Francis Paloumbis was cleaning her Miami Beach apartment when she got a frantic call from her younger sister: “Alex is dead! Alex is dead!” her sister screamed into the phone.
Paloumbis headed straight to Aventura Hospital where her older brother Raul Alexander “Alex” Rios had been admitted for depression.
It wasn’t until the next day that Paloumbis and her family found out how Rios had died Room 412. Another patient had strangled him.
The 32-year-old victim, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia at a young age, had been in the hospital for two weeks. He was on the fourth-floor psychiatric ward.
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His roommate had just arrived last Thursday.
“I don't understand how the hospital could let this happen,” Paloumbis said. “Where were the doctors, the nurses, the security?”
On Monday, the hospital wasn’t answering questions about Rios’ death.
In a statement, the hospital’s marketing director, Kathryn Walton, said “the hospital has remained continuously committed to assisting with their investigation, while also conducting a thorough internal review.”
“The security and well-being of our patients, staff and visitors remain of utmost importance and we are committed to providing care in a safe environment to the community we serve,” she said. “We extend our deepest sympathy to the family during this very difficult time.”
The other patient in the room, identified by police as Alexander Thadeus Jackson, 31, has been charged with first-degree murder and remained in Miami-Dade County Jail on Monday with no bond.
Jackson, who is homeless, was admitted to the hospital around 10 a.m. Thursday, the day of the murder. He was put in the same room with Rios, according to his arrest report. Because of privacy laws, it is not clear why he was admitted.
Rios was last seen alive at about 2:45 p.m. Thursday. At 3:36., a hospital housekeeper found him face down on the floor.
“The defendant admitted to killing the [victim] by strangling the victim with his hands and a bedsheet,” the report states.
The hospital homicide is an “isolated incident,” Aventura police spokesman Sgt. Chris Goranitis said Monday.
“This is an evident criminal act and the subject has been arrested,” he said. “The hospital has been cooperative with the active investigation.”
While administrators declined to comment on security procedures at the hospital, 20900 Biscayne Blvd., the International Association for Healthcare Security & Safety said psychiatric floors generally have lock-down procedures, metal detectors, seclusion rooms and cameras at the access points.
Thursday’s violence is “unusual,” said Marilyn Hollier, president of the Illinois-based advisory group, which has about 2,000 members in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.
Hospital homicides generally involve terminally ill patients or someone trying to escape from police custody, Hollier said. Security officers in hospitals should be specifically trained on how to handle patients and their safety, she said.
“It’s a very specialized field,” she said.
As Rios’ family plans his funeral, they are struggling to understand how their loved one ended up dead at the hands of another patient.
Rios’ mother, Giovannina Paloumbis, 49, was heartbroken as she spoke about her oldest child, “Alexito.”
“With me, his mind would become clear again. He would say, ‘Mom, you look so pretty today. I like that lipstick color,’ ” she said. “He was a son who any mother would want to have.”
Paloumbis visited her son every other day from the time he was admitted on June 11, according to the family. On June 21, the day of Rios’ 32nd birthday, she brought chocolate cupcakes and Doritos to his room. They shared the treats with other patients and their families.
“He was happy. We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and he bounced his head, because he understood it was his birthday. He read his cards,” Paloumbis said.
June 25 was the last day she saw her son alive. In those last moments they spent together, Paloumbis fed her son because he wouldn’t feed himself. She cut his food in small bites.
“He was very weak,” she said of her son who she described as someone who “never misbehaved, not even when he was sick.”
His mental state was “ muy malito” — very bad, she said. “But he was never violent. He never, never, never raised his voice,” Paloumbis said.
She was the first to get summoned to the hospital Thursday. She was told come quickly so that her son could receive an important treatment. She waited for a while, then asked to see her son. Instead, she was ushered into a room where police officers and detectives were waiting. Though she had limited English skills, she understood that her son was dead and thought that he may have died from a heart attack or other natural causes. She wailed and dragged herself on the floor. Her daughter, who had accompanied her to the hospital, called other family members with the tragic news.
The next day, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s officer called her daughter, Francis Paloumbis, to tell her how Rios had been killed: ligature manual strangulation.
“It was horrible. I couldn’t use the phone. I couldn’t talk,” the mother said. “His death wasn’t how we wanted it. It was cruel.”
She added: “I can’t have anything against that man because that man is sick. But that hospital didn’t take care of my son. ... If they had checked him on time, it could have been better. My son may have lived, because they may have been able to revive him. But they left him to choke on the floor.”