The plan had always been for Julia Rodriguez to care for her elderly mother-in-law in her Miami home.
But in her 74th year, just as Gladys Horta began to slip into dementia, fate intervened and forced the family to do what they vowed not to: put A buela in an assisted-living facility.
The youngest member of the family — 20-year-old Juliette — was diagnosed with a rare, disabling neurological disorder. The burden of tending to both women was too great for family members, who faced a decision that thousands of Floridians confront each year: finding someone else to keep Abuela safe.
It was a decision that cost Gladys Horta her life and prompted a criminal investigation that led to the rare arrest of an ALF owner.
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Though Horta — Cuban migrant, retired dental assistant, grandmother — was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, she was still active: cooking and cleaning, even riding the bus to pick up groceries, her family said.
A native of the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, Horta had worked as a secretary before fleeing to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In the United States, she raised two sons while working as a dental assistant, even helping raise her four granddaughters.
On a friend’s recommendation, the family looked at The Gardens of Kendall, an assisted-living facility within walking distance of the dozens of shops at Dadeland Mall. Owner Mayra Del Olmo said Horta would have her own room, eat well and be treated like a member of the family.
After a short tour, Horta’s family decided to place her at the six-bedroom facility, at least until her granddaughter’s health improved — though the elderly woman wanted none of it.
“She said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to stay here,’ ’’ recalled granddaughter Juliette.
But the family felt it was their only option, and in early March 2004, they moved her belongings into the home.
Her daughter-in-law recalled her words as they walked out the door: “To work so hard and do so much — and end up like this.”
Horta’s stay would be far shorter than the family planned.
Though they wanted to visit on the first weekend, Del Olmo said it was too soon; Horta needed time to adjust.
So the family waited another week, and scheduled a visit for Mother’s Day. The plans were to pick her up and take her to dinner.
But that morning, the phone rang. It was Del Olmo. Abuelita had fallen in the shower and had “a little bruise,” the family said they were told. Del Olmo suggested cancelling dinner because Horta wasn’t feeling well.
The family decided to go ahead with the Mother’s Day outing anyway. When they arrived at the home, Julia poked her head into Horta’s darkened bedroom and made a joke: “I heard you were causing trouble,” she quipped.
However, they said they quickly realized something was wrong. The room smelled of urine. Horta was curled up in bed, her skin white, cold and damp, with food dribbling from her mouth. Her leg was swollen and bruised.
“Her left leg was black, and her right leg was beginning to look the same way,’’ Julia said.
Said granddaughter Juliette: “It looked like when you tie up a dog and you leave it outside for days, and the dog has been pulling and pulling.’’
As Julia reached over to wipe the ailing woman’s mouth, Horta pleaded, “Get me out of here!’’
The family called for an ambulance.
At South Miami Hospital, they learned Horta’s injuries had nothing to do with a fall in the shower. According to the vascular surgeon, Steven Kang, the woman’s legs had been restrained “for a prolonged period of time,’’ causing her to develop a blood clot, which was blocking her femoral artery.
Doctors wanted to operate immediately, the family said, but Horta was too sick. She had been given high doses of Xanax, a tranquilizer, which was slowing her heart rate.
Finally, at 11 p.m., doctors performed surgery to remove the clot.
Two days later, Horta was dead.
In the coming days, Del Olmo stuck to her story: Horta had fallen in the shower. But she also suggested the elderly woman was to blame for what she endured, because she had been wandering around the home and refusing to listen to her caregivers.
In fact, Del Olmo told investigators, she got a friend to give her Xanax, because she said Horta had been so much trouble.
“She would go into the rooms of the other residents,” Del Olmo told The Miami Herald. “She’d be up in the middle of the night.”
“I didn’t call the rescue. That was my only mistake.”
But investigators with the state Department of Children & Families came to a different conclusion: Somebody had strapped her legs so tightly the restraints sliced into her skin and caused a blood clot that ultimately killed her.
“The investigator observed a very distinct circular shaped bruise around the victim’s upper thigh [that] went around the entire thigh. The investigator observed open flesh tears around the bruised area,” a DCF report states.
“The surgeon who operated on the victim stated that the injuries that the victim had suffered could not have been sustained from a fall,’’ the report says. “In [Kang’s] medical opinion, the injury was consistent with being restrained with a strap or some type of bar.’’
“A resident of the facility said everything would be fine if the victim would have only followed the rules,’’ the report stated.
Though the attorney general’s office never determined who caused Horta’s injuries — one of the caretakers left the country — they charged Del Olmo with aggravated neglect in 2005. She was sentenced to a year of house arrest and five years’ probation.
To Juliette, the images of her grandmother in her final days are wrenching.
“You are not supposed to do that to a person — not to a child, not to an old person,’’ she said. “Not even a dog.’’