By VALERIE SCHREMP
The president of a company that operated nursing homes across the St. Louis region was sentenced to a year in jail Thursday for failing to report elderly abuse. Nursing home patient advocates called the punishment a milestone in the fight for better care.
Charles B. Kaiser III, 45, got the maximum sentence of one year in the St. Charles County Jail and a $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor charge in a case where a 78-year-old Alzheimer's patient died.
American Healthcare Management and Claywest nursing home were also convicted of failing to report the abuse to the state. They were each ordered to pay the maximum fine of $5,000.
After a trial in November, a jury recommended the maximum sentence for Kaiser.
"I've had rape cases, I've had death penalty cases, this was the maddest, angriest jury I've ever seen," Senior Judge Ellsworth Cundiff said.
St. Charles Claywest patient Marshall Rhodes was beaten by a nurse's aide and died from his injuries on Aug. 7, 1999. Nurse's aide Karl Willard later pleaded no contest to elderly abuse, and is serving 15 years in prison.
"Although this was daddy's name on this particular case, it represents a lot of people and their loved ones," said Rhodes' daughter, Marsha Coy of Harvester, who did not attend the hearing. "This isn't just about me and daddy. This case is for all the companies, and the people who work for the companies, and the people who run them - not just Kaiser."
About a dozen families, including Coy, have settled wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against American Healthcare Management and its nursing homes in the past few years.
Several of those family members attended the hearing. After the sentence was read, they kissed and hugged each other, tears streaming down their faces.
Kaiser looked down during much of the sentencing hearing and did not make a statement.
The case is believed to be the first in the state where a nursing home executive has been sentenced to jail in a patient abuse case.
Violette King, executive director of Nursing Home Monitors, an advocacy group based in Godfrey, said she knows of only one other similar case in the country.
American Healthcare Management has since sold its nursing homes to a company in Texas.
Kaiser is appealing his conviction. He was told to report to jail this morning but is expected to post a $10,000 appeal bond. That will allow him to stay out of jail until his appeal is decided, a process that can take more than a year.
At Kaiser's trial, a nurse's assistant testified that she and a co-worker told two supervisors they suspected an aide had beaten Rhodes in July and August 1999. In the last case, Rhodes was taken to a hospital after nurses found him in his room with a split lip and wearing a torn, blood-stained gown.
Rhodes died less than a week after being hospitalized.
After Rhodes died, two nursing home administrators, Betty Via and Cheryl Davis, were also charged with failure to report elderly abuse. Davis was acquitted in November 2000. Via's charge was dropped in exchange for her testimony at Kaiser's trial.
Kaiser's attorney, Deborah Alessi, argued that it was Via who played down the story to Kaiser because she did not want to be fired.
But prosecutors presented a copy of an e-mail that Via had sent to Kaiser, saying that a local Division of Aging official told her that the incident should be reported to the state hot line. Kaiser responded that it wasn't suspected abuse and didn't need to be reported.
Kaiser and his attorney could not be reached for comment after the sentencing but in an interview Wednesday he said the idea of one year in jail was "indescribable."
"I've never, ever been in the criminal justice system. I've never been arrested, never been fingerprinted, I've never been in this situation."
Friends, colleagues and family members wrote a total of 40 letters to Cundiff attesting to Kaiser's good character. Two pre-sentence investigations had positive reviews.
Another family that settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Claywest, Dave and Bonnie Thorpe, attended the sentencing hearing. They said her mother died of starvation after workers didn't feed her.
"It doesn't bring her back, but you hope and pray that this will help somebody else," Bonnie Thorpe said.
St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Jack Banas said he also hoped the case would lead to closer scrutiny of nursing homes.
"The thing is, there's many more places like this throughout the state that I think need to be looked at more seriously, and hopefully we'll pay more attention to people.
"I don't think Marshall died in vain."
Reporter Valerie Schremp: