The owner and former administrator of assisted living facility The Manse on Marsh in downtown San Luis Obispo will head to trial on manslaughter and elder abuse charges after a judge on Wednesday shot down their final bids to have the cases dismissed.
Christopher Edward Skiff, 54, and Gary Lee Potts, 63, have pleaded not guilty to felony charges of elder abuse and involuntary manslaughter related to the 2014 death of facility resident Mauricio Edgar Cardenas.
Cardenas died after he was struck by a car as he walked in the dark about 10 miles from the facility on Los Osos Valley Road.
The state alleges Skiff and Potts skirted the rules to accept Cardenas, who may have had dementia, knowing that Manse on Marsh was not licensed to care for diagnosed dementia patients.
An affidavit drafted by a California Department of Justice special investigator alleges the facility conspired to admit residents with dementia while also cutting down on staffing to increase profits.
The California Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse is prosecuting the case because it involves a state-licensed facility.
If both men are convicted of both charges and attached sentencing enhancements, they could face a maximum of eight years in state prison, the Attorney General’s Office previously stated.
A Superior Court judge upheld the charges against both men in May at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing that began in January. That hearing dragged on for nearly six months due to witness availability and other logistical issues. Preliminary hearings are evidentiary in which a judge rules whether probable cause — a far lower standard of proof than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — exists to take each charge to trial.
During the several days of testimony, evidence was introduced that showed Manse on Marsh was issued citations from the state in 2007 and 2008 for having residents with dementia at the facility even though it did not have a Dementia Care Plan. In 2009, the facility withdrew its request with the state to care for dementia patients, according to court documents.
Defense attorneys argued that state policy at the time of Cardenas’ death allowed facilities like Manse on Marsh to accept patients with mild or secondary diagnosis dementia. They also claimed Cardenas had lived at the facility for nine months and was independent enough to go jogging alone nearly every day, and that complaints otherwise were made by disgruntled ex-employees.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen heard a final legal challenge filed by Skiff’s attorney before the parties prepare to begin trial in two weeks.
Skiff’s attorney, Robert Sanger, filed a motion to dismiss the charges on largely procedural grounds. Sanger argued that Skiff’s rights to a speedy trial were violated after he withdrew a waiver of that right in April, as the parties were just over halfway through their almost six-month preliminary hearing.
In support of his argument, Sanger cited state laws that ensure “one does not languish unnecessarily ... under the cloud of a criminal complaint, without a judicial finding of probable cause.”
“It’s particularly harmful in a case like this,” Sanger told van Rooyen on Wednesday, saying his client’s reputation has been severely damaged by the allegations. “This has hung over his head forever. He wants to get this done.”
In denying Sanger’s motion — which by Wednesday, Potts had also joined — van Rooyen noted that the parties had been offered a chance to complete the preliminary hearing over consecutive days in January, which another judge assigned to the case at the time urged.
“It could and should have completed in those three days,” van Rooyen said. “It’s ironic now that the defense is making this argument when it was done to accommodate (everyone’s) schedules.”
Skiff and Potts are due back in court Wednesday, when their attorneys will argue their respective motions dictating how aspects of the trial will play out. The state is asking van Rooyen to exclude any mention or reference to business practices or regulatory actions of other assisted living facilities, and to allow Cumba to introduce evidence of Manse on Marsh’s prior violations and citations for admitting dementia patients.
“The defendants accepted Mr. Cardenas despite his diagnosis of dementia,” Cumba wrote. “Their knowledge that they could not, by law, accept dementia residents is of tremendous probative value and goes to the heart of this case.”
Sanger, Skiff’s attorney, has requested that van Rooyen make the unusual decision to allow jurors to be transported to Manse on Marsh during the trial to view the property themselves.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Aug. 13.