Neglected to Death

Part III | Violence becomes a way of life — and an exercise in survival

Norman Dingley Jr. watched as a man on a crack-cocaine binge slashed another man with a large knife, locked himself in his room and — as police slapped on handcuffs — begged to die.

The violent attack two years ago erupted just days after Dingley arrived at Briarwood Manor, a cramped assisted-living facility in Broward County that specializes in caring for people with mental illness.

It would be the first in a string of fights, drug deals and mental breakdowns that took place while Dingley was living in the troubled home, which has been hit with the highest amount of fines of any facility in Florida.

The beige, stuccoed ALF in the heart of Lauderhill could have been closed at least twice by the state since 2006, but has managed to keep its doors open — even after not paying thousands of dollars in penalties for years.

But for Dingley, a Palatka native diagnosed with schizophrenia, there’s nowhere else to go: He’s hundreds of miles from home, and says he doesn’t have the ability to find a new place to live. “I can’t take care of myself,” he said.

His own move to Briarwood began just days after fire inspectors in his hometown shut down the facility where he and his brother Robert were living.

The portly man said he had a choice: jump in a van for a ride to a new home across the state or survive on the streets. So he and his brother stuffed their clothes in plastic bags and boarded a van for the 280-mile ride to South Florida.

The man behind the move was Andy Subachan, who owned both the Palatka home and the one where the Dingley brothers were going. Subachan did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

In the first six months after Dingley checked into Briarwood, police were called to the home more than 100 times for emergencies, including assaults and fights, according to 911 records.

The facility — one of nearly a dozen ALFs in a blighted neighborhood known as Cannon Point — was a stark contrast to Dingley’s former home in the countryside of Putnam County, he said.

“When I first got here, all they’d ever do was scream and yell and drink beer,” he said of his fellow residents.

Just weeks after arriving, Dingley said, he watched as police stormed the home to investigate a stabbing down the hall from his room after midnight on July 5, 2009. While officers were struggling to subdue Stephen King, the 43-year-old resident began slamming his head against the floor, which was covered in shattered glass, screaming at officers to kill him, according to police reports.

Residents told police the lone caretaker was asleep in the office during the stabbing, but when officers found the employee, she said “she did not know what was happening due to the fact that she was looking for something in the office,” a police report states.

State regulators launched an investigation after the attack, finding the home had failed to watch over its residents. In addition, agents said two female residents had been sexually abused by another resident.

“Residents have been routinely subjected to resident-on-resident abuse both emotional and physical,” the Agency for Health Care Administration concluded.

Months later, Dingley said he saw a female resident storm through the facility swinging a butcher knife. “I’m scared of knives myself. I’ve been cut with them,” he said. “I couldn’t even look out the curtains.”

While he struggled to adjust to his new surroundings, he said he was forced to fend for himself for basic supplies, jumping into a Dumpster behind a nearby drug store for soap and shampoo, and trudging to the turnpike overpass at Oakland Park Boulevard to ask motorists for spare change.

Early this year, he said the challenges of his new life finally consumed him, and he began to shut down. “People would ask me questions and I wouldn’t answer,” he said. “I was just going down.”

He was taken to Florida Medical Center, where he stayed a week while doctors reviewed his medications and prescribed therapy.

For Dingley and other residents at Briarwood, the routine visits by police and rescue workers have been a way of life. In fact, in the past five years, the home has been the subject of more than 1,200 calls to 911. The reasons include 35 assaults, 21 missing people and nine people threatening suicide.

In the years before Dingley arrived, the home had already been repeatedly cited by regulators for not having enough staff to protect its residents, including for an episode in 2005 when a man said he was being threatened by another resident. The man never got the protection he needed and was later attacked by the other resident, who smashed a bottle over the man’s head and then stomped on his chest, fracturing his ribs.

The violence is compounded by wider problems in Cannon Point. Well known to police, the enclave of ALFs draws people seeking to profit on the residents with mental illness.

“It’s a prime location for drug dealers,” said Lauderhill Officer Thomas Merenda, who patrols the neighborhood. “Briarwood Manor residents, they just have to walk across the street. They just come over and buy the crack.”

Karen Lakritz, a leader with the FACT Team, a state-funded group that provides crisis care to people with mental illness, said the bigger issue is the exposure of vulnerable residents to unstable and dangerous environments.

“The depression, the hopelessness, all of those things are going to get amplified,’’ she said. “You’re going to make everything worse.”

WLRN-Miami Herald reporter Kenny Malone contributed to this report.