An autistic woman in New Mexico suffered “torture” before she died at the hands of her caregivers, who were paid by the state to care for her in their own home, officials said Thursday.
Three people were arrested in connection with what state officials described as extreme abuse and neglect of the 38-year-old woman, Mary Melero, who was discovered in the back of a van when the caregivers tried to cross the Texas border into Mexico with her in February, New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said.
Melero was in medical crisis and had signs of abuse and neglect. She was taken to a hospital where she died April 7.
“In my nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, I can tell you without question that the injuries that Mary endured, that the harm that was inflicted upon her, was nothing short of torture,” Torrez said at a press conference.
The caregivers, Angelita Chacon, 52, and Patricia Hurtado, 42, were charged with abuse or neglect, false imprisonment, conspiracy to commit false imprisonment and failure to report. An acquaintance of the caregivers, Luz Scott, 53, in whose van Melero was discovered by border officials, was also charged with false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.
Prosecutors: Disabled woman endured ‘torture’
Melero was unable to stand and was unresponsive when she was found in the back of the van, lying on the floorboard wrapped in a blanket and dirty bandages covering her open wounds, but was crying, according to an arrest affidavit for Chacon obtained by USA TODAY. Chacon told authorities they were taking the woman for medical treatment in Mexico.
By the time she was admitted to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, Melero had pneumonia, wounds across her body, bedsores and ulcers – some of which were so severe that bone was exposed – and abrasions and ligature marks “that indicated that she had in fact been restrained,” Torrez said.
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Chacon told investigators that the victim had spent three days in a bathtub with her own feces and urine, which investigators suspect may have contributed to the infections that led to her death, the affidavit said. She also told investigators that the victim had recently thrown a portable stereo at Chacon and she “threw” it back at the victim, hitting her in the face and causing her lip to get “busted.” Chacon said she asked a friend, who was not a medical professional, to stitch up the victim’s lip instead of taking her to see a doctor, according to the affidavit.
The woman was also in septic shock due to infection. Torrez said she suffered cardiac arrest at the hospital and was intubated until her death.
“Based on the numerous injuries covering (the victim)’s body, medical staff deduced she was the victim of a pattern of abuse and neglect,” the affidavit said.
The woman lived in Chacon’s home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, part of the Albuquerque metropolitan area. The affidavit said Chacon and Hurtado were romantic partners and both cared for the woman.
It was not clear Thursday whether Chacon or Hurtado had attorneys representing them.
Dan Lindsey, an attorney listed as representing Scott in the affidavit, told USA TODAY she is “innocent” and only loaned the other defendants her van because she thought they were “helping” the victim.
Caregivers were paid in state funds for care of disabled people
Chacon and Hurtado contracted with At Home Advocacy and three other contractors, which collected nearly $250,000 in state money to care for the woman in the nearly three years before her death, Torrez said. The caregivers received about $5,000 per month for her care, he said.
Torrez said Chacon was previously turned down when she applied to be a caregiver a decade ago due to a prior felony conviction, and said he did not know why she was able to become a caregiver later.
At Home Advocacy said in a statement to USA TODAY it is cooperating with the investigation into the woman’s death. Its website said its contract with the state of New Mexico had been terminated.
“All instances of neglect and abuse must be addressed head on,” the agency said. “The recent arrests are an important step in doing just that.”
Torrez said At Home Advocacy was supposed to conduct monthly home checks and had been to Chacon’s home about a month before to check on the victim. A representative for At Home Advocacy told investigators that “body checks” were not performed during those check-ins, and staff didn’t observe any injuries on the victim at the time, according to the affidavit.
New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Patrick Allen said in a statement the crimes were the “worst breach of trust DOH has ever seen.”
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The money came from funding allotted to provide community-based services to developmentally disabled and intellectually disabled adults as an alternative to institutionalization. The New Mexico case sparked a statewide review of the system, with Torrez advocating for added resources to better train care providers and add oversight staff to ensure the well-being of the about 7,000 people receiving care under the program.
“This is a wakeup call,” Torrez said.
The state’s governor applauded prosecutors and investigators for taking steps to hold the caregivers accountable.
“As I have said before, abuse by those responsible for caring for the most vulnerable among us will not stand,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
Caregivers have abused disabled people nationwide
The case in New Mexico is not unique; people tasked with providing care for people with disabilities have been accused of horrific abuse and neglect all over the country. Torrez said he worries there may be more people being abused in care that officials don’t know about.
“Individuals who have disabilities are at a higher risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation,” FBI El Paso Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey said in a statement.
- In Florida in 2019, a man who worked at an adult care facility for people with developmental disabilities was charged after he fathered a child with a female disabled client in 2015. He was charged years later after the woman told investigators he touched her genitals and he provided a DNA sample that matched the child.
- Three people working at a Missouri residential treatment facility pleaded guilty to willfully failing to provide necessary medical care to a client who was developmentally disabled, resulting in his death in 2016, and falsifying records to hide their crimes. Prosecutors said when the victim’s health declined, they placed him in a dark basement and left him to die, then hid his body in a trash can filled with cement in a storage locker.
- A New Jersey man man working as a caregiver in a family’s home was convicted last year of aggravated assault and child endangerment for breaking the leg of a 16-year-old patient with a degenerative brain disorder. He was also accused of sexually abusing her.
- In 2017, an Indiana man who worked as a caregiver for a disabled 64-year-old man who required round-the-clock care was caught on video holding the client in a headlock and grabbing and bending his fingers back. The caregiver pleaded guilty to felony battery charges.
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