This is part one in a three-part series. Read part two here. For more than a decade, Bruce Hall ran his assisted-living facility in Floridas Panhandle like a prison camp.
He punished his disabled residents by refusing to give them food and drugs. He threatened them with a stick. He doped them with powerful tranquilizers, and when they broke his rules, he beat them sending at least one to the hospital.
The conditions in the facility are not fit even for a dog, one caller told state agents.
When Florida regulators confronted Hall in 2004 over a litany of abuses at his facility in the rolling hills of Washington County, they said he chased them from the premises while railing against government intrusion.
Under state law, regulators could have shut down Sunshine Acres Loving Care or suspended the homes license, but they did neither. Instead, they ordered the 50-year-old Hall to see a therapist for his anger and to promise not to use any weapon or object on his residents allowing him to keep his doors open for five more years.
In that time, Hall went on to break nearly every provision of Floridas assisted-living law: He threw a woman to the ground, and forced her to sleep on a box spring for six days after she urinated on her covers. Though the temperature outside reached 100 degrees, he forced his residents to live without air conditioning. And during a critical overnight shift, he fell asleep on the job while a 71-year-old woman with mental illness wandered from her bed, walked out the door and drowned in a nearby pond.
In a state where tens of thousands reside in assisted-living facilities, the case of Halls Sunshine Acres represents everything that has gone wrong with homes once considered the pride of Florida.
Created more than a quarter-century ago, ALFs were established in landmark legislation to provide shelter and sweeping protections to some of the states most vulnerable citizens: the elderly and mentally ill.
But a Miami Herald investigation found that the safeguards once hailed as the most progressive in the nation have been ignored in a string of tragedies never before revealed to the public.
In Kendall, a 74-year-old woman was bound for more than six hours, the restraints pulled so tightly they ripped into her skin and killed her.
In Hialeah, a 71-year-old man with mental illness died from burns after he was left in a bathtub filled with scalding water.
In Clearwater, a 75-year-old Alzheimers patient was torn apart by an alligator after he wandered from his assisted-living facility for the fourth time.
The deaths highlight critical breakdowns in a state enforcement system that has left thousands of people to fend for themselves in dangerous and decrepit conditions.
The Miami Herald found that the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees the states 2,850 assisted-living facilities, has failed to monitor shoddy operators, investigate dangerous practices or shut down the worst offenders.
Time and again, the agency was alerted by police and its own inspectors to caretakers depriving residents of the most basic needs food, water and protection but didnt take action.
When AHCA agents were forced to end their inspection of Sunshine Acres in 2008 because of threats by the owner the second time in four years the agency didnt return for eight months.