She speaks with a Southern accent and sounds like a much older woman, partly because of a massive stroke a dozen years ago. So it's jarring when she suddenly switches to the high-pitched, sing-songy voice of a little girl and speaks with shocking clarity about one night in October 2015.
She was living at a different place then -- the Brian Center, a 77-person nursing home on the outskirts of this mountain town.
"I had been attacked, attacked by a man sexually," she tells us, lying in her bed and fully dressed in high-heeled boots, with other clothing and shoes mixed in with her sheets. "I was cornered between a closet and a bathroom, me with one arm. ... I couldn't breathe."
Occasionally, as she recounts her story, she closes her eyes and looks as if she is falling asleep. Then she's suddenly alert again. She's proud of her reputation for being feisty and difficult -- she says she's always being told she complains too much. She recites -- correctly -- the phone number for the state hotline where nursing home residents can lodge their grievances.
It could be tempting to dismiss her story as drug-induced hallucinations or the confusion of a stroke survivor. Police might find her the very definition of an unreliable witness. But she is adamant she is telling the truth.
She says the man who aggressively cornered her that day, sticking his hand up her shirt and fondling her breasts, was a nursing aide named Luis Gomez.
"It sticks in my mind the same way every time," she says. "After it's over is where the anger comes in. While it's happening, you want to cry. You think, why is this happening to me?"
It took her about two weeks to summon the courage to report what happened. She uses the word violated.
"I was embarrassed. I thought, 'I need to tell someone,' but I was afraid no one would believe me."
She was right. At first, no one did.
The woman told police that the director of nursing at the Brian Center Health & Rehabilitation, Gail Robertson, reacted to the story with disbelief. She told the resident "to go live under a bridge, because nothing like that happened" in her facility, the woman recalled.
The police showed up -- but not to investigate the allegation of sex abuse. Instead, an officer was asked to take the woman to a nearby hospital. There she was escorted to the sixth floor and locked in the psychiatric ward.
No one there believed her either.
"I am really telling the truth here, and it's really not fair you're turning a deaf ear to what I'm saying," she remembers telling hospital workers in the ward, where she had been a patient before.
Discharged after a few days, she had no choice but to return to the Brian Center. She left there as soon as she could, ending up homeless at one point before landing at her current residence.
She'd been dismissed as a complainer, a troublemaker, an attention seeker. But as it turned out, she wasn't the first nursing home resident to complain about Luis Gomez.
And she wouldn't be the last.
Meet Luis Gomez
Sometime around his 40th birthday, Luis Gomez started a new life in an unlikely place.
Waynesville is a town of less than 10,000, a mix of lifelong residents and so-called halfbacks, retirees from the North who tried living in Florida, then ended up here, less than an hour from trendy Asheville, in the Great Smoky Mountains.
It's also one of the whitest towns in the state.
The move was a big adjustment for Gomez, who'd come to the United States from Guatemala and spoke only Spanish.
"It was such a culture shock to him," said Rob Burns, a close friend and neighbor. His first American home had been in New Jersey, he told Burns. There, Gomez told him, "my boss was Spanish, the place I worked was Spanish." In Waynesville, he discovered, he would need to learn English "in a hurry." So he enrolled in classes at a local community college.
It was the late 1990s, and a construction job building racks for warehouses had brought Gomez to Waynesville. Soon he learned of another opportunity: a program at the community college that would help him become a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. That likely sounded promising, given the aging population in the area and the handful of nursing facilities that dot the country roads in Waynesville and surrounding Haywood County.
After earning his certification in 2000, Gomez first worked as an in-home caregiver. Then he was hired by a nursing home at the base of a tree-covered hill called Autumn Care of Waynesville. During the next 15 or so years, he would bounce between Autumn Care and at least four other nursing homes, including the Brian Center.
Haywood County spans more than 500 square miles, but many of the facilities where Gomez worked are just a short drive from each other -- and not far from his home in the heart of Waynesville.
As with any nursing assistant, Gomez was tasked with the most intimate of duties: bathing residents, taking them to the bathroom and changing their diapers. It's unglamorous work that doesn't pay much, but he seemed to enjoy his job.
"He loved it. He loved helping people," his neighbor Burns told us, adding that Gomez often came over to his house for dinner and Bible study, and they talked about life and work.
A former co-worker said most nursing assistants rarely went the extra step for their patients. But Gomez did. He would alert a nurse that a resident needed a new bandage, for instance, and he took the time to get to know his patients and their families.
He was especially charming with female residents.
The phone call
A month after the stroke victim left the Brian Center, at 1:35 p.m. on Saturday, February 27, 2016, the Waynesville Police Department received a phone call from the facility. A nurse wanted to report a rape.
Sergeant Dee Parton was quickly dispatched to the nursing home just around the corner from the new police station downtown. The nurse, 35-year-old Krista Shalda, greeted Parton and told her a current female resident claimed a male nursing aide had assaulted her on Thursday night.
The resident had reported the incident the previous day to a different nurse, who said the facility's director of nursing, Gail Robertson, told her that she would "handle everything."
But police were not called. Nor was a doctor. No family members were notified.
And the aide was allowed to keep working.
When Shalda spoke to Robertson about the same accusation the next day, Robertson allegedly said again she would "handle it" and that "they needed to keep everyone out of the issue." But Shalda knew the aide had been accused of something similar before. She was not going to stand by and let Robertson keep it quiet. Even if it meant risking her job.
She told the sergeant about previous incidents, accusations made against this man by both a patient and a staff member.
Then she took Parton to the woman's room.
The 53-year-old resident was "sitting on the side of her bed," according to Parton's report, "with her oxygen on." And she was crying.
The sergeant introduced herself and asked the woman if she was OK.
This will be difficult, Parton told her, but she needed to answer a few questions.
Almost a year later, as part of an investigation into sexual abuse at nursing homes across the country, we asked the woman some of the same questions, over the phone. What she told us was remarkably similar to what she recounted to police that day. The woman said she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure and needs full-time care. She moved into the Brian Center in 2015.
Luis Gomez took care of her.
"He bought me perfume and stuff," she told us. "We were friends; we would joke around."
He also told her he wanted to marry her. For weeks, she said, he would enter her room, make sure the curtain around her bed was closed and kiss her.
All of this made her uncomfortable, she said. But she kept quiet, worried that if she spoke up Gomez would get angry.
Then one night in February 2016, she said, Gomez did something she never expected -- and would never forget.
He came into her room after her roommate went out for a smoke and asked if she needed to go the bathroom. She said she did, and climbed out of bed. As she entered the bathroom and faced the toilet, she heard the door close and lock.
"He pulled my nightgown up and proceeded to rape me," she told us. "I told him to stop, then I gave my excuse, 'My roommate is going to be coming in my room any moment,' and he stopped."
She was in shock. A day passed before she told anyone.
When at first, nothing was done about her accusation, she feared Gomez might appear in her room again at any moment.
Robertson, the nursing director, would later tell state investigators in an interview that she suspended Gomez shortly after 8 p.m. the day the police were called so the facility could investigate. He was permitted to wait in the television room for a friend to pick him up. He stayed there for hours, until 11 p.m. In the interview, Robertson acknowledged she didn't remember telling him to clock out and didn't ensure he was supervised while he waited.
The woman still lives in the Brian Center today, in a different room. Only female nurses take care of her, she says. She vows she will never let a male employee touch her again. "I totally lost trust in the men."
She believes she did the right thing by going to police, and she is adamant that Gomez picked the wrong person to make his victim.
"I definitely have my wits about me."
The trail of accusations
Less than 24 hours after taking this woman's statement, Parton, the sergeant, was back at the Brian Center in another woman's room.
The alleged victim had called 911 herself.
Parton, accompanied again by nurse Shalda, introduced herself to a 63-year-old woman sitting on the side of her bed. She too suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needed help with intimate daily tasks.
Parton asked her what had happened, taking notes for the report she would file later.
"Luis started 'doing sexual stuff to me.' "
One time, she said, she awoke to find his tongue shoved into her mouth. On another occasion, he "rubbed me in my private area."
He would touch her in bed and say, "Let's go to the bathroom." He would touch his groin and tell her, "I want some."
One day, as she got up from the toilet and tried to pull up her pants, she said, he pushed her into her wheelchair.
Parton's report details what the woman said happened next.
"Her hands went on to her wheelchair, and Luis 'rubbed up against me.' Luis put his penis between her legs and could not get it into her vagina. He then put his penis between her legs and ejaculated."
Afterward, he handed her a washcloth and said, "You need to wash that down."
Gomez ensured her roommate was absent each time he assaulted her, she said. She was terrified to call for assistance when he was working on her wing. "I would not ring my bell no matter what I needed."
By the end of the interview, the woman was crying and said she was scared. Parton and Shalda tried to reassure her. She'd done the right thing, they told her. They would make sure she was safe.
They left her room and went back to the nursing station. There Parton asked Shalda: Had anyone else complained about this man?
Full Article & Source:
Six women. Three nursing homes. And the man accused of rape and abuse