Fifty years ago, Joseph Phelan let his younger sister tag along on his first date with the woman he eventually married.
Dawn Marie Ritz sat in the back seat of the car at the Lancaster drive-in movie theater, while Phelan tried to woo his date.
Now 67, Phelan laughed recently at that memory of his developmentally disabled sister, always happy and delightful. “She was pretty good at the show,” he recalled. Though the siblings were close — “she was like my shadow,” said Phelan, who lives in Idaho — the last time he saw Ritz was in 2008.
In the early hours of May 14, his 61-year-old sister was found dead in a Granada Hills care facility, allegedly stabbed by another resident.
According to LAPD Det. Steve Castro, 18-year-old Ravneet Kaur entered Ritz’s bedroom at the Aacres group home with a kitchen knife she said she had found in a cabinet.
A caregiver at the home had gone to Ritz’s room when she heard screaming and found the door locked, Castro said. She called 911 after she opened the door and found Ritz lying on the floor, bloody, with Kaur standing next to her.
Kaur “said she didn’t like” Ritz, the detective said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has filed murder charges against Kaur, who pleaded not guilty and is being held in lieu of $2 million bail, according to Sheriff’s Department records.
If convicted, she could face a life sentence.
According to district attorney spokesman Ricardo Santiago, officials have doubts about Kaur’s mental competency to stand trial. Medical examiners will provide the results of their evaluation at an Aug. 1 court hearing.
In the meantime, the California Department of Social Services is investigating the Aacres group home to determine whether the facility provided proper care and supervision for Ritz, according to department spokesman Michael Weston.
Depending on what officials find, the department could close the facility or issue a citation, among other penalties.
“We are fully committed to learning from this tragedy so as to continue to promote our clients’ and families’ safety and well-being,” Robert Efford, CEO of Embassy Management, the company that oversees Aacres, said in a statement.
Officials from the group home declined further comment.
Records for the home note that “sharp knives and first aid kit will be stored in locked closet with shelving” and that the “facility will provide 24 hour awake staffing.” Social Services has cited the group home three times before for minor offenses — a leaky sink and a broken auditory alarm, insufficient disaster drills, and insufficient logs for residents’ medications.
Ritz was buried last month in the Joshua Tree Memorial Park cemetery, next to her parents.
“I am just so glad that my mother and father aren’t alive to have to see this, because they gave up their whole lives for her,” Phelan said.
Phelan described his sister as happy and sweet, always excited to dance, go bowling or make Valentine’s cards — even after the holiday was over. For years, she competed in track and field for the Special Olympics, and she loved to water-ski on Pine Flat Lake in Central California.
Ritz loved church, Phelan said, and constantly told him that “Jesus touches my heart.”