Plea Deal Reached In Nursing Home Death; Former Nurse Speaks Out
By Mike Perleberg
(Lawrenceburg, Ind.) – More than two years after Dione Scalf died, a resolution has been reached in the court case against the nurse who prosecutors say caused the 77-year-old’s death.
Kathy Hess, 60, of Bright, was in Dearborn Superior Court II on Monday to plead guilty to a charge of Neglect of a Dependent (class D felony).
Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard says that as part of a plea agreement he agreed to dismiss the original charges of Battery Resulting in the Death of an Endangered Adult (class B felony), Neglect of a Dependent Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury (class B felony), and Reckless Homicide (class C felony).
Hess received a three year sentence from Judge Sally McLaughlin the same day in court. However, she won’t spend any further time behind bars because she already served the past two years in jail or on in-home incarceration.
“We didn’t see any advantage to insisting on any sort of a prison sentence. It seems she’s been punished enough for her actions,” Negangard said, adding that Scalf’s family is satisfied with the result.
The original charges carried a potential six year prison sentence. The judge ordered Hess to serve 18 months on non-reporting probation.
The plea agreement required Hess to admit to putting Scalf in a situation which led to her death, which the prosecutor claims was the biggest holdup in the case.
“By the accounts of many, she had been a good nurse at the nursing home. It was clear on this day that she was not acting appropriately and she lost her cool and seriously injured a person in her care, which ultimately resulted in her death,” Negangard said.
Specifically, Hess accidentally caused a fractured vertebra in Scalf’s back in December of 2013 while working at Woodland Hills Care Center in Lawrenceburg. It was just minutes after the injury that Scalf was pronounced dead at Dearborn County Hospital.
According to Negangard, Hess was in a hurry as Scalf – who suffered from gastrointestinal problems due to the medications she was prescribed – was moving slowly in a walker to the bathroom. Hess had allegedly shaken Scalf off the walker, pulling her from behind in a violent manner, in the process breaking her back. Unaware of the injury, Hess then placed Scalf on the toilet.
“Then Dione Scalf goes unconscious. Our pathologist testified that’s because when that vertebra was broken it put pressure on the lungs, causing her to suffocate basically. When Kathy noticed that she passed out, they put her on the bed, attempted to administer CPR, but by then it was too late,” Negangard explained.
The death was nearly chalked up to natural causes, but a visitor in the room had witnessed Hess’ handling of Scalf. That witness later described what she saw to a Dearborn County Special Crimes Unit detective at a family Christmas party. Just before it was to be cremated, Scalf’s body was taken for an autopsy which revealed the broken vertebrae. The coroner’s report attributed the injury to physical abuse.
Negangard said the witness’ account of Hess’ handling of the patient was consistent with the back injury. Hess’ co-counsel, Robert Ewbank, had contended that Scalf’s fractured vertebra came from the performance of CPR after she had suffered heart failure brought about by a vasovagal response caused by her constipation.
All the expert testimony involved was cited by the prosecutor as another reason for the drawn-out court case. The State had dismissed the charges against Hess in October of 2014, however, the dismissal was with prejudice, meaning that the charges could be refiled. Hess’ husband, Alan, said at the time that the prosecutor dismissed the charges because the state had no case.
Hess would again face charges when Negangard took the case to a Dearborn County grand jury, which in March 2015 indicted Hess on new Reckless Homicide, Neglect of a Dependent, and Battery charges. Those are the charges dismissed as part of the recent plea agreement.
Negangard said Hess will not be able to work as a nurse ever again.
“It was unfortunately tragic not just for the victim, but it’s had tragic consequences for Kathy Hess as well,” Negangard said.
Hess: “They Backed Me Up Against A Wall”
Kathy Hess and her husband, Alan, maintained her innocence in speaking with Eagle Country 99.3 on Wednesday.
“They backed me up against a wall so many times. I never got my day in court. The prosecutor gave me a good plea bargain so I took it. This case has gone on for 26 months, essentially,” Kathy Hess said.
Hess said her grandkids were ages three and one when the case started. Now at ages five and three, they are beginning to ask their grandmother questions. Alan became disabled around the same time the charges were filed and he requires her care.
Alan Hess explained that the case against his wife was based on a layman’s understanding of nursing. He said what may have appeared as shaking to the woman who witnessed Kathy shaking Scalf, was actually a technique nurses use to help weak patients walk.
She claims to have had a good record as a nurse of 40 years – 28 of those years at Woodland Hills. The only mark on her record, the couple claims, was a minor medication error.
As he said previously, Alan Hess repeated that his wife was ready to take the case to trial in October of 2014 before prosecutors temporarily dismissed the charges. After weeks of asking for the grand jury documents, Kathy Hess’ attorney requested a judge to order the state to share the documents with the defense. The judge granted that order, but it wasn’t until just days before the trial date that the documents were provided to the defense, Hess said. The document contained changed key details which forced the defense to request and receive a continuance, dragging the case on further.
“It was delay after delay after delay,” Alan Hess said.
The judge, Sally McLaughlin, later ruled that Hess’ right to a speedy trial had not been violated.
Hess cannot appeal, terms of the plea deal dictate. She said she plans to ask that the conviction be expunged from her record when she is legally able to in five years.
Outside of the emotional toll, the case became a huge financial burden on the couple. They have paid around $100,000 in bail and legal expenses, the husband shared. The plea agreement was taken out of convenience, he added.
“This whole thing stinks. The court system stinks. You have no recourse. Nowhere you can go. There’s nothing you can do except live with it,” Kathy said.