Chattanooga police have arrested a former health care worker in connection with the 2007 homicide of a cerebral palsy patient, a case that almost ended with no investigation into the victim's unexpected death and his burial just days later in a pauper's grave.
Walter Small, 41, of Chattanooga, is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of Robert A. Young on Nov. 12, 2007. Authorities booked the defendant into the Hamilton County Jail Friday morning after a grand jury indicted him earlier this week.
He was released Friday on a $5,000 bond, officials said, and no court date has been set.
A timeline of the case reveals it was Mr. Young's family members who initially questioned the circumstances of his death, which took place while he was living at the Health Center at Standifer Place. Mr. Small worked in the center as a certified nursing assistant.
Authorities eventually exhumed Mr. Young's body last summer, and the autopsy performed one year after his death indicated Mr. Young died of blunt force trauma to the head.
County Medical Examiner Frank King said he did not initially perform an autopsy because of representations made to him that the victim had fallen and fractured his skull as the result of a seizure.
But medical records didn't support that theory, Dr. King said, and Mr. Young's sister, Rana Reynolds, would end up suing Standifer Place as well as the Tennessee Department of Human Services in November 2008, alleging that both were in "collusion" to "hide the death and burial" of Mr. Young.
According to the two lawsuits filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court, not only did a Standifer Place employee kill Mr. Young, but when family members called to check up on him, employees didn't even tell the family he was dead for more than a month.
After Mr. Young's death, "Standifer Place told each person, on each call, that (Mr. Young) was OK, and to come see him," court documents state.
Adult Protective Services, the Department of Human Services agency that had legal guardianship of Mr. Young, also did not respond to Erlanger hospital's repeated attempts to find Mr. Young's family, said attorney Robin Flores, who is representing the family.
Instead, the agency simply made arrangements for Mr. Young to be buried at Ruth Cofer cemetery after he died at Erlanger hospital about a week after being sent there from Standifer Place with a fractured skull, Mr. Flores said.
"It was like, 'Just bury the guy. He's a ward of the state, so who cares?'" Mr. Flores said at the time he filed the $35 million wrongful death suit against Standifer Place on behalf of Mr. Young's family.
"(Mr. Small's indictment) will help us develop our case that (Standifer Place) was aware of his actions or tried to cover his actions up," Mr. Flores said Friday.
Standifer Place Administrator John Strawn said Friday that the indictment for homicide "is against (Mr. Small), not Standifer Place." Mr. Strawn said the nursing home fired Mr. Small soon after Mr. Young's exhumation and maintains that Standifer Place as a facility did nothing to contribute to Mr. Young's death.
The second lawsuit, against the Department of Human Services, seeks $900,000 to compensate for the "negligence" family members claim the department showed in the aftermath of Mr. Young's death.
Human Services spokeswoman Michelle Mowery Johnson could not be reached Friday for comment, but said last November that the department tried to contact Mr. Young's only known relatives on Nov. 9, 2007, as he lay dying at Erlanger.
There was "an established pattern of involvement" in Mr. Young's case, Ms. Mowery Johnson said.