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Wildfire lawsuit expands against Fountaingrove senior care home

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Sonoma County sheriff’s Detective Joey Horsman was off duty when he sped early Oct. 9 to the Fountaingrove senior home that cared for his 92-year-old grandmother, who was inside as flames from the fast-moving Tubbs fire advanced on the Santa Rosa facility.

Horsman rescued his grandmother and collected six other residents at Oakmont of Villa Capri, driving them down the hill to safety in a facility van before flames prevented him from returning for more people, according to new claims advanced this week in an amended lawsuit against the care home’s owners and operators.

Horsman feared everyone left at Villa Capri was dead and that he too wouldn’t make it out alive, according to the amended complaint.

“When he got to Villa Capri he saw a wall of flames and assumed at that point that all of the residents that had been left behind had died,” the suit said. He turned the van around and “because of the flames he called his pregnant wife to say goodbye to her.”

Horsman, 36, of Santa Rosa, his grandmother Inez Glynn, and another Villa Capri resident, Viola Sodini, 83, are among the newest plaintiffs in an expanded lawsuit filed this week in Sonoma County Superior Court against Villa Capri and two companies that own and operate the facility, Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group. An adjacent facility, Oakmont of Varenna, owned and operated by the same companies, also is being sued by a resident who claimed she was left behind by staff as the fire approached.

The case is not associated with the Santa Rosa retirement community of Oakmont, which is located in Sonoma Valley, 7 miles to the south.

The suit, originally filed in November with four plaintiffs, now involves a total of 17 Villa Capri residents and family members. They claim that staff members at Villa Capri, a high-end residential care facility, abandoned at least a third of the nearly 70 residents as the Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa on Oct. 9. The plaintiffs claim they managed to escape with the help of relatives before the Fountaingrove Parkway facility was destroyed.

“We’re learning more and more about what happened that night and more and more about the heroics of the families and the lack of action by staff,” said San Francisco attorney Kathryn Stebner, representing the plaintiffs.

Representatives of Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group and their attorney did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Company officials after the fire said “emergency authorities” prevented staff from returning up the hill to evacuate remaining residents.

Company attorneys in February filed a court response, saying the suit had no merit, that residents and family members lacked legal standing as residents were bound by a “valid and enforceable arbitration agreement.” The response also blamed residents for any harm resulting from the evacuation, saying they didn’t take adequate precautions.

A Sonoma County judge last month set an Aug. 3 trial, the first stemming from the historic fires that destroyed nearly 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in Sonoma County.

No residents from Villa Capri died in the firestorm. Three former residents who were plaintiffs, all in their 80s and 90s, have since died, and the lawsuit claims those deaths were hastened by trauma resulting from the company’s alleged failure to safely evacuate the residents.

Residents paid up to $11,000 a month to live at the 63-unit facility, where many of the seniors suffered from dementia and other disabilities, needing wheelchairs, walkers or canes to get around, according to the suit. One of the deceased plaintiffs, a woman who was blind and living with dementia, broke her hip in a fall at an evacuation shelter, according to the lawsuit. It seeks damages for alleged elder abuse, negligence, false imprisonment, emotional distress and wrongful death. The parent company named in the suit, Oakmont Senior Living, was founded in 1997 by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher. It operates more than 20 senior living facilities in California from Redding to San Diego, including three that remain in Fountaingrove after the fire.

On the night of the firestorm, Horsman was among a handful of family members of Villa Capri residents who raced to the care home as the Tubbs fire spread from Calistoga into Santa Rosa, according to the lawsuit. Horsman arrived about 2:45 a.m. to look for his grandmother, who is hard of hearing and uses a walker and wheelchair. He found the building dark from lack of power and no official in charge of an evacuation, the suit claims. Using a flashlight he made his way to the memory care ward, where he got two people from their beds and wheeled them to the lobby. The air was increasingly smoky inside, and Horsman told workers they needed to get people out of the facility, according to the suit.

A maintenance worker who arrived about that time gave him a key to a facility van and asked him to drive it, the suit states. About 3 a.m., Horsman helped his grandmother and six other residents and a Villa Capri worker into the van and headed down the hill.

Seeing flames in the distance and buildings on fire, he dropped the seven seniors and caregiver outside at the Sonoma County administration center where he believed they would be safe. Then he headed back up Fountaingrove Parkway, where he was met with the wall of flames and placed the call to his pregnant wife, according to the suit.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Stebner said.

Relatives of Villa Capri residents “didn’t have to go through this experience if Oakmont had had a timely evacuation plan,” Stebner said. Horsman declined to be interviewed.

He made it through the flames and returned to the county administration center, where he retrieved the evacuees and took them to a shelter set up at a Santa Rosa church, according to the suit.

Earlier that morning, about 1:15 a.m., plaintiff Viola Sodini’s daughter, Vivian Flowers, called Villa Capri to inquire about the safety of her mother, according to the suit. A female employee told her “everything was fine and there was no need to worry,” the suit said. But by that time, fire was already in Fountaingrove. Within the hour, it would jump six lanes of Highway 101 to the west.

Flowers soon went to two evacuation centers looking for her mother, finding buses bringing elderly residents and their medications from other residential facilities in the area, but not Villa Capri, according to the suit.

Flowers was terrified her mother had died in the fire, but about 5:30 a.m. Sodini was found at another shelter by family and taken home. A company spokesman called the family more than a day later saying Sodini was safe but didn’t know that she’d already been picked up and remained with family, the suit alleges.

After the fire, a few family members called Oakmont officials repeatedly to say they were concerned for property that may have survived the fire and wanted to search the ruins of Villa Capri before the land was cleared, the suit said.

Horsman went to the Villa Capri site soon after the fire to see what was left and spotted personal items strewn throughout the rubble, including dishes and the remains of an animal he believed had been a resident’s pet, according to the suit. He and others were told by the company they couldn’t search on their own but were assured a search would occur, according to the suit. Horsman’s grandmother had a safe in her room, holding jewelry and family heirlooms.

He told officials he wanted to be on site when the property was cleared so he could look for the safe and other items. An Oakmont employee identified in the suit as marketing director and managing agent Roberta Murray told him not to worry, the site was secure, according to the lawsuit.

But on Oct. 17 — a day before an email to Villa Capri residents informing them that an effort to retrieve priority and urgent personal items had begun — heavy equipment was already razing what was left of the building without any search, according to the suit.

Oakmont had hired heavy equipment operators who bypassed roadblocks on Oct. 17 and 18 and entered the locked‑down fire zone to demolish the remnants without the required city permits, according to city and county officials. Much of the debris was taken to a dump site before it had been searched for bodies and toxic materials. Authorities halted the work on Oct. 18 when it was discovered. National Guard troops were posted through the night to guard what remained.

On Oct. 26, another email from Oakmont company officials relayed that the site was deemed “hazardous and toxic” and “Oakmont had started the process to clean up the site and has hired a professional company to begin sifting through the debris.”

The city of Santa Rosa still is investigating the work it says was conducted without a proper demolition permit. A company official at the time said the company believed it had permission for the work.

According to the lawsuit, Horsman went to the property when he learned bulldozing was underway. He asked a bulldozer operator for the name of whoever was in charge and the man handed him a piece of cardboard with the word “Oakmont” and a phone number, the suit said. The detective called the number and made numerous more calls and reached an Oakmont Senior Living attorney, Christian Holland, who told him the debris would be inspected with cameras. Horsman never heard from the company if that occurred, the suit said.

“We have more information about managing agents at Oakmont who made promises to more than one person their property would be safe,” Stebner said.

The state Department of Social Services, which licenses senior living facilities, is conducting an investigation of the evacuations of Villa Capri, Oakmont of Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge, a third Oakmont Senior Living facility in the area.