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Police probe death of nursing home resident
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/10/2009 12:04 AM

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Authorities are investigating the death of an 89-year-old Itasca nursing home resident, found in her nightgown and bare feet outside in subfreezing temperatures.

Sarah Wentworth died last week at the Arbor of Itasca.

Police said they rushed to the private facility at 5:43 a.m. Thursday after receiving a 911 call. They found an unresponsive Wentworth, covered in blankets, lying on a gurney inside the facility at 535 S. Elm Street.

Employees reported they tried to revive Wentworth after finding her in an outdoor courtyard. She was pronounced dead shortly later. She had an extensive medical history, which included dementia, but authorities said she did not have a history of wandering off.

The circumstances that led to her tragic death have sparked at least three investigations that authorities said may result in criminal and civil proceedings.

Itasca Police Chief Scott Heher said police uncovered conflicting information after interviewing the nine Arbor employees who were on duty.

He said police were told Wentworth was sleeping in her bed during a 3 a.m. well-being check, but that she disappeared by 5 a.m. when staff looked in on her again. An employee reported hearing an alarm door sound, but Heher said it was not investigated beyond a cursory hallway check.

Police question whether the 3 a.m. check ever occurred. Furthermore, authorities said, Wentworth was not dressed in the same clothing when police arrived as she was earlier that morning.

Heher said police obtained a warrant to search a Mount Prospect waste disposal facility to recover the nightgown, but they came up empty.

"I think she wandered out there alone," Chief Heher said. "It's an absolute tragedy. There are a number of mechanisms in place at the Arbor to ensure these things don't happen. Obviously, there was a systems breakdown that night. We're investigating to see if criminal charges apply."

Heher said his department is preparing copies of its investigation for DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett for further review.

Birkett would not discuss specifics of the matter. His office prosecutes about 100 cases involving elderly abuse and neglect.

The Illinois Department of Public Health, which regulates nursing facilities, also is investigating Wentworth's death. Reports on more than a dozen other unrelated Arbor complaints are listed on the state's Web site.

DuPage County Coroner Pete Siekmann said his forensic pathologist is awaiting toxicology results before ruling on a specific cause of death, but no obvious signs of trauma indicating foul play were found during Friday's autopsy.

"At this stage in the investigation, it appears a combination of problems of advanced age and the weather will play a factor in her death," Siekmann said.

The nursing facility referred a Daily Herald inquiry to its attorney, Bill Radke, in Springfield, who released a statement:

"The Arbor of Itasca is saddened whenever a resident passes away," Radke said. "Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family ... (We are) cooperating fully with the Illinois Department of Public Health and local law enforcement authorities regarding their investigation of the death of that resident.

"The Arbor has appropriate and approved policies and procedures for supervising its residents and keeping them safe. The Arbor has continuously trained all staff regarding these policies and they remain in effect for the protection of the residents. Due to resident confidentiality and pending further investigation, the Arbor has no further statement at this time."

The facility has a one-star rating, much below average, based on prior complaints, staffing levels and the results of its three most recent inspections, according to the Federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Wentworth, whose husband, Richard, previously passed away, has three adult children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Her daughter, who lives in the Dundee area, declined to comment Tuesday. The family attorney also was unavailable.

Meanwhile, a 9:30 a.m. Saturday Mass will be held for Sarah Wentworth at Saint Clement Church, 642 W. Deming Place, Chicago. For more information, contact Salerno Rosedale Chapels in Roselle at (630) 889-1700.