South Florida

16 dogs, 12 frozen cats, 1 decrepit group home

The exterior of the group home on Flamingo Court gave little hint of the troubles inside. But neighbors said they knew something was wrong because of the stench.
The exterior of the group home on Flamingo Court gave little hint of the troubles inside. But neighbors said they knew something was wrong because of the stench.

The signs of trouble at the Homestead assisted living facility began just after the elderly woman, reeking of urine, escaped from the home and flagged down a driver, pleading for help.

She had not been fed that day, she said, but the worst part of living at the Alita and John Haran ALF was she was unable to breathe because of the thick stench that permeated the sprawling facility, she told police.

When officers arrived at the home on Flamingo Court, they found another woman lying on a mattress soaked in urine, mounds of animal feces on the floors and a hole in the wall where a water pipe had burst. On the property: 48 cats and 16 dogs, but perhaps the most troubling discovery was found stuffed in a freezer: the carcasses of a dozen cats.

Within hours, city officials condemned the home, case workers removed four elderly residents, and the 73-year-old owner, Eileen “Chea” Haran, was charged with four counts of elder neglect in a case that stunned even the police.

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“What took them so long?” said next-door neighbor Mario Rivera, 64. “No one has done anything about it. Everyone has complained. It angers me.”

The arrest of the retired naval nurse Feb. 3 has triggered a widening investigation by police into dozens of incidents at the neatly landscaped home that has taken in frail adults for more than a decade.

Again and again, elder advocates and police have found decrepit and unsafe conditions in the facility, including episodes of people leaving the house and pleading with neighbors to call police because they claimed they were being abused.

Haran, known as “the cat lady” in the Villages of Homestead, told the Miami Herald she has always treated her residents with respect and has never hurt anyone. “You can talk to people who have lived here, and they will tell you that they did very well,” she said, before referring all questions to her lawyer. Reached at his Miami office, attorney Arthur Spiegel declined to comment. Haran, who was released from jail on a $20,000 bond, is set to be arraigned March 4.

The case against the longtime Homestead resident, who operates an animal rescue on the property, represents one of the first prosecutions in years against an ALF owner in Miami-Dade on felony charges, and the first effort to shutter the home over the conditions inside.

Twice since 2007, state agencies found the home filthy and unsafe for frail elders — finding 69 cats on the property three years ago — but both times it was allowed to keep its doors open. Not until the police raided the house this month and code officers said it was unfit for habitation did state agents move to ban new residents.

“It’s disgusting,” said neighbor Jennifer Allen, who called police after an elderly woman left the home and came to her door last year asking for help. “How many times do you get a pass? You are going to have elderly people in there suffering.”

Police say they are still examining the events that led to the temporary closing of the facility, including the unlawful building of several sheds in the back yard, complete with air conditioning units, where Haran kept scores of cats and dogs that she gathered from throughout Miami-Dade. Police also found stacks of animal cages.

The dogs have since been collected by the county’s animal services, but police say they do not know what happened to the cats because most of them were running throughout the house and onto the lawn. “The cats, you couldn’t keep up with them,” said Sgt. Jorge Cruz, the lead investigator.

Rivera said he and other neighbors have called City Hall for years because of the stench, but they were unable to get any help. On some mornings, he said he has to clean the animal waste in his yard from the animals roaming at night.

Haran, who runs the Helping Hands rescue, declined to discuss the cat carcasses in the freezer behind the home. Rivera said she told him she preserves the felines after they die so that she can eventually drive them to a remote area to bury them.

Police are still examining three dozen 911 calls to the home since 2006, including responses to two assaults, three burglaries and a dozen disturbances. In November, an elderly woman left the home and did not come back for two days.

Police Chief Al Rolle said investigators are looking for any other problems. “This is about the safety of elderly people,” he said. “Many times you’re out on a call, you can talk to someone, but you don’t know everything that happened. You want to make sure nothing was missed.”

The efforts by Homestead to shutter the ALF follow years of inspections by state regulators, who were warned about the hazards but never ordered the owner to clean the ALF or remove the dozens of animals from the premises.

A Miami Herald investigation published in 2011 found the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees ALFs in Florida, allowed dozens of homes to stay open, despite conditions that put frail residents in danger. In eight years, at least 70 died from abuse or neglect — about one a month on average.

Brian Lee, who once oversaw the Department of Elder Affairs’ ombudsman program that advocates for seniors, said the state could have imposed tougher restrictions on the home at several junctures, especially after it was discovered the facility was serving a dual role as an animal rescue.

“They were fully aware there was a problem,” he said. “It took an outside agency [Homestead police] that doesn’t even have the primary responsibility of monitoring assisted living facilities to do the job that the state should have done.”

In a prepared statement to the Herald, AHCA defended itself, saying the license of the facility was not renewed after the 2007 inspection, and the home was not allowed to reopen until it passed a new inspection in 2012. “I am proud that AHCA has taken various actions to close this facility,” said Elizabeth Dudek, AHCA secretary.

However, records show the home stayed open two more years after the 2007 inspection that found the home unsafe. After the new license was approved in 2012, inspectors were warned once again by another state agency the next year that the home was decrepit and unsafe.

During that visit, an ombudsman for the Department of Elder Affairs found a “disgusting offensive odor [that is] intolerable” in the home and one resident languishing in damp, ripped clothes with no shoes.

James Musarra, who once rented a room in the home, said he took the liberty three years ago of cleaning a part of the home that had been taken over by roaches. They were on the floors, walls, wicker furniture, even under the bed of a frail woman. “I still remember her telling me that when she slept, they would crawl over her body,” he said.

Musarra said he often saw two sides of Haran: a person who cared for animals, but often struggled to get along with people. She once told him how she held one of her cats while it was dying. “I often thought she took better care of her animals,” he said.

Police said they want the ALF closed permanently. But because Haran has cleaned up the home, the city has lifted the condemnation order. In addition, the state ban is a temporary measure, paving the way for what could be a battle to reopen the facility.

Cruz said investigators were forced to make critical decisions when they entered the home three weeks ago. The fact that the officer — a veteran frequently facing dangerous crime scenes — was forced to wear a mask to breathe in the facility was one reason why police notified case workers to quickly remove the frail elders. “The smell,” he emphasized, “was unbearable. I took 20, 30 steps inside and I had to turn around and exit.”

When police went upstairs, they found rotted food in a refrigerator, a leaky bathroom that had soaked the upstairs floors and electrical cords running along the hallway, creating hazards. On the kitchen counter were piles of cat and dog feces and dirty dishes.

Because of the case, the Department of Elder Affairs, which is tasked with checking on the safety of residents, is now trying to change regulations to keep ALF owners from hosting pet kennels — a new twist in the history of state safeguards.

Lee said there is no reason to create the new language. He said the state needs to impose stricter punishment when it finds critical problems. As for Haran, Lee said she should not have been mixing so many animals with people. “Instead of rescuing animals, she needs to be rescuing her residents,” he said.

Troubled history

2002: License is issued for Eileen Haran to open an assisted living facility at her home in the Villages of Homestead.

2005: Inspectors find that the facility is not carrying liability insurance and failed to provide proof of a county sanitation inspection.

2007: Inspectors find 30 deficiencies, including cats and dogs roaming the premises and a cat cage in the living room, concluding the owner did not maintain a safe home. Fined $2,000.

2008: Inspection finds no deficiencies.

February, March, April 2009: Agency for Health Care Administration tries to conduct unannounced surveys. Cannot gain entry. AHCA recommends license be revoked.

2012: AHCA recommends a new license be issued after home passes inspection.

September 2013: State Ombudsman visits facility to check on well-being of residents. Finds 10 dogs and 69 cats, facility in “total disarray” and detects “disgusting, offensive odor.” Findings referred to AHCA.

Nov. 2013: Ombudsman returns in November. None of deficiencies corrected. Smell of feces called “revolting.” Residents seen wearing damp, ripped-up clothes and no shoes.

Nov. 7, 2013: AHCA visits, finds three violations, including cluttered, unkempt conditions and administrative deficiencies, including failure to provide a contract between one resident and home. AHCA does not address concerns raised by ombudsman about decrepit conditions.

Jan. 2014: Two violations cited, including failure to conduct a background screening for employee.

May 2014: AHCA conducts inspection but finds no deficiencies.

Feb, 3, 2016: Police conduct major investigation after an elderly woman escapes from the ALF and flags down a motorist, complaining of abuses in the home. Police find 48 cats, 16 dogs and the home covered in animal feces. Four elderly residents are removed and the home is declared unfit for habitation.

Source: Police, AHCA and Florida Department of Elder Affairs reports

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