Boarding house operator faces elderly neglect charges

Authorities discover more than a dozen elderly and sick people living in deplorable conditions in a building licensed for six occupants.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 11, 2007

TAMPA -- Sandra Hall's family members thought they had found the perfect home for the retired nursing home worker.

Daphne Jones showed them around a 6,165-square-foot gated mansion, a riverfront oasis on Puritan Road, filled with signs of wealth, such as fine fur coats, like something in a museum, said Hall's niece, Lisa B. Johnson, 46, of Tampa.

The family members were sold, and for the past year they thought Hall was living in such luxury. But that's not where she wound up. Investigators found her and 17 other elderly and disabled people in a cramped West Tampa building.

A tip led police there Thursday afternoon. They said the residents had been without air conditioning for up to two days in windowless rooms furnished with bunk beds while the heat index outside reached 104-degrees. One 86-year-old woman, found unresponsive on the floor, was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.

"I know she had us to believe that Aunt Sandra was living in that big house, the one they showed on TV," Johnson said. "We thought that she was living there because that's where we went to visit her."

Investigators arrested Jones, 36, on Thursday night, charging her with 18 counts of neglect of the elderly or disabled, jail records show.

The Department of Children and Families took 16 of the residents to Bay Gardens Retirement Village near the University of South Florida Thursday night, said Nancy Ortiz, a nurse who helped care for them when they arrived. A sister picked up one resident, and the 86-year-old remained at St. Joseph's Hospital, where she was responsive.

"They were dirty, like they didn't bathe for a couple days," Ortiz said. One man in his 70s was found wearing filthy clothes, his hair and nails both overgrown, she said.

Those who could speak asked for food as soon as they arrived. "You could tell they were kind of hungry," Ortiz said.

Multiple state and local agencies are investigating the case because Jones ran several businesses, ranging from an adult day care center to a boarding house to a barber shop, out of two starkly different buildings on opposite sides of the city.

Johnson visited her aunt only once at the mansion, but she said she regrets not acting on her odd feeling about it.

"They just had that place for show," she said wryly.

Jones and her staff greeted the family members at the front door, showed the opulent surroundings and brought them to a table to meet Hall. The staff stayed close by, and Johnson now wonders about their motives.

"Daphne and the other people that lived there would make sure that they could hear everything we were saying," Johnson said.

A woman inside the mansion Friday told a reporter who asked to speak to Jones to get off the property. Records show Jones is embroiled in ongoing court proceedings with her ex-husband, former major league baseball player and Hillsborough High School standout Keith "KiKi" Jones.

Court records show that in 2003, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. sentenced her to 24 months of probation and ordered her to pay $41,000 in restitution to the Social Security Administration. The nature of the charges involved were unavailable Friday afternoon.

The Agency for Health Care Administration licensed her to run an adult family care home from the Temple Terrace mansion.

Conflicting stories

Since 2005, the home was allowed to house no more than five residents and faced the same regulations as an assisted living facility, with the additional rule that Jones live there.

She charged residents $1,500 a month. State records show there was one complaint lodged against her, during the first year of operation. In that case, she tried to keep the $1,500 deposit of a resident who died two weeks after being admitted. The money came from a local government assistance program, and Jones assumed it was nonrefundable, an AHCA report said. She gave the money back.

Neighbors didn't notice much about the two-story home, which had a Mercedes pulling up the driveway Friday and a Hummer sitting beside the front door.

But Jeremy Olmstead, 24, who lives across the street, recalled walking behind the home and seeing about 10 to 12 elderly people sitting expressionless in a hot garage behind the house.

"There was barely any room for them to sit," Olmstead said. "There was a lot of boxes stuffed in the garage."

Across town, in West Tampa, neighbors also had contradictory observations about the boarding house. Some said the plain two-story boarding house, which advertises "Daphne's Upscale Studio" on the ground floor, was nondescript with little activity and white plastic covering the upstairs windows.

But neighbor Don Chaney, 52, often saw people coming in and out of the boarding house, as well as patrol cars and medical vehicles pulling up outside, he said. Residents went out together in a bus, he said.

On Saturdays, Jones' hair salon was busy with customers.

The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County thought Jones was running another business, according to Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the group.

She told them that she ran Laurel Tree Wellness, a boarding house to help homeless people, and paid the coalition a membership fee. In exchange, the coalition, an umbrella organization of groups that help the homeless, referred single men who needed affordable, short-term housing, to her.

Center had been cited

Coalition officials had only a post office box for Jones' center and didn't keep records of how many people they referred to her.

Weikel said Friday they plan to screen their member organizations in the future and establish standards for homeless service providers they endorse.

State and local officials were also confused about what businesses Jones ran and their addresses.

In fire inspection reports, Tampa fire officials have called the West Tampa boarding house at 2347 W Beach St. a rooming house, an assisted living center and an adult day training center.

Jones' center has been cited repeatedly for not having fire alarms, extinguishers, emergency lighting and handrails in the past few years. But she seemed to correct all problems, according to a February 2006 report.

Since 2006, the building has been licensed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation as "Daphne Jones Boarding Home," owned by Katie Jorden.

State business inspectors cited the boarding house twice for minor violations, including not having fire extinguishers.

It was supposed to house no more than six people, according to regulations, and DCF officials on Friday filed a complaint with the state licensing agency against the home.

Over the past two years, Tampa police have been called to the building 41 times for disturbances, missing person reports, landlord and tenant disputes, battery complaints, and to check on a mentally ill person.

They committed residents to mental health institutions at least twice under the state's Baker Act.

At Bay Gardens Retirement Village near the University of South Florida on Friday, families came to check on loved ones who had been removed from the home. Some families chose to take relatives away, said facility administrator Elsa Thomas.

One of the residents, Charles Spahr, 79, said he was glad to be out of Jones' facility.

"I didn't like it there," he said.

Times staff writers Michael A. Mohammed and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.