Police probe death at rehab center

Sunday, August 8, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- A mildly retarded man placed a frantic call hours before his death to complain that he was being beaten by staff at the state-run Bellefontaine Habilitation Center, a family friend said.

George Holmes "was real upset and worried," the friend, Rose Tabron, said. "He said they had been hitting him."

Holmes, in his early 30s, died early Wednesday at a St. Louis-area hospital. Results of an autopsy will not be available for several weeks. Police also were called to investigate the death.

Holmes had lived in the same unit as Dawn Kirkendall, a 25-year-old mentally handicapped woman who was hospitalized after she was found beaten at the center about four weeks ago.

Jeannie Henry, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health which oversees the center, said Friday that the state is working with police on the case.

Two workers are on paid leave while Kirkendall's beating is investigated. No one has been removed as a result of the Holmes case, Henry said.

An initial autopsy finding showed the death as a homicide, but later was changed to sudden death, Henry said.

Henry said that the center reported that Holmes had a heart attack, slipped on urine on the floor and fell. She said that police were called as a matter of routine.

Holmes' legal guardian and uncle, Roy Washington of St. Louis, said that workers at the center told him Holmes had fallen and was being taken to the hospital. When Washington got to the hospital, doctors told him that his nephew was dead.

Washington said he insisted on an autopsy.

"When they pulled back the sheet, you could see both of his eyes swollen -- huge -- and bruising and swelling all over his face," Washington said. "It looked just like what it looks when someone is beaten bad in the face with fists. There is no way those injuries were from a fall."

Later, that day, Washington said, several Bellefontaine workers called him to tell him that his nephew had been beaten by staff.

Washington said officials at the center had refused to allow him to pick up his nephew's things and would not talk with him about what happened.

"We can't get any answers," Washington said. "They say he had a heart attack. Well, anytime you get whupped that much, your heart is going to stop."

Washington's wife, Martha, said that Holmes had no heart ailments or other health problems. She said her nephew had spent last weekend at her home and was fine.

"He was no fighter; he would not fight," she said. "He'd complain that people at the center -- the other residents and staff members -- would hit him. He would never fight back."

The Washingtons said they are upset that neither the police, the state nor the medical examiner had contacted them.

"We can't help George now, but we hope to help someone else," Martha Washington said. "It's just terrible. Something has to be done."

Bellefontaine Center has faced repeated accusations of abuse and neglect over the past several years.

The state has wanted to begin shutting down sections of the center and send residents to private facilities. However, parents have lobbied Gov. Bob Holden to keep the center open.

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