choice but to return to the Brian Center. She left there as soon as she could, ending up homeless at one point before landing at her current residence.

She'd been dismissed as a complainer, a troublemaker, an attention seeker. But as it turned out, she wasn't the first nursing home resident to complain about Luis Gomez.

And she wouldn't be the last.


Sometime around his 40th birthday, Luis Gomez started a new life in an unlikely place.

Waynesville is a town of less than 10,000, a mix of lifelong residents and so-called halfbacks, retirees from the North who tried living in Florida, then ended up here, less than an hour from trendy Asheville, in the Great Smoky Mountains.

It's also one of the whitest towns in the state.

The move was a big adjustment for Gomez, who'd come to the United States from Guatemala and spoke only Spanish.

"It was such a culture shock to him," said Rob Burns, a close friend and neighbor. His first American home had been in New Jersey, he told Burns. There, Gomez told him, "my boss was Spanish, the place I worked was Spanish." In Waynesville, he discovered, he would need to learn English "in a hurry." So he enrolled in classes at a local community college.

It was the late 1990s, and a construction job building racks for warehouses had brought Gomez to Waynesville. Soon he learned of another opportunity: a program at the community college that would help him become a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. That likely sounded promising, given the aging population in the area and the handful of nursing facilities that dot the country roads in Waynesville and surrounding Haywood County.

After earning his certification in 2000, Gomez first worked as an in-home caregiver. Then he was hired by a nursing home at the base of a tree-covered hill called Autumn Care of Waynesville. During the next 15 or so years, he would bounce between Autumn Care and at least four other nursing homes, including the Brian Center.