State: Staff abandoned residents of Santa Rosa senior care homes during October wildfires

Regulators moved to revoke the licenses of two Santa Rosa care homes owned by Oakmont Senior Living, documenting claims that nearly 100 residents were abandoned during the October firestorm.|

State regulators moved Thursday to revoke the licenses of two Santa Rosa care homes owned by Oakmont Senior Living, documenting disturbing claims that nearly 100 elderly residents were abandoned by poorly trained staff during the October firestorm.

After a nearly yearlong investigation, the state Department of Social Services filed a complaint this week alleging management and staff repeatedly violated state codes designed to protect the safety of residents at both Fountaingrove facilities, Villa Capri and Varenna.

Regulators will seek lifetime bans against two of the company’s top administrators that would prevent them from ever again working in assisted care facilities licensed by the state.

The 18-page complaint also accused Oakmont officials of making “false and misleading statements” to the public that inflated the role played by the company’s staff during the evacuations.

Residents stranded at Varenna and Villa Capri were later rescued by family members, friends and first responders, investigators said. The allegations echo similar claims raised by a lawsuit centered around the evacuation of Villa Capri that was settled last month on the eve of its scheduled trial.

All residents at both facilities survived the fires, though the civil lawsuit alleged that trauma from the evacuations hastened the deaths of three residents. State investigators concluded more than 20 people left behind at Villa Capri would have died if not for valiant efforts to save them after staff departed.

“These residents would have perished when the facility burned to the ground during the fire,” the state documents said.

Oakmont Senior Living said the allegations were unsubstantiated and unfounded. In an unsigned statement issued Thursday, the company pledged to be “fully transparent and responsive” to resolve the allegations.

“The night of the Tubbs fire, we voluntarily began evacuating residents after we were repeatedly unable to reach emergency authorities on clogged ?911 phone lines. We never received an official evacuation order from emergency authorities,” the company said.

“All 418 residents were safely evacuated. We are immensely grateful for the heroic lifesaving efforts of our employees and their families, neighbors, residents and their families, and emergency authorities,” the company said. “Our residents and their safety have been, and always will be, our first priority.”

15 days to file appeal

Oakmont Senior Living was served with the legal notice Thursday and has 15 days to file an appeal requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge, according to Michael Weston, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services. In the meantime, the company’s licenses remain intact and Varenna - which is still standing - can operate as normal, Weston said.

The Windsor company, founded in 1997 by developer Bill Gallaher, has planned and developed more than 50 retirement communities in the western United States.

Tanja Werle, a Rohnert Park resident who says her grandmother was abandoned at Varenna, said she wasn’t surprised by the results of the state investigation. Her grandmother was evacuated by Werle’s ex-boyfriend, a police detective who checked on the facility after she grew concerned about the fires.

“It was clear to me that there weren’t policies and procedures in place to keep residents safe in the case of an emergency,” Werle said.

Werle expressed hope the investigation might spur positive policy changes at facilities operated by Oakmont, regardless of what becomes of Varenna and Villa Capri, which is in the process of being rebuilt.

“They’re just lucky that nobody died,” Werle said. “Honestly, it could have been much worse.”

Lifetime bans sought

State investigators singled out the actions of Deborah Smith and Nathan Condie, the executive directors of the two facilities during the firestorm. The state wants to revoke their administrator certificates and ban them from ever again working for any facility licensed by the social services department.

Attempts to reach Smith and Condie for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

At Villa Capri, four staff members were working overnight Oct. 8, left in charge of 62 residents who were either in a memory care unit or assisted living, the state alleged. Smith had failed to ensure all of them were familiar with the facility’s emergency procedures or participated in emergency training as required by state law, according to the state’s legal action.

None of them had ever participated in a fire drill involving the evacuation of all Villa Capri residents, and none of them knew where the keys to the facility’s vehicle were kept, the state alleges. Two of the staff members couldn’t perform “standard caregiver duties” due to physical limitations preventing them from lifting more than 10 pounds or using both of their hands, the legal action said.

Staff helped evacuate some people but left more than 20 behind, the state alleges.

Investigators determined Smith, the Villa Capri administrator, was not on duty that night but was contacted by a staff member at 11:30 p.m. after the power went out. Smith did not try to go to the facility until after she was contacted again at 1:30 a.m., and after she was unable to make it, she went home for an unknown time period, the legal action said. She eventually showed up to an evacuation center at about 6 a.m. the next day.

At Varenna, two direct care providers and two maintenance staff members were the only personnel on duty, investigators found. The state said both care staffers, as well as another who showed up during the fire, were untrained in emergency evacuations.

Condie, Varenna’s administrator, arrived between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. Oct. 9 but didn’t respond to any of staff’s questions about the facility’s evacuation plan, the state alleges. About 3:30 a.m., he left without telling staff he was going or making sure they knew the location of keys for a bus in the parking lot that could have been used to evacuate about 26 residents, the state said.

Condie and other staff members left about 70 Varenna residents behind to be evacuated by family, friends and first responders, the state said. Three residents were left in their rooms and slept through the night, discovering the facility had been evacuated when they awoke the next morning, investigators found.

No warning of cleanup

The agency also alleged Oakmont Senior Living violated state laws when it brought large equipment to the burned-out site of Villa Capri on Oct. 16 and started clearing the debris before family members had an opportunity to look for their belongings amid the rubble.

The site cleanup occurred without warning to residents even after company representatives told the families of at least two Villa Capri residents that they would “receive communication about property retrieval,” regulators said.

Should the state regulators prevail, it remains unclear what would happen to Varenna, which has been reopened, or Villa Capri, which is being rebuilt. The Department of Social Services only licenses assisted living facilities, and Varenna has both independent and assisted living components, Weston said.

Independent senior living operations aren’t licensed by the state because they’re not “providing direct care and supervision,” Weston said, calling it “more of a lifestyle choice.”

Weston declined to say whether Varenna could shut down if the department’s allegations hold.

“Those residents have actually invested significant amounts of money to ensure their lifetime of care,” Weston said. “So that’s something that the department is aware of.”

‘Same inconsistencies’

The state’s investigation mirrored allegations in a civil lawsuit settled in August, including abandonment by staff, lack of emergency training and no available keys to vehicles parked at Villa Capri, which could have been used to move residents.

San Francisco attorney Kathryn Stebner, who represented 17 residents and family members in the suit, called the state’s findings “very aggressive.”

“We spent a lot of time investigating this case, as did the state of California, and we both came up with the same facts and same inconsistencies,” Stebner said Thursday.

“The state is holding Oakmont accountable and is sending a strong message not only to Oakmont but to the industry that it needs to spend money on the safety of the residents and that a pretty building is not enough,” she said.

While terms of the civil settlement were confidential, Stebner said in August that the company had tentatively agreed to take additional measures to benefit residents in all of its Northern California facilities.

Before the trial, the company posted a “detailed account of the initial and ongoing actions the company took to proactively support its residents and ensure their safety in the days and weeks following the fire,” according to the company website.

But state regulators found the company’s statements, entitled “The Real Story of Oakmont Senior Living and the Tubbs Fire,” included false claims.

The inaccuracies regarding Villa Capri included company statements that seven employees successfully evacuated all residents at Villa Capri, that staff led the evacuation and were present for the final resident evacuations.

Regulators also cited statements by two Varenna employees who in October told a state employee that they and others went to Varenna the next morning to check for any remaining residents, going through each room, and had found none.

“These statements were false,” according to the state filing, which said staff actually found three residents still at the facility the morning after the fire and then evacuated them.

Call for focus on safety

Stebner, whose legal career for 30 years has focused on the senior residential living industry, said the Department of Social Services is taking an aggressive approach to punish alleged violations stemming from the events during the fires.

“I think that the state of California stepped up to the plate in a way I’ve never seen it do before,” Stebner said.

She called for new laws to increase the safety of residents in senior care facilities. “This is going to happen again,” she said, referring to natural disasters.

“The focus in this industry is the building and aesthetics. We need to change the focus to the safety of the residents.”

Before settling the case, Oakmont and its legal team had denied all allegations of wrongdoing raised by the civil suit. It said the company had followed laws regulating such facilities and had properly trained staff for an emergency.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter ?@thejdmorris. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or On Twitter @rossmannreport.

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