At a preliminary hearing in Ten Mile Superior Court on Monday, January 30th, caregiver Lori Fiorentino was bound over for trial by visiting Judge Eric Labowitz on a single count of violating California Penal Code 368 (b) (1). Fiorentino stands accused in the death of sixty-six year-old Arlene Potts who was discovered deceased inside her Duncan Place Apartments rental unit (301 Cypress St.) in Fort Bragg during the afternoon of December 14, 2016.
PC 368 (b) (1) states, “Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any elder or dependent adult, willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured, or willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not to exceed six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years.”
Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Kevin Davenport called just one witness to the stand during the preliminary hearing, Fort Bragg Police Department (FBPD) Officer Joseph Breyer, who has two and a half years on the job locally and another eleven years of service with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Breyer apparently followed FBPD Chief Fabian Lizarraga from Los Angeles to the coast.
At approximately 2:30 on the afternoon of December 14th Breyer arrived at Duncan Place Apartments (full disclosure: one of my grandmothers resided there nearly a quarter century ago). Breyer was responding to a welfare check for Ms. Potts, requested by the manager of the apartment complex, Cindy Ancona, who reported that she smelled an odor she thought was urine emanating from Apt. 216, rented by Ms. Potts.
Upon nearing the door Breyer realized the smell was more likely something stronger, deadlier. He knocked several times on Arlene Potts's apartment door, called her name, but got no response. Ancona used her management key to unlock the apartment. Entrance into the interior was greatly impeded, Breyer stated on the stand, by as many as nine full sized shopping carts, six from Safeway, two-three more from either Rite-Aid or CVS Pharmacy.
After breaching part of the shopping cart barrier Breyer made his way into a hallway leading to a bedroom. In the hallway the officer observed numerous wreath-like objects hanging from hooks on the wall. Tied to the wreaths were plastic bags filled with what officers later identified as coffee grounds.
Breyer did not discover Ms. Potts in the bedroom, instead he found a lot of belongings apparently owned by the caregiver, Lori Fiorentino, who had been hired by Ms. Potts in December, 2013, after Ms. Potts, suffering with a hip injury, refused further treatment at Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH) and also refused to be placed in a senior nursing facility. Ms. Fiorentino's employment was facilitated through In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS).
At this point the squeamish may want to skip ahead a paragraph.
Returning to the living room area, Breyer, a man of medium height, stood on the shopping carts in order to ascertain that Arlene Potts's decomposed body lay on a couch slightly to the side of a sliding glass door. Later, through introduction of the autopsy report, the courtroom gallery learned that Ms. Potts's body was naked under a pile of blankets and towels upon discovery, except for five layers of fecal encrusted diapers, weighing a total of six and a half pounds.
According to Breyer's testimony concerning conversations with the apartment manager, throughout 2014 and 2015 there had apparently been no problems with regard to Fiorentino's care of Ms. Potts, who had also suffered injury in a Bay Area auto accident prior to her 2013 hip problems. However, Ms. Potts had limited the manager's visits to apartment #216 to once a year each for checks on the smoke alarm system and annual renewals of the rental agreement. In the manager's last visit during January, 2016, Ms. Potts ordered the manager to venture no farther inside Apt. 216 than the area of the smoke alarm, presumably in the entrance hall. Through Breyer the courtroom audience also learned that Ms. Potts had already been pretty much a recluse prior to her 2013 health maladies and that the reclusiveness only increased after the hip injury. Despite the condition of the apartment on December 14, 2016, the manager told Officer Breyer that it was clean prior to 2016.
Public Defender Frank McGowan's cross examination of Breyer elicited from the officer the information that Arlene Potts's automobile was inoperable, implying that Ms. Fiorentino would need to use shopping carts to bring groceries and other supplies to the apartment. Breyer responded that posession of the various store shopping carts was nevertheless a crime itself.
In additional testimony Breyer pointed out that Potts's final resting place on the couch was surrounded by a bevy of water bottles, including one as yet unused on December 14th. The presumption there being that caregiver Fiorentino had at the least been providing Ms. Potts with drinking water to the very last.
Davenport's counter to this included Breyer's testimony about the condition of the body itself, through the autopsy report, and Breyer's observations of tar like dark substances on the couch behind the body and the fact that FBPD officers found significant amounts of baking soda scattered throughout the apartment. The prosecution implication being that Fiorentino was deliberately trying to dull the smells and that these odors were coming from a body dead and decomposing for quite some time. At the opening of the hearing Davenport amended the complaint against the caregiver, Lori Fiorentino, to include the dates from June 1, 2016 through December 14, 2016, the unsubtle hint therein: Ms. Potts may have been deceased for many months, given that her nearest neighbor had complained about the odors coming out of Apt. 216 since the neighbor moved in at the beginning of August, 2016. That neighbor continued to complain to Duncan Place management, more or less up until Ms. Potts's decayed body was discovered by Officer Breyer.
Public Defender McGowan painted a picture of Ms. Potts's known refusal of medical service at the local hospital, saying that Fiorentino could not render assistance to a patient who continued to resist all help, thus the defendant was not responsible for Ms. Potts's death or the manner in which her body was found. Mr. McGowan seemed inclined to blame the system as a whole, rather than his client, stating at one point near the conclusion of the hearing, “Everyone passed the buck.”
At another point Davenport made clear the prosecution theory, “Arlene Potts was neglected to death.”
Judge Labowitz, who has been retired from regular duty for ten years, but occasionally fills in for those who are ill or on vacation, essentially rejected McGowan's stated claim, “A patient has the right to refuse care, even if it results in death.”
At the end of the hour and a half session, Labowitz simply stated, “There is sufficient evidence that the defendant be held to account.”
The defendant, only ten years younger than Ms. Potts, sat stoically in her county issued red jumpsuit, displaying no outward emotion, before and during the preliminary hearing. Despite Mr. McGowan's request, bail for the defendant was not reduced. Lori Fiorentino's next court appearance is set for Valentine's Day, February 14th. Presumably Judge Clayton Brennan will return to his usual post on the Ten Mile Court bench at that time.