Ohio Department of Health investigates Trotwood nursing home freezer death

The death of a dementia patient reported missing at Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, is under investigation. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF
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The death of a dementia patient reported missing at Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, is under investigation. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF

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The Ohio Department of Health has opened an investigation after the death of a nursing home resident who was found dead in a freezer, according to a department spokeswoman.

Also, Trotwood police are continuing their investigation, and a legal expert told the Dayton Daily News that while criminal liability is questionable in the case, civil liability is possible.

The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office said that the remains of 86-year-old Sofiya Perel were released to Glicker Funeral Home and Cremation Service. Arrangements have not been announced by the funeral home.

Perel, who authorities said had dementia, died Tuesday at Maria-Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, 4830 Salem Ave., according to the coroner.

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About six in 10 people with dementia will wander, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The nursing home released a statement Thursday:

“The staff and residents at Maria Joseph Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are very saddened by the loss of one of our residents. We are, on all levels, assisting in the investigation of this tragic incident. We continuously strive to ensure the safety of the residents in our care. Due to the status of the open investigation, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Trotwood police were called around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday to the facility after the patient who lived on the fourth floor left a secure unit, according to a release from Trotwood police.

“The alarm didn’t go off,” a nurse told a 911 dispatcher.

Staff had searched for Perel for two hours before police were called. The search also involved an Ohio State Highway Patrol helicopter.

Police and staff searched the building, grounds and nearby area for another two hours before Perel was found deceased around 4 a.m. in a walk-in freezer at the facility.

Perel’s cause and manner of death have not been determined, Mongomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger said.

An Ohio Department of Health spokesperson said the department has opened an investigation into the incident. Nursing home inspectors, also called surveyors, look for any problems where a facility didn’t comply with requirements. If they find noncompliance, they give steps to correct the problems and can also issue fines.

Maria-Joseph has 280 licensed beds, and the most recent federal data reports it has an average of 265 residents per day living there, making it one of the largest facilities in the Dayton region.

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A Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson said that Trotwood Police are investigating the circumstances of Perel’s death and until the investigation is complete, it would be premature to speculate if any criminal charges should be considered.

Dayton Law Professor Thomas Hagel told the Dayton Daily News that, according to information released by police so far, it doesn’t appear criminal charges would be filed against anyone. However, he said that an attorney representing the family of Perel could argue that there was serious negligence that led to her death.

He said the attorney would want to conduct a separate investigation and contact the nursing home’s administration and likely their insurance company to see if a settlement could be reached.

“When you’re talking about a death, there are various ways to come up with estimates,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the age of the victim, background, loss of income to the family and all these type of things,” he said.

An attempt to reach the family of Perel wasn’t successful Thursday.

Maria-Joseph has two-star rating, out of five possible stars, according to U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid, which rates all nursing homes on a scale of one to five.

The community has slightly below average staffing levels, according to U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid.

At its last standard inspection, which was in January, it had 11 citations for minor issues, all of which were considered addressed and fixed by early March.

It has four out of five stars for its “quality of resident care” rating, with high marks for both long-term and short-stay resident care.