Metro-East News

No criminal charges in wheelchair death at Belleville nursing home

St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone said Monday his investigation into the death of a woman found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs at a Belleville nursing home found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

“But there may be civil liability that the family undoubtedly will explore,” Stone said.

Juanita Simmons, 85, died from injuries consistent with a fall, Stone said. Her body was found strapped to a wheelchair at the bottom of a set of stairs March 12 at Midwest Rehabilitation and Respiratory, 727 N. 17th St., Belleville.

Coroner’s investigators talked to residents and staff and obtained surveillance video from the nursing home. The video showed Simmons, sitting in the hall, alone, staring at a soda machine, Stone said. Minutes later, she was found at the bottom of the stairs. The fire door that covered the stairs was equipped with an alarm, but, Stone said, it was turned down to a chime, instead of an actual alarm.

“That situation has been rectified,” he said.

A nurse failed to contact police or the coroner’s office because she “had nothing like this happen before and was scared she was going to lose her job.” Her identity was not released.

Simmons’ body was removed by a Montgomery County funeral director, who Stone said was told when he removed the body that the coroner had been there and gone before the funeral director arrived.

In a 911 call to Belleville emergency dispatch and obtained by the BND under a Freedom of Information Act request, a Midwest staff member asked for an ambulance with “lights and sirens” stated that “we had a resident in a wheelchair fall down the steps.”

“Are you with the patient?” the dispatcher asked.

“No, I have a bunch of nurses with her,” the staff member replied.

“Is she awake?” the dispatcher asked.

“No,” the employee said.

“Is she breathing?” the dispatcher asked.

“I don’t know. Everyone is running down there,” the caller responded.

Belleville Police Det. Sgt. Mark Heffernan has said the call came in at 6:32 a.m. In the recording, the caller never requested police. Under Illinois law, a death certificate must be issued by the coroner’s office in the case of an accident, or a physician in the case of a natural death.

“The staff reacted poorly,” Stone said. “I insisted they revamp their policies to comply with the law.”

Midwest’s administrator Becky Garcia could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. She has previously declined to comment.

Midwest is one of 13 nursing homes owned by Steven Blisko, 34, of Chicago. Ten Blisko-owned nursing homes have one-star ratings, including Midwest. These ratings are given by Medicare, which is operated by the federal government.

No lawsuit has been filed by Simmons’ survivors, according to the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk staff. There have been four other wrongful death lawsuits filed against Midwest since Blisko’s company took over in June 2011. Blisko did not return calls seeking comment.

One of those suits included the death of Aubrey Giles, 77, who was found frozen to death in a creek near the home two days after he wandered away from Midwest Rehabilitation, formerly the Calvin Johnson Nursing Home. The suit alleged that staff failed to promptly notify police after Giles disappeared. The case was settled, but the settlement details are sealed. The state fined Midwest $28,250 after Giles’ death.

State investigators were on the scene after Simmons’ death. There was no word on when the state investigation by the Illinois Department of Public Health would be completed.

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