Murder Charges Against San Diego Rehab Center Dismissed

By McCarton Ackerman 03/22/16

The murder charges have been dropped but the judge did uphold a charge of dependent adult abuse for all but one of the defendants. 

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Murder Charges Against San Diego Rehab Center Dismissed
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The unprecedented murder charges against a California rehab center have been dismissed by a judge due to insufficient evidence, CBS Sacramento reports.

San Diego-based rehab center A Better Tomorrow, along with four of its employees, had been indicted on second-degree murder charges for the 2010 death of 53-year-old client, Gary Benefield. Benefield, who was seeking help for alcoholism, collapsed in his room and died less than 24 hours of arriving at the facility. His body was not found until the following morning because the house manager assigned to check on him had fallen asleep.

Prosecutors argued that A Better Tomorrow killed Benefield by not refilling his oxygen tank and allowing employees with minimal medical training to give him drugs that actually made it harder for him to breathe. But Riverside County Superior Court Judge Elaine Kiefer ruled that while the facility engaged in questionable practices, they didn’t add up to a murder charge.

“There is no evidence that any of the defendants knew that their acts of giving medications to Benefield were dangerous to the extent that they risked killing him, and so no evidence that they consciously disregarded that risk to Benefield’s life,” she wrote in her ruling. Experts also testified that the drugs Benefield was given wouldn’t have caused death on their own.

However, jail time is still a possibility, as Kiefer upheld an additional charge of dependent adult abuse for all but one of the defendants. She ruled there was sufficient evidence that the defendants willfully endangered Benefield’s health by not using detox medications intended to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. A misdemeanor elder abuse conviction can result in a one-year sentence at a county jail, while a felony elder abuse conviction could lead to a two-to-four year sentence in state prison.

Benefield’s death was the fourth at the facility in just over two years. Investigations into those deaths by the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs found that A Better Tomorrow failed to provide “safe and healthful” living conditions for its patients. One of the patients who recently died had never received a medical assessment even after informing staff members that he suffered from liver disease. An investigation into Benefield’s death also found that the company was inadequately serving in 14 distinct areas, including providing medication without a prescription and medical services beyond the scope of its license.

Former Operations Director Jose Ochoa, who was fired from the facility in 2012, testified that staff members were “under tremendous pressure to bring in paying clients…regardless of any health issues.” He also said under oath that he had informed company director James Fent that the facility was not equipped to care for Benefield.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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