Brutal abuse at Calabasas retirement home described in testimony

As she made her rounds at an upscale Calabasas retirement home one morning, Adelina Campos said she walked into a room and caught a fellow caregiver in the act of abusing an elderly man suffering from dementia.

The worker was in midair, hurtling from atop a dresser toward the bed, landing both knees onto the man’s belly.

“I was just in shock,” Campos said.

The horrible tale and other accounts of abuse are unfolding this week in the trial of Cesar Ulloa, a low-level employee accused of severely mistreating residents, some of whom would have been too dementia-ridden to alert anyone to the alleged abuse.

Ulloa, 21, is charged with seven counts of elder abuse and one count of torture. If convicted, he faces a possible life sentence. In addition to abusing the elderly man, prosecutors say, Ulloa jumped on a woman’s chest and body-slammed her into a bed when she struggled. The 78-year-old woman was mute because of a brain condition. He also allegedly took the arm of one wheelchair-bound resident and used it to hit another resident who had dementia, encouraging them to fight.

“He attacked the most vulnerable people you can possibly find,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Robin Allen told a Van Nuys jury. “He hit them and he laughed. This was sport.”

For adults considering assisted care homes for their parents, the alleged abuses are particularly distressing because of where they’re said to have occurred: Silverado Senior Living. The Calabasas facilities are about as close to a four-star hotel as retirement homes get, with relatives shelling out upward of $70,000 a year to house their loved ones.

The state attorney general’s office has called elder abuse in nursing homes a serious problem. In a 12-month period between 2007 and 2008, there were 85 elder abuse convictions in California, according to the state Department of Justice. Many cases go undetected or unreported, authorities said.

The prosecutor in Ulloa’s trial painted Silverado as a retirement home ripe for undetected abuse. Low-level caregivers, few of whom had more than a high school education, she said, received just days of training before taking the floor. Cameras that could have deterred brutality were installed in the halls but not in residents’ rooms, where caregivers bathed and changed residents. The caregivers, who make about $10 an hour, are also responsible for escorting residents throughout the facility.

Ulloa’s attorney, Daniel Teola, denied that his client ever abused residents, attributing the allegations to false rumors circulated by veteran staffers envious of Ulloa’s rapid success. Just three months after being hired, Ulloa was named employee of the month.

Any injuries, Teola said, would have been incidental. Because the retirement home pledges not to restrain or sedate residents -- a necessary reality at other facilities -- patients who become combative, he said, are more prone to injury.

The attorney compared the set-up to a free-range chicken farm.

“You’re going to have bruises,” he said. “You’re going to have fractures.”

Ulloa, short and boyish, watched the proceedings calmly, breaking his stare only to scrawl notes to his attorney with a miniature pencil. His thin frame hardly filled his gray dress shirt. The Reseda resident was fired before charges were brought against him, for reasons officials at Silverado said were unrelated to the allegations of abuse. The retirement home has denied any wrongdoing.

“At Silverado we always have the greatest concern for the safety of our residents and strive in every respect to provide a safe environment at our community. Our staff are dedicated to serving our residents in a way that respects and honors them,” said Loren Shook, president and chief executive of Silverado.

Ulloa, just 19 at the time of the alleged abuse, came under suspicion after a resident at the home, Elmore Kittower, died in 2007, presumably of natural causes. The day after saying goodbye to her husband of almost 50 years at his funeral, Kittower’s widow got a call from a stranger. The voice on the other end was that of Campos’ mother, and she told the grieving woman that her husband had been beaten to death.

“I can’t talk anymore. I’m nauseated,” Rita Kittower recalled saying, during testimony Monday, blinking furiously and sobbing in spurts.

Days later, with her permission, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies exhumed the former engineer’s body. Trauma was found, with signs of multiple broken bones at various stages of healing. An autopsy showed blunt force trauma as a contributing factor in his death.

Detectives launched a yearlong investigation into Ulloa and discovered other alleged victims. He was arrested Oct. 2, 2008, and has remained in custody. At trial this week, prosecution witnesses have detailed some of the suspected abuse.

Luz Alvarez, one former caregiver, testified that she saw Ulloa taunting residents, telling a male patient he “was sexing his daughter.”

Another time, as she dressed one resident for breakfast, she said she witnessed Ulloa in a struggle with a combative resident. Ulloa, she said, clenched his right fist and punched the wheelchair-bound man in the stomach.

“Haven’t you had enough?” Alvarez recalled Ulloa saying as he laughed at the gasping man.

When she returned to the room after dropping off her patient at breakfast, she found the punched man hunched over, his head cocked to one side, with white foamy saliva bubbling out of his mouth.

Initially, she said, she remained silent about the incident out of loyalty to her co-worker and fear of compromising her job security, but she said the image of the man foaming at the mouth haunted her. Eventually she talked to authorities.

At least one juror was moved to tears after hearing Rita Kittower testify about the death of her husband.

When asked if she was married to Elmore Kittower, the tiny 86-year-old, still wearing her wedding ring, responded in the present tense, “I am,” before reminding the jury that Tuesday would have been their anniversary.

She recounted the decision to move her husband, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, to Silverado despite the home’s hefty price tag.

“I think we need to do this for Dad,” she recalled telling her daughter. “He’s been so good to us; we need to be good to him.”

The two had met in 1957, as she washed her red Ford convertible outside her West Hollywood apartment. She hosed the stranger by mistake, and the two got to talking.

Toward the end of his life, she said he could hardly speak, transformed from a kind, thoughtful man who volunteered at the local high school to a bitter and combative one. He would often spit out his meds, barking, “Chemicals.”

But during some visits, his old self would resurface. He would take her hand into his, lift it to his lips and kiss it.