She was doubted until investigators found evidence.
An 89-year-old woman was raped in her bed at a senior living home in Hermantown, Minn., and then placed in a mental health unit of a hospital in nearby Duluth for nearly three days without treatment for her injuries.
Andrew Scott Merzwski, 30, a nursing assistant, admitted to raping the woman at Edgewood Vista senior living facility, after he gave the victim narcotics that he knew would make her “mentally incapacitated,” according to court documents. A St. Louis County judge last month sentenced Merzwski to 53 months in prison and ordered him to register as a predatory sex offender for 10 years.
The elderly survivor received no immediate treatment or counseling after she reported the rape to Hermantown police and facility staff. Instead, she was kept against her wishes in the mental health unit of St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth for nearly 72 hours. Attorneys suggest that facility staff and medical professionals doubted the woman’s story because she was suffering from the early stages of dementia and memory loss.
“This is horrendous,” said Mark Kosieradzki, a Plymouth attorney who represents the victim and specializes in cases of nursing home neglect and abuse. “A vulnerable woman is strong enough to come forward and tell people she’s raped, and then she’s responded to with disbelief and locked up.”
Edgewood Vista is owned by Edgewood Management Group of Grand Forks, N.D., which owns or operates nearly 50 senior living facilities in seven Midwestern states. The company referred calls to a spokesman who could not be reached Tuesday.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors say the incident, which occurred in January 2013, highlights the challenges that vulnerable adults face in reporting rape or other incidents of abuse. Often, their stories are not believed because the events seem too painful to contemplate, and because they are suffering from dementia or other forms of mental illness, say advocates.
The Minnesota Department of Health has received six allegations of sexual abuse at state-licensed nursing homes for the elderly since 2011, though many more incidents may go unreported because the victims are not believed.
“People who suffer from dementia are prime targets because there is always a credibility issue,” said Jude Foster, program director at Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) in Duluth. “Did they make this up? Are they just confused?”
On Jan. 19, two days after the incident, Hermantown police were dispatched to Edgewood Vista, after the victim’s daughter reported that her mother had been raped.
The elderly victim told police that she was watching a movie on television in her bedroom when a male staff member entered her room to give her medication. The woman invited the man to sit on the bed and watch the movie with her. The man, later identified as Merzwski, gave her narcotics and then penetrated the woman with his penis and ejaculated, according to court records.
“[The victim] said that she hadn’t had sex for 8 years and she felt like it hurt because she was essentially a virgin again and that she had never planned on having sex again,” according to the police report.
A week later, a nurse with the state Department of Health conducted a separate investigation and concluded, “based on a preponderance of evidence,” that a staff person at Edgewood had sexual intercourse with the victim. A sexual assault exam conducted five days after the assault indicated that the victim had a vaginal laceration that was “jagged and dark red.”
Two days after the assault, the victim was sent to the mental health unit of St. Luke’s and was kept there for three days. Meanwhile, no one at the hospital was told that Merzwski had already confessed to the police that he’d had sexual intercourse with the victim.
Several days later, the woman was sent back to Edgewood and the room where she had been raped. She was so distraught that she barricaded the door of her apartment with her electric scooter so that staff could not enter, according to court documents. Ultimately, the victim’s daughter moved her to an apartment in the Twin Cities.
Merzwski pleaded guilty in November to third-degree criminal sexual conduct. The woman is seeking punitive damages from Merzwski, Edgewood Vista and two administrators mentioned in the lawsuit.
The Health Department closed its investigation, concluding that maltreatment had occurred, but that the employee, not the care facility, was responsible. The facility was cited, however, for failing to immediately report an allegation of sexual abuse.
“This is a reminder that it’s extremely important to take allegations of rape at face value, to start from the point of view that they may be true,” said Iris C. Freeman, director of the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project at William Mitchell College of Law. “There is a misconception that if you have any memory loss at all then all you say must be suspect.”
Staff writer Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrsisserres