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Worker charged in August poisoning death of Walnut Creek nursing home resident

PIX Now 12:29

MARTINEZ -- The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office on Friday announced that a worker at an Atria nursing home in Walnut Creek has been charged with felony elder abuse in the poisoning death of a 94-year-old resident last August.

The worker at Atria Walnut Creek -- identified as 54-year-old San Pablo resident Lateshia Sherise Starling -- has been charged in connection with the death of a 94-year-old resident Constantine Albert Canoun on August 31, 2022. The complaint against Starling states that while Canoun was under her care in the Memory Care Unit at Atria Walnut Creek, she "willfully caused and permitted him to be placed in a situation in which his health was endangered." 

On the night of August 23rd, Canoun -- who suffered from dementia -- was rushed to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek after ingesting all-purpose cleaning solution in a nearby kitchen area. He died on August 31st from injuries to his stomach, esophagus, and part of his throat. 

A few days after his death, facility officials released a statement claiming it was uncertain what caused the reaction, but that they believe it was likely "food related." Atria confirmed at the time the employees who were involved were suspended as the incident was being investigated.

The investigation by the Walnut Creek Police Department into the incident led police to refer the case to the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office on January 24th. After reviewing the referral, charges were filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court. 

"We are aware of the criminal complaint against our former employee and will continue to work with the authorities," Atria Senior Living officials said Friday.

Starling will be arraigned on January 30th at 1:30 pm in Martinez. She is currently in the Martinez Detention Facility with a bail amount set at $100,000.   

The death at the Walnut Creek facility came after another Atria nursing home in the Bay Area faced scrutiny when a resident was fatally poisoned with dishwashing detergent.

Three residents at the Atria Hillsdale care home were hospitalized after ingesting dishwashing soap. One of the residents, identified as a 93-year-old woman, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

In a statement to KPIX at the time of the incident, Altria Hillsdale said the residents drank dishwashing liquid after it was served to them as a beverage.

The woman who died, later identified as Trudy Maxwell, was 93. 

In a lawsuit filed last September on behalf of the family of Maxwell, the plaintiffs outline allegations of "stunning and inexcusable neglect and abuse" over a period of time that culminated in her death on Aug. 29. 

Maxwell died two days after drinking Ultra Klene, a strong-smelling sodium hydroxide solution that lawyers in the suit say is stronger than Drano. 

Lawyers for Maxwell's family say that Canoun's death should have raised a "red flag" that such things were occurring in Atria facilities and they are attempting to show a pattern of ongoing wrongdoing by the company. 

Ultra Klene is the color of fruit punch or cranberry juice -- a deep pinkish red -- and both residents were suffering from dementia, according to court documents. 

In Maxwell's case, Atria claims that an employee mistakenly served residents the chemicals instead of juice, though the suit alleges that employees told first responders that Maxwell had located the cleaner on her own and drank it, something her lawyers say was "impossible" due to her declining health. 

Atria later said that an employee had made a mistake by serving the cleaner to Maxwell.   

The suit alleges that Canoun drank a liquid that had been left in the kitchen at the Walnut Creek facility. The suit alleges in that instance, employees blamed his bad reaction to eating "spicy chips."   

Atria responded to the poisonings in an email last September. 

"Our ongoing internal investigation determined that on August 27 an Atria Park of San Mateo staff member filled a pitcher with liquid dishwashing detergent that has a nearly identical consistency and color to cranberry juice, with the intention of dispensing the liquid into a commercial dishwashing machine. This was a violation of our policies and procedures. Another staff member picked it up, mistaking it for juice, and served it to three residents. The incidents at our San Mateo and Walnut Creek communities are isolated and unrelated."  

The plaintiffs allege that Atria was cited 12 times over five years for health and safety violations, four of which they say were "type A," meaning they exhibited an immediate risk to health, safety, or personal rights. 

"Their primary job is to keep seniors safe," reads the claim. "Atria defendants did just the opposite."  

"Our residents will always be our top priority," said Atria in an email after the Maxwell lawsuit came out. "We devote significant resources to ensure our staff are thoroughly trained and able to meet our residents' needs at all times. We take this incident very seriously. We're continuing to work with authorities and the Department of Social Services to fully review and assess the incident. Our hearts remain with the residents affected, their families, and loved ones."

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