By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Stricken with dementia and unable to care for herself, Lucille Ayers died a horror-movie death.
"My mother basically died staked to an ant pile," her son James says. "She was eaten alive."
Before her health declined, Ayers, a devout Catholic, opened her home to visiting priests and troubled teens who needed a place to stay. She was known for her cakes and other treats she baked on a daily basis. When her son Thomas developed diabetes, she tinkered with her recipes until no one could tell there wasn't any sugar in her chocolate chip cookies.
But Ayers couldn't take care of herself. She started leaving pots on the stove and forgetting about them. She needed to live someplace with round-the-clock nursing care, someplace where the staff would keep a close eye on her so she'd be safe.
After visiting scores of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, Ayers and her two sons settled on Peppertree Square, an assisted-living facility in Peoria.
On September 1, 2003, Lucille Ayers' caretakers found her covered with ants. "Ants in her bed, all over body, in hair," a staff member wrote in a log book.
The staff moved Ayers to another room, but didn't summon an exterminator, even though the log shows ants were found in at least two other rooms that day.
Ayers spent a second night in another room after ants were found in her shower. She returned to her room the next night. An exterminator arrived the next day -- three days after the infestation began -- and either sprayed or inspected rooms where ants had been discovered, according to a Peppertree Square report to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
According to the paperwork, Ayers was fine when a staff member gave her some medication at 2 a.m., 17 hours after the exterminator's visit. At 3:20 a.m., she was being attacked by thousands of ants and bleeding from a gash on her right arm that she suffered after falling out of bed, likely in a fruitless effort to flee. Her sons believe their mother was in such a state of shock that she couldn't get away.
The staff stripped off her clothing and threw water on her to wash away the insects. A Peoria police officer reported Ayers was conscious, but not speaking. She was bruised and still covered with ants when she arrived at the emergency room at Boswell Memorial Hospital in Sun City.
When Thomas got to the emergency room, his mother was calling his name. Her body was shaking. Ants were crawling from her nose, ears and mouth. They were black, about a quarter-inch long. "The nurses were wiping them off as fast as they'd come out," Thomas recalls. "They'd already cleaned her three times, and the paramedics had cleaned her twice. The whole side of her face was just black from the fall."
Thomas Ayers called his brother. "'Don't bother coming down,'" James recalls his brother saying. "'You don't want to see her like this.'"
Lucille Ayers died two days later. She was 87. The official cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure due to coronary artery disease, but Ayers' sons say the ants killed her. At least one expert agrees. An accumulation of ant venom triggered the medical problems that caused her death, according to Dr. Mark Fischione, a pathologist with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office who has been retained by the sons' lawyer.
"It is my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Ms. Ayers died as a result of complications of numerous ant bites," Fischione writes in a letter to attorney John Brewer, who has sued the Oregon-based owner of Peppertree and the exterminator.
In a report to the Arizona Department of Health Services submitted two weeks after Ayers died, Peppertree Square never mentioned the first ant attack. Rather, Peppertree Square simply said that ants had been found in her room. The state never followed up on the facility's investigation, closing the case with no citations issued.
Thomas and James Ayers say they should have been told the first time ants attacked their mother. Had they known, they say they would have pulled her out of the facility. They also say Peppertree Square should have kept her out of her room for several days after the first attack instead of sending her back as soon as they thought they had taken care of the ants.
At the very least, regulations required that Peppertree Square notify Ayers' family the first time she was attacked by ants, confirms Lisa Wynn, deputy assistant director for the Arizona Department of Health Services. Trouble is, the state, which didn't conduct an independent investigation, didn't know about the first incident until New Times informed it of the log entry.
The Arizona Department of Health Services is charged with protecting residents at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. But a New Times analysis shows regulators are soft on the facilities that are supposed to keep the state's elderly safe, particularly nursing homes, which house the most vulnerable.
Since 2001, DHS has issued at least 65 citations to 30 of the 77 nursing homes in Maricopa County for neglect, abuse and mistakes so serious that residents either suffered injuries or death.