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There's No Place Like This Home

Another suspicious death at Carlyle on the Bay prompts an AHCA investigation
Steve Satterwhite

This past October 13 Lourdes Franco made a gruesome discovery. In apartment 908 at Carlyle on the Bay, a ten-story residential tower overlooking Biscayne Bay, just north of the former Omni Mall, she found 81-year-old Joseph Witten lying dead, face-down on the floor, a dark stain of dried blood under his head. It was obvious he'd been dead for some time; his body had already begun to decompose.

Several employees who had daily contact with Witten at the Carlyle, a so-called assisted-living facility (ALF) located at 1900 N. Bayshore Dr., claim they hadn't seen the World War II veteran in more than a week, according to interviews and public records. Franco, resident-care director of the Carlyle, finally went looking for Witten after residents complained of a foul odor coming from his room. According to police accounts, Franco, who now works as the facility's bookkeeper, admitted this much to City of Miami police officer Ernesto Sierra, who responded to the report of a death: Witten had not been seen "for days." The corpse was transported from the Carlyle to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, a routine procedure in such cases.

Outside of a small circle of friends at the Carlyle, Witten was mourned by few. His only known relatives were Joel and Richard Hyman, nephews of his deceased wife, who live in New Jersey and New York respectively. The brothers arrived in Miami soon after a Carlyle employee informed them of their uncle's death. With the help of an attorney, they had the body cremated and then sought to open Witten's safe-deposit box. But they lacked the proper paperwork, and it remains locked.

The details of Witten's life are as enigmatic as the circumstances under which he died. He was born October 19, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. After his military service he became a printer. In 1955 Witten married Sylvia Lenhoff; they had no children. The couple moved to Miami around 1970. "They just got tired of New York," nephew Joel Hyman relates. "You know, the weather is so much nicer in Florida." Witten continued working as a printer in Miami, Hyman recounts, though he doesn't know at which company or for how long.

About five years ago, not long after his wife's death, Witten rented a studio apartment at the Carlyle, Hyman says. "He stayed in their home in northwest Miami for a little while," Hyman recalls, "until he couldn't take care of himself anymore." By the time he moved to the Carlyle, where he lived alone, Witten was suffering from a long list of physical ailments. According to the medical examiner's report, he had been treated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center for colon and prostate cancer, hypertension, and pulmonary disease, among other infirmities. His hearing was deteriorating, and he used a walker to get around.

Medical examiner Dr. Daniel Spitz says Witten had been taking at least two cardiac drugs -- including a nitroglycerin patch -- and another medication to treat depression. No autopsy was performed. "If there was some indication that he had been mistreated or abused, or some kind of foul play was involved," Spitz explains, "then we would have done one. But that wasn't the case." On the other hand, Spitz adds, failing to take his medications certainly could have contributed to Witten's death. The doctor can only guess he died of a heart attack.

By most accounts Witten was a friendly man. "Joe was a first-class resident," says a former Carlyle employee who wishes to remain anonymous. "He always had a smile on his face and he always paid his rent on time, sometimes even a few days before it was due." Witten's nephew, Joel Hyman, describes him as a "fun-loving guy." A current Carlyle employee says he was "real sweetheart," a "gentleman" who was well-mannered and gracious with the ladies. The same employee says that even though Witten greatly valued his privacy, he ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day in the dining hall along with other Carlyle residents.

Carlyle executive Lourdes Franco described a much different Witten to Officer Sierra. According to Sierra, upon arriving at the death scene he asked Franco why so much time had elapsed before someone discovered Witten's body. He says Franco responded by asserting that Witten was "antisocial" and that many Carlyle residents were independent and cared for themselves. "They didn't think anything of it when he was gone," Sierra remembers Franco telling him during their conversation at the Carlyle.

Sierra, who admits he isn't familiar with state laws governing assisted-living facilities, didn't know it at the time, but the owners and administrators of the Carlyle violated Florida statutes when they failed to check on Witten daily.

Like other ALFs, Carlyle on the Bay, which sits across the street from the bayfront Margaret Pace Park, represents an alternative to nursing homes and similar facilities designed to provide 24-hour medical supervision. It operates with a type of state license that allows it to house a mix of residents, all of whom need some level of assistance in caring for themselves: retired seniors, Alzheimer's victims, and relatively young psychiatric patients. On average about 175 people live in the condo-style building, which became licensed in 1983. It is a private profit-making operation that charges for its services; residents must pay, either individually or with government aid.

Under Florida law staff must offer personal supervision, care, and appropriate services to each individual living at an ALF. Medical and social records must be current. Staff must ascertain that people are eating properly, taking medications as prescribed, and consulting with their physicians when needed. Ambulatory residents are free to leave the premises whenever they want, but staff is required to have a general awareness of their whereabouts.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) makes sure that all assisted-living homes in the state comply with these rules. If a facility fails to do so, the agency has the power to shut it down. AHCA investigators conduct routine inspections twice per year and also respond to complaints.

According to AHCA investigative files and New Times interviews with current and former employees, the Carlyle has a history of administrative incompetence and institutional neglect. Recently several Carlyle employees, who do not want their identities revealed for fear of losing their jobs, denounced what they claim is poor treatment of mentally and physically frail residents. They say Joseph Witten's death is just the most recent example of that substandard care.

Two years ago the Carlyle's controversial reputation finally prompted the Miami office of the Veterans Administration to stop referring patients from its Miami medical center, which it had been doing since the early Nineties. "We no longer send our patients there due to quality-care issues and patient-safety concerns," reports Susan Ward, public affairs officer for the VA. After making that policy decision, Ward says, VA officials offered to find new housing for veterans, like Witten, who were then living at the Carlyle. But most of the vets, Witten among them, chose to stay. Currently about nineteen individuals originally referred by the VA reside at the facility.

AHCA records dating from 1989 reveal that the Carlyle has violated many state rules governing ALFs; in fact the facility has often violated the same rules more than once. But monetary fines have been the most severe punishment extracted by AHCA, and even those have not been substantial. In late 1989, for example, the Carlyle was fined $750 because it did not have adequate food supplies for its residents and because special diets had not been followed as ordered by a doctor. Despite having committed many infractions and being cited in the past several years, the Carlyle's last monetary penalty was imposed in 1991.

The most recent complaint AHCA received about the Carlyle came from an anonymous caller on October 16, 2000, three days after Lourdes Franco opened the door to Witten's apartment and found him dead. AHCA records indicate the unidentified caller complained about the fetid odor that led to the discovery of Witten's body. The caller also protested alleged negligence that might have contributed to Witten's death, and about a woman who worked at the Carlyle as a nurse though she reportedly was not licensed. AHCA inspectors responded by immediately launching an investigation.

Beginning the very day the complaint was received, and for two additional days, agency investigators conducted what they refer to as a survey of the Carlyle -- inspecting a number of apartments, interviewing residents and staff -- and confirmed all three allegations. According to AHCA's subsequent report, investigators concluded that Witten "had not been seen for an undetermined amount of time, no one had checked on the resident, and no one missed the resident at meal times."

AHCA inspectors identified sixteen major infractions at the Carlyle during the October survey. Among other problems, medical charts were out of date, incomplete, and did not reflect residents' actual physical conditions. For instance, one resident's weight dipped precipitously over three months -- from 115 pounds to 74 pounds -- but Carlyle administrators were unable to document the weight loss and had not contacted the resident's doctor or family.

Records at the Carlyle described another resident as self-reliant, though in reality arthritis had disabled her to such a degree that she was unable to hold eating utensils or operate a television remote control.

Investigators discovered a resident with a bed sore "the size of a half-dollar" who had not been seen by a doctor and wasn't receiving care for the wound. They also found that a census indicating where residents lived was inaccurate; the Carlyle's top administrator, Rose Wilson, admitted to investigators that people often changed rooms on their own. In addition inspectors noted that apartments were dirty and smelled of urine, furniture was broken, sheets were soiled and threadbare, and air conditioners weren't functioning.

A month following the inspection, Carlyle administrators undertook corrective measures to address the violations. But an AHCA spokeswoman says agency attorneys are continuing the investigation, though they cannot reveal the nature of their inquiry. Should AHCA officials determine that sanctions are justified in addition to the corrective measures, they can choose from a range of options, from monetary fines to revocation of the Carlyle's operating license to closing the facility.

Lourdes Franco, the administrator who found Witten dead, justifies staff conduct by explaining that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed. "Witten did not allow us in his room," she asserts. "It's either violate the laws or violate the residents' privacy rights. There's a fine line. We cannot force residents to comply with the rules." (Administrator Rose Wilson would not respond to questions.)

The Hyman brothers will travel to Miami again later this month to finally open Joseph Witten's safe-deposit box, having now secured a required death certificate. Perhaps they'll learn more about the life of their late uncle.

As for his death, the precise details likely never will be known, but there's little doubt it was needlessly impersonal. "It's a very undignified way to have to die," says Miami VA spokeswoman Susan Ward, "especially for a veteran."


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