State worker charged in group home drowning

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2011 - 10:34 PM

Devra C. Stiles forgot disabled man in tub while talking on phone, the manslaughter complaint says.

On the night Gerald Hyska slipped underwater and drowned in a bathtub at a state-run group home, the supervisor entrusted to care for the severely disabled man "forgot him" while spending six minutes on the phone with her son, according to a felony criminal complaint filed Thursday.

Devra C. Stiles, the only person caring for four severely disabled residents that night, was charged Thursday with second-degree manslaughter for "her culpable negligence," according to a complaint filed in Isanti County.

Prosecutors allege that it took Stiles nearly 30 minutes to call 911 after ending the phone call with her son, but it is unclear from court documents how long Hyska was left alone in the tub. The incident took place at a state-run facility in Braham, Minn., about 60 miles north of Minneapolis.

Stiles' supervisor told investigators that Stiles was fully aware that Hyska's care plan said he should never be left alone in a bathtub and required around-the-clock assistance, court records show.

Hyska, 56, was born with severe brain damage and was quadriplegic, blind and unable to speak. He came from a large northeast Minneapolis family. He drowned Aug. 28.

The case, which has been closely watched by Gov. Mark Dayton, already has prompted changes in how quickly deaths at state-run facilities are reported to top managers at the state Department of Human Services (DHS). The incident also sparked a review of how the state oversees services for nearly 800 residents in state-run homes.

DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who on Thursday reviewed criminal charges filed by Isanti County Attorney Jeffrey Edblad, said she was "horrified" by details contained in the complaint.

"It's a tragic, tragic situation," said Jesson, who with Dayton sent a condolence letter to Hyska's elderly mother.

The state's ties with Stiles were severed on Wednesday, but Jesson would not say whether Stiles was fired, citing state laws guarding employee privacy rights.

Jesson said the department continues to investigate the incident. She expects the case to prompt more training of workers at state-run facilities.

Stiles, 62, was arrested at her home in Pine City on Thursday. Her first court appearance is Friday afternoon. If convicted of second-degree manslaughter, she faces up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines.

Stiles has refused past interview requests, and her husband did not return calls left at their home and on his cellphone Thursday.

In a previous interview, Tim Stiles said his wife was a 37-year state employee with an excellent work record. He said that staff cuts had made her job harder and that answering the phone was a critical part of her responsibilities. She also had to lift residents in and out of the tub by herself because there was no equipment to help her, he said.

Stiles described his wife as a caring and compassionate person who was close to Hyska's family. He said Hyska's death was "like losing a child to her." He said his wife had trouble sleeping after the incident and was undergoing counseling to help deal with the trauma.

In the interview, Stiles said any statements his wife gave police that night were given while she was "in total shock and duress."

The incident apparently happened early on a Sunday evening. As Stiles bathed Hyska, the facility's phone rang and she left him alone in the tub to answer it.

Initially, Stiles told police that the call lasted no longer than a minute or two. But phone records reviewed by investigators showed that the call from Stiles' son came in at 6:46 p.m. and ended at 6:52 p.m., according to the complaint.

'I'm sorry, Gerald. I'm sorry'

Stiles told police that she "forgot" about Hyska but ran back to the bathroom after she remembered he was bathing to find him submerged. She told police that she pulled him from the tub, called 911 and then began CPR. Phone records show the 911 call was not placed until 7:23 p.m., about 30 minutes after the call with her son ended, according to the complaint.

Hyska had marks that suggest his face may have rubbed against the tub while he struggled in the water, court records show. The medical examiner reported that the marks also could have come when he was pulled from the tub.

When police arrived, they found Hyska naked near the front door while Stiles tried to revive him. During CPR, he was turned on his side and water poured from him.

"I'm sorry, Gerald. I'm sorry," Stiles kept saying, according to court records.

DHS supervisor Ronald Rasmussen, who visited the home on the night of the incident, told investigators that Stiles did not tell him how much time had elapsed before she remembered Hyska was in the tub. Rasmussen told investigators that the three other residents would be unable to clarify the events of the evening because, like Hyska, they can't speak.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

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