Rape has Hermantown, Minn., senior home residents on edge

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2014 - 3:43 PM

Residents demanding to know more about assault say home canceled meeting.

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Scott Merzwski

About 70 angry and agitated senior citizens packed the dining room of a northern Minnesota senior home Tuesday, demanding to know more about the 2013 rape of an 89-year-old fellow resident by a male caregiver.

But instead of answers, the elderly residents of Edgewood Vista in Hermantown were abruptly told by administrators that their regularly scheduled meeting had been canceled, according to several who were present.

One resident, who cried as she spoke, said she was threatened with eviction Tuesday as she urged residents to attend the meeting and handed out copies of a Star Tribune article about the incident. “People have a right to know when a rape has occurred in the building where they live,” said Carol Johnson, 71. “They can’t silence us.”

The new developments, coming less than a week after two state lawmakers called for an investigation into the rape, have alarmed the state’s leading advocate for elderly Minnesotans. Deb Holtz, the ombudsman for long-term care, said Wednesday she was sending an official to Hermantown “immediately” to look into how the rape was handled and to ensure that residents’ rights are protected.

“In light of everything that’s happened, I am appalled that they canceled the residents’ meeting,” Holtz said. “This makes people even more afraid and confused than they already are.”

A spokesman for Edgewood Management Group, a Grand Forks, N.D., company that owns the Hermantown facility, issued a written statement saying: “All of our residents, our families and our communities know that we have an open-door policy with respect to any concerns they may have. We assure you that there will never be — nor has there been — any retribution for any of our residents seeking confirmation about their safety and security.”

In interviews, residents at the facility said they first learned about the January 2013 rape of a fellow resident only after the Star Tribune reported on it last month.

Residents have been on edge ever since details became public.

On the evening of Jan. 18, 2013, Andrew Scott Merzwski, 30, entered the bedroom of a woman who lived at Edgewood Vista, gave her drugs that would impair her ability to think, and then raped her in her bed. A nurse who examined the woman days later said the vaginal tear that resulted was the largest she had ever seen in her six years in the field.

Instead of receiving immediate treatment, the elderly woman was held for nearly three days in a locked psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. Attorneys for the woman have alleged that administrators at the seniors home withheld information from medical professionals and even suggested that the sex was consensual. Merzwski is serving a 53-month sentence for the crime.

Last week, Reps. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, and Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, called on the state to review its investigation into the rape to determine whether the facility should have been held accountable for the care the woman received after the assault. The state Health Department investigated the case in early 2013 and found that Merzwski, not the facility, was at fault.

A spokesman for the Health Department said officials met with the lawmakers and are preparing answers to their questions. The department “would encourage any vulnerable adult feeling unjustly threatened with eviction to contact the ombudsman for long-term care, which typically helps with these sorts of issues,” the department said in a written statement.

Big turnout

Residents of the building where the rape occurred had hoped to learn more at their residents’ meeting, which occurs on the first Tuesday of each month.

Normally, fewer than a dozen people show up for the meetings, and often they come just for the free pie and coffee, Johnson said. But this week, an unusually large group assembled. Many came with walkers and in wheelchairs, some clutching copies of the Star Tribune article on the rape.

But after pie was served, several residents say, an administrator entered the dining room and announced that the meeting had been canceled. “They didn’t say why or what had happened,” said resident Wallace Streed, 91.

Johnson, a resident recently diagnosed with esophagus cancer, said she was confronted by several employees of Edgewood Vista as she knocked on residents’ doors and attempted to give them articles about the rape. At one point, she said, staff tried to block her way by standing in front of her scooter, but she put the scooter in reverse to evade them.

“I said, ‘Get out of my way!’ ” Johnson said, choking back tears. “Then one of the women yelled, ‘Carol! Carol! Stop right now! What you’re doing is an offense that can get you evicted.’ ”

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