Two temporary workers testified Tuesday that Cherry Hospital employees tried to cover up a beating by intimidating them in an attempt to keep them quiet and to ignore the battered patient's complaints.
The revelations in a Wayne County courtroom came a week after the release of security camera footage from the state mental hospital proved that staffers lied to investigators and falsified records after the death of a neglected patient.
On Tuesday, two former health-care technicians at the Goldsboro hospital were convicted of punching and kicking a patient with bipolar disorder.
District Court Judge David Brantley sentenced Taniko Dominique Upton and William Kenneth Johnson to four weekends in jail for assault on a handicapped person, a misdemeanor. The judge also ordered supervised probation and 50 hours each of community service for the men.
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Before the sentencing, a special prosecutor with the N.C. Attorney General's Office said Cherry employees who report patient abuse or neglect face retaliation.
"There is a culture in that establishment that has developed over the years where they believe they can do anything and get away with it," said Doug Thoren, an assistant attorney general. "There is a culture of violence there, and it has to stop."
The beating occurred Aug. 18, the same week investigators were at the hospital looking into the April death of Steven Sabock, the patient whose neglect was recorded on video. Sabock choked on his medication, hit his head and was left sitting in a chair nearly a day without food or water.
Federal regulators have stripped the hospital of the accreditation needed to receive Medicaid reimbursements, an estimated $800,000 a month in lost revenue.
Branson Vickory, the district attorney for Wayne County, requested that the assault case be handled by a special prosecutor. His office dismissed charges against at least six Cherry employees fired during the past year after hospital investigations substantiated abuse accusations.
Pressure to stay mum
The verdict Tuesday came after two health-care technicians who worked at Cherry through a temporary agency testified they saw Upton and Johnson beat patient Nelson Glover, 30. Both temps also said Cherry employees pressured them to keep their mouths shut.
Whitney Hodgin, the temp who first reported the assault, testified that she had been working at Cherry about two months when Glover argued with a female patient in a breezeway used as a smoking area.
Hodgin said she and fellow temp Crystal Jones separated them. After the other patients finished their smokes, Glover and four staff members remained in the breezeway, an isolated area not covered by the hospital's security cameras.
Glover exchanged words with Upton, who prevented the patient from going back inside. Without warning, Upton punched the patient in the stomach, the women said.
Johnson grabbed and held Glover as Upton beat him. Glover collapsed to the floor in a fetal position as the two Cherry workers, both over 6 feet tall, continued to punch and kick him in the head and upper body.
Neither woman tried to stop the beating, which they estimated lasted two to three minutes.
"I froze," Jones said. "I'd never seen anyone beat up before."
Once Glover was allowed back inside, he went to the nurses' station and reported the assault, according to the testimony of several witnesses. The patient also told a Cherry Hospital police officer walking through the ward he had been "jumped by two guys." The patient was later examined by a physician assistant, who saw bruises on his neck and heard complaints of sore ribs.
None of the Cherry employees reported the assault.
That night, after Hodgin left the hospital, she called a hot line operated by the temporary agency she works for and said she witnessed a beating. She said she didn't report the assault to hospital officials because she feared retaliation, a fear she said was still with her as she testified a few feet from the two accused men.
"I didn't know if I would be next if I said anything," Hodgin said.
Hodgin's employer called the hospital the next morning, where an internal investigation was launched. Photographs of the patient taken that day, presented in court, showed scratches and bruises on his head, neck and torso.
Jones admitted on the witness stand that she initially misled investigators, saying she didn't see an assault. She said she had been pressured by Upton and Johnson, whom she described as friends, to lie.
"They said if we stick together, nothing will happen," she said.
Nervous on the stand
Glover, who has been discharged from Cherry and lives in a group home, testified he was beaten but stressed that he didn't want Upton or Johnson to be punished. He fidgeted and looked at the two defendants nervously as he spoke.
Lawyers for Upton and Johnson suggested in court that their clients were railroaded by hospital administrators hypersensitive about bad newspaper headlines. They said they would appeal.
Upton and Johnson declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
Hodgin said that after she reported what she had seen, Cherry workers not involved in the assault tried to persuade her to back off.
"I've been harassed at work," she testified. "They've called me a snitch, like they're in high school."
The pressure to cover for the misdeeds of co-workers was familiar to Thoren, who specializes in cases of patient abuse.
"People will tell you time and again," Thoren said. "When [new employees] go to Cherry Hospital, they're told, 'You snitch, you tell, you rat somebody out for abusing a patient, and when a patient comes after you, we're not going to back you up. You're on your own.' "