By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The cavalry came to the rescue on the afternoon of June 12, 1992.
State inspectors handed a restraining order to Corliss Ford, operator of the Autumn Rest adult-care home in west Phoenix. The order, signed earlier that day by a Maricopa County judge, instructed Ford to remove the eight elderly residents from the residence.
Steve Tseffos, the public relations spokesman for Attorney General Grant Woods, tipped off the Phoenix media about the supposed house of horrors. The reporters quickly gathered outside the home at 3447 West Redfield, near Thunderbird.
After registered nurse Ford invited everyone in to observe the goings-on, it got so chaotic that resident Gertrude Harper fell and gashed her forehead, requiring hospitalization.
The raid topped the news on local television, and the next morning was the lead local story in the Arizona Republic: "State Closing Valley Care Home. Conditions Spur Criminal Investigation."
Autumn Rest appeared to be a sadly vivid example of why Governor Fife Symington in 1991 had signed a law requiring adult-care homes to undergo a state licensing process.
The Ford case also allowed Attorney General Woods to follow through on a campaign vow to crack down on those caught abusing the elderly.
"When Grant Woods saw the photos yesterday, he said, 'Go shut this thing down,'" said spokesman Tseffos.
The photos, taken by Department of Health Services inspectors, depicted gaping bedsores that plagued three of Ford's past and present residents. The pictures seemed to prove the rest home was the stuff of nightmares.
Though the AG's Office didn't file criminal charges against Corliss Ford, it sought in a civil lawsuit to keep her from ever operating an adult-care home in the state of Arizona.
But the media that had trumpeted Grant Woods' swift action in closing Autumn Rest weren't present during Corliss Ford's extraordinary civil trial last month.
The proceeding laid bare a health-care system yet to come to grips with Arizona's vast aging population.
Ford didn't argue that she'd operated an unlicensed "health-care institution" and an unregistered adult-care home. But she steadfastly refuted the most serious of the three counts against her--that she'd committed "abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults" under Arizona law.
In a stunning turn of events, the family members of those allegedly abused and neglected--including a veteran Phoenix police officer--testified on behalf of Ford.
And, as it turns out, criminal investigators at the AG's Office agreed with them. Documents uncovered after the trial reveal how the AG's Office failed to release key evidence that could have exculpated Ford.
The recently uncovered AG's documents show that months before the trial, AG's criminal investigators concluded in writing that Corliss Ford hadn't abused or neglected anyone.
"No neglect can be charged," agent Nancy Paine wrote in a report last April. "The residents could have received more and/or better food, they could have lived in cleaner conditions. But the conditions they lived in were not criminal."
On June 23, assistant AG Gail Greeley sent a memo to Paine which summarized the Ford case: "Your investigation concluded that there was no neglect of patients. . . ."
That's as straightforward as it gets.
This wasn't another dreadful case of an evil person harming senior citizens in her care. In truth, there's no evidence Corliss Ford or her employees ever intentionally injured anyone at her care homes.
The evidence shows Ford kept many of her elderly residents because they had nowhere else to go. A Phoenix hospital kept sending one very ill 90-year-old resident back to Autumn Rest. Another aged woman returned after her son told Ford he couldn't take care of her anymore.
"This is a look at the other side of the system," Ford calmly told Judge Stanley Goodfarb during her trial. "One you may not have heard about before."
Ford's lawyer, Tim Evens, came unglued when he first saw the AG's previously unreleased documents December 16, a day after Ford allowed New Times to sift through papers mistakenly supplied her by an assistant AG not involved in the case.
Evens has asked Goodfarb to dismiss the AG's lawsuit against Ford and to impose sanctions against those responsible for what he calls an "egregious violation."
Assistant AG Helen Baldino--who presented the case against Ford at trial--says her office did nothing improper by not releasing the criminal investigation. Reports stemming from the criminal investigation were "work product," Baldino argues, and not legally applicable to the civil case against Ford. To Corliss Ford, however, the newly uncovered reports are vindication.
"There are people who do hurt the elderly and I hate them," she says. "But I loved my people and they loved me in return. I'd rather die than abuse or neglect someone, period."
@body:It is a sunny December morning at Corliss Ford's rented north Phoenix townhouse, but for her the holiday season has not been festive. She's lost a car to repossession and a house to foreclosure, and her financial future remains murky.
With the legal cloud hanging over her, Ford says she can't find work as a nurse. A Valley investment firm hired her late last year as a financial planner, but she lost that job after the Arizona Department of Insurance denied her a license because of the allegations.