Original article no longer available
Oct 21, 2002
By LAURIE MASON, Courier Times
An 83-year-old nursing home resident was allegedly kicked then left to die a slow, agonizing death. The county grand jury called the Lower Makefield home “shameful” and urged legislative action.
Prosecutors say 83-year-old Alzheimer’s patient William Neff was kicked so hard by nursing aide Heidi Tenzer that he doubled over in pain and vomited. Five of his ribs were broken. His lung was pierced. He was in unimaginable pain.
Yet, prosecutors say, Tenzer and other staff at Alterra Clare Bridge, a personal care home in Lower Makefield, did nothing to help Neff. They didn’t call a doctor, didn’t notify his family and didn’t give him any pain medication.
He died six days later and was set to be buried when a funeral director noticed something strange. There was a huge purple bruise, more than a foot wide, on Neff’s side. A coroner later determined that Neff didn’t die of natural causes – he was murdered.
In fact, the cause of death on a certificate to the funeral home read “failure to thrive,” according to police sources.
Lower Makefield police say they tried to investigate Neff’s Sept. 11, 2000 death but were stonewalled by Alterra Clare Bridge employees and the home’s parent company, Alterra Health Care Corp. of Milwaukee, Wis.
So they turned to the county grand jury, which conducted an 18-month investigation.
At the recommendation of the grand jury, Tenzer, 33, of Laing Road, Bristol Township, was arrested late Monday and charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, neglect of care of a dependent person and delivery of a controlled substance.
She was arraigned and sent to Bucks County prison after failing to post 10 percent of $2 million bail.
The grand jury also recommended the arrests of four other people who worked at Alterra Clare Bridge or Heartland Hospice of Plymouth Meeting, which provided nurses to Clare Bridge patients.
They are Brian Paul Gunther, 41, a registered nurse from Bryn Athyn; Julie Pearson, 53, of Philadelphia, an aide; Patricia Policino, 57, of Langhorne, a registered nurse; and Ann Marie McClintock, 31, of Falls, the resident director of Alterra Clare Bridge.
Gunther, Policino and Pearson were arraigned yesterday. McClintock was arraigned last night in Warminster.
All four were charged with neglect of care of a dependent person and related charges and sent to county prison on $100,000 bail.
A law enforcement source close to the case said McClintock had the title of “director” at Alterra and when she learned of the injuries to Neff, “left him in bed to die.” McClintock’s preliminary hearing is scheduled today before District Justice Oliver Groman.
In addition to recommending the arrests, the grand jury took the unusual step of issuing a report on its findings, urging legislative action to prevent further deaths and injuries at Clare Bridge and other personal care homes.
“To quote the grand jury, they found the actions of Alterra Clare Bridge and Heartland Hospice ‘shameful, inhumane and morally reprehensible’ and I totally agree,” said Bucks County District Attorney Diane Gibbons.
“These corporations willfully disregarded the care of their own patients. They hired employees of the lowest caliber, with the least education and provided no training, no supervision, no monitoring. The grand jury found that these corporations showed no responsibility, no remorse.”
Neff’s family sued Alterra Clare Bridge and Heartland Hospice, and both organizations’ parent companies, in April.
The corporations will not face criminal charges, Gibbons said, because investigators could find no direct evidence linking the companies to Neff’s death.
Neff, of Philadelphia, began living at Alterra Clare Bridge in January 1999. His family paid the company – which runs 40 personal care homes in 25 states – $3,600 a month for his room and board.
On the night Neff was allegedly assaulted, a private nurse attending to a patient in an adjoining room heard what she described as a “fight” about 2 a.m. in Neff’s room. The nurse, who didn’t work for Alterra, saw Tenzer leave the room a short time later.
The private nurse reported the incident to Alterra employees.
“They did nothing,” Gibbons said. “They didn’t notify his family, didn’t call a doctor. Nothing.”
In the week that followed, Neff deteriorated. He had trouble breathing and complained of pain as he was moved from room to room. Gunther, the nurse, checked Neff and said he was fine, according to court records.
Hours before he died, another nurse finally ordered pain medication and oxygen for Neff. Neff never got it, Gibbons said.
The grand jury’s investigation also uncovered a staggering 29 incidents of unexplained injuries of Alterra Clare Bridge patients during a nine-month period in 2000. Tenzer was on duty when 25 of the suspected incidents occurred, according to court records.
“Clearly, she has a temper,” Gibbons said.
Tenzer, a single mother who worked double shifts, told her employers that she was on medication for anxiety and depression, Gibbons said. She is accused of illegally giving a co-worker Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.
As the investigation progressed, Tenzer fled to Florida and then to California. She was found at her mother’s home in Bristol Township this week.
Alterra Clare Bridge is privately owned and does not receive state or federal funding. It specializes in treating Alzheimer’s patients, according to its advertising literature. A woman who answered the phone there would not comment, but said someone would call back to answer questions.
In its report, the grand jury members said they were “distressed” no one at Alterra or the other companies involved in Neff’s care asked a fundamental question: Why did he die?
The grand jury accused the corporations of “circling the wagons” when police came to investigate, and of acting like they were “under siege.”
Gibbons said the companies kept few records to avoid civil liability. After Neff’s death, no employees were reprimanded, she said.
Gibbons said all accused employees have since found other employment.
The grand jury also criticized the companies’ hiring practices; resident aides – like Tenzer – needed only a high school education and a 40-hour course to work with elderly patients. Investigators found that cleaning staff were promoted to resident aides.
If no changes are made in the way personal care homes are regulated, other patients could suffer the same fate, the panel warned, and urged legislators to take a hard look at the way Alterra Clare Bridge is run.
Gibbons said she would forward the report to Harrisburg.
Laurie Mason can be reached at 215-949-4205 or lmason@phillyBurbs.com.
October 09, 2002