3 Fla. nursing home employees to face charges in patient deaths after Hurricane Irma

Paramedic Craig Wohlitka testified last year that he and other paramedics were haunted by the patients' deaths


By Kelli Kennedy and Terry Spencer 
Associated Press 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Three employees of a Florida nursing home where 12 people died in sweltering heat after a hurricane cut power turned themselves in on Monday to face charges, their attorneys said.

Attorneys Jim Cobb and Lawrence Hashish told The Associated Press they were uncertain what charge their clients faced but expected it to be manslaughter.

Defense attorneys said that arrests are expected shortly in the case of the Florida nursing home where 12 elderly patients died after the complex lost power and was engulfed by sweltering heat during the powerful 2017 Hurricane Irma. (Photo/Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via AP)
Defense attorneys said that arrests are expected shortly in the case of the Florida nursing home where 12 elderly patients died after the complex lost power and was engulfed by sweltering heat during the powerful 2017 Hurricane Irma. (Photo/Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via AP)

Hollywood Police, who are responsible for issuing the arrest warrants, did not respond to multiple emails and voice messages.

Patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills began dying days after Hurricane Irma swept through in September 2017, knocking out power at the home.

The center did not evacuate patients as temperatures inside 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.

Two nurses whose names were not released and former nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo turned themselves in at the jail on Monday. They waited in the lobby for at least two hours before deputies admitted them into the jail because Hollywood Police had not yet filed the arrest warrants, the attorneys said.

The attorneys also weren't sure if a third nurse who was to be charged, whom neither of them represent, had turned herself in.

Cobb said none of the employees understood why they were being charged. He said Caballo and other administrators were repeatedly told before the storm that they could call Gov. Rick Scott's personal cell phone directly for help. Cobb said they called five times, but never heard back from Scott.

Cobb said the administrators "sat there languishing waiting for the Calvary to come. ... They never, ever came."

Hashish remarked that "the real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless caregivers and the evidence will show that no crime was committed."

Now-U.S. Senator Scott said in a statement that the nursing home should have called 911.

"Nothing can hide the fact that this healthcare facility failed to do their basic duty to protect life," he said.

But Frankel insisted that the staff did everything they could to keep the patients, some of them in hospice, cool and hydrated. They brought in small air conditioners and fans, he said.

"It is undisputed that they were going to any lengths they could," Frankel said.

He added that they also called Florida Power & Light, which was supposed to arrive within six hours after the first patient became acutely ill.

FPL officials declined to comment on the arrests Monday but said in a statement that parts of the nursing home had power.

"We emphasize that those customers who have electricity dependent medical needs should call 911 if they are without power and in a life-threatening situation," the statement said.

Craig Wohlitka and other 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.

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This story has been edited to clarify that the employees have not yet been charged.

Associated Press
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