Families of Santa Rosa senior home residents welcome state crackdown on fire response

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Relatives of residents at a Santa Rosa senior care home accused of abandoning dozens of its elderly and infirm clients during the October firestorm expressed relief the state was taking steps to hold the owners accountable, saying staff members had failed to protect loved ones who endured harrowing escapes from the flames.

Several family members of Oakmont of Varenna residents said they hoped the state’s move to revoke licenses held by Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living and two of its top administrators would result in sanctions requiring significant improvements but allow their loved ones to remain in their Fountaingrove homes.

“I’m just so happy this has happened — that something has happened, that they’re held accountable,” said Lynn Galeazzi Devris, whose 96-year-old father still lives at Varenna and was among those left behind, according to her. “I’m so thankful my father didn’t die that night. I’m just so thankful to God. And I’m glad something is finally coming of this.”

Varenna was one of four Oakmont Senior Living facilities menaced by the Tubbs fire that destroyed more than 1,400 Fountaingrove homes early Oct. 9. Three of the sites, including Varenna, survived the fire. Oakmont of Villa Capri, a smaller, high-end, 72-bed assisted-living and memory-care facility adjacent to Varenna, was destroyed. No residents of the four facilities died in the fires.

But within days, family members of residents at Villa Capri and Varenna began coming forward with disturbing allegations that their loved ones — totaling more 100 individuals, based on court filings and state records — were abandoned by Oakmont Senior Living staff and stranded in the facilities as the Tubbs fire advanced.

An investigation launched by the state Department of Social Services determined more than 20 residents would have died when Villa Capri burned to the ground had relatives, friends and first responders not raced to the site and taken them to safety, according to a complaint filed by the state Thursday. State regulators faulted staff at Varenna for violating state laws and abandoning about 80 people there without power, working elevators or means to escape.

State regulators recommended that operating licenses for the two facilities be revoked and that two top Oakmont Senior Living administrators who oversaw the facilities be prevented from ever again working for a California-licensed assisted living home.

Galeazzi Devris said she and her sisters are still haunted by the knowledge that their father, who uses a cane to walk, was forced to contemplate his own death as he watched the fires approach. There were no working phones to contact his family. He was among those eventually rescued on city buses.

“Honestly that’s why he was there, so you don’t have to worry about him,” Galeazzi Devris said. “You worry about other things like him getting sick or falling or having a heart attack, but you don’t worry about him not escaping, not getting away from that kind of danger.”

Family members of Varenna residents contacted over the past two days praised the state’s investigation and initiative to ensure the safety of elders in state-licensed facilities.

The license revocation hearings could result in a range of outcomes that would allow the pair of independent living and assisted care complexes to remain open, an option that would avoid uprooting elderly and frail people in the last years of their lives. Villa Capri has a total capacity of 80 residents and Varenna is licensed for up to 322, according to the state.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“When you’re 92, it’s hard to make a change,” said Jeff Sloan, whose father-in-law lives at Varenna. His health has declined since the fires, Sloan said.

Sloan criticized Varenna staff for failing to take common-sense steps to ensure the safety of each resident and have procedures in place to inform relatives where to find their loved ones. Sloan said they had hours before the Tubbs fire arrived to ensure all residents were accounted for and had their essential belongings, including medication.

Sloan, who worked for years as a school administrator and high school principal, said he spent about five hours that morning calling Varenna and company headquarters and checking social media for information about his father-in-law.

“When I have a code red at a school, everyone knows his role,” said Sloan, who lives in Chico. “They were so disorganized. Shame on them. They’re not dealing with 30-year-old people. They’re dealing with people in their 80s to 100.”

Late last month, Oakmont Senior Living lawyers announced in Sonoma County Superior Court that the company had agreed to settle a pair of lawsuits filed by 17 elderly residents and relatives of people who lived at Villa Capri and two plaintiffs at Varenna. Terms of the tentative agreement, including financial payouts, remain confidential, but the company agreed to take “additional measures” to address concerns among residents at its facilities across Northern California, according to lawyers handling the cases.

A Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office spokesman said Friday they have received the state’s investigative report and both the elder-protection and consumer-protection teams are reviewing the reports for evidence of criminal negligence.

In the 18-page complaint released Thursday by the Department of Social Services, state lawyers allege Oakmont Senior Living staff failed to protect its residents, its administrators didn’t train staff for how to respond to emergencies and company employees lied to state officials, among other allegations.

The complaint also accuses company officials and staff of making “false and misleading statements” to the public that inflated the role played by staff during the evacuations.

Oakmont Senior Living executives have been tight-lipped about the accusations, saying little in interviews about the company’s handling of evacuations. Thursday, they released a statement calling the state’s allegations unsubstantiated and unfounded. Company officials did not respond Friday to additional requests for comment.

Oakmont Senior Living operates more than 20 senior living facilities in California, including the four in Fountaingrove before the Tubbs fire. It has moved ahead with plans to rebuild Villa Capri.

One of the few public defenders of the company and its employees in the wake of the fires has been former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco, whose mother lived at Villa Capri for about three years and who has business ties to Oakmont Senior Living’s founder and owner, Bill Gallaher, one of Sonoma County’s most prominent developers. Bosco’s mother died six months before the fires.

As the trial in the Villa Capri lawsuit approached this summer, Bosco penned a testimonial essay, made public on Oakmont Senior Living’s website, that praised Villa Capri staff members who he said he had come to know and trust.

They included Villa Capri executive director Deborah Smith, who could lose her license as an assisted care administrator if the state prevails, as well as a staff member accused of lying to state regulators and a nurse who he said took great measures to help evacuees get their medications.

Without first-hand knowledge of what happened that night, Bosco said he continues to believe what Villa Capri staff members told him of their actions in the firestorm.

“I felt that on the night of the fires they were faced with an almost overwhelming problem,” Bosco said Friday. “They called 911 and were told the first responders were deployed virtually everywhere and they had to fend for themselves.”

Bosco, a Santa Rosa-based attorney, is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. He is on the board of directors of Poppy Bank — formerly First Community Bank — which Gallaher founded and leads as board chairman.

Bosco said some staff members cited in the state report, including Smith, told him they tried to get to Varenna and Villa Capri but were thwarted by emergency personnel and traffic.

But after a yearlong investigation, state regulators criticized Smith for turning back after trying to get to Villa Capri and for failing to prepare staff for how to handle emergencies, including providing keys to buses on site that could have been used to shuttle people to safety.

A third person singled out for praise by Bosco in his essay, Joel Ruiz, a Villa Capri maintenance supervisor, was accused by the state of lying to its investigators. Ruiz told a state officer that no residents remained at Varenna when he returned the morning of Oct. 9. In fact, he and other staff members found at least three residents at the facility in the morning and evacuated them, according to the state.

Bosco said he believes the state’s findings are incomplete and fail to include a full picture of the efforts staff made to help residents, and he stands by his essay defending them and the company.

“I’d like to view it as people trying the best they could to respond to the emergency,” Bosco said. “I’m certainly willing to accept mistakes were made, I think that’s pretty obvious. I care more about the character of the people, and I don’t think these were people running away from the scene.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine