An arrest targets an alleged serial abuser accused of preying on nursing-home residents 

After what residents and former co-workers describe as a nearly decade-long reign of serial abuse, a four-count indictment led to the arrest last week of a former Bristol nursing-home employee accused of preying on the facility's most vulnerable residents. James William Wright, 35, faces four counts of aggravated sexual battery stemming from the eight years he worked at a Bristol, Va., nursing home operated by Murfreesboro-based National Healthcare Corporation (NHC). NHC made headlines in 2003 when a deadly fire at its Patterson Street nursing home in Nashville killed 16 people, which in part prompted a state law that requires sprinkler systems in all such facilities.

Eyewitnesses claim that they saw Wright sexually abuse several of the home's residents—at least eight—who in some cases could neither speak nor see, or were simply too ashamed to speak out to other nurses and aides.

"They ain't going to talk to strangers," says nurse aide Diane Lewis, who left NHC Bristol. "It's embarrassing enough."

Perhaps even worse, nurses and family members say management at NHC Bristol ignored their claims and initiated few investigations, despite the demands of state law. Favoritism at the nursing home was endemic, witnesses say, allowing Wright to abuse the elderly in his charge with impunity.

Allegations against Wright first surfaced back in April, after a Scene investigation turned up years of suspicion and complaints ("Unsafe in Their Beds," April 9, 2009). The first reported victim, "Emma," told her daughter back in 2000 that Wright, then a nurse's aide, had "fingered" her. (The Scene will not disclose Emma's real name, or the names of Wright's other alleged victims.) According to a memo written by private investigator Lloyd Emmons, a former DeKalb County sheriff and Tennessee trooper, her daughter noticed that Emma would become agitated whenever Wright came near—enough so to swat defensively at him.

Another resident under Wright's care was later found with a suspicious bruise around her anus. When then-patient care coordinator Amy Edwards brought the matter to the attention of Wright's superior—Anne Franklin, the former director of nursing—she says Franklin merely shrugged. (Franklin declined to discuss the matter with the Scene.)

At the time, Wright told Edwards the resident was severely constipated and that he removed the impaction manually. But in a written response to a Department of Health Inspections investigator, Wright denied performing the procedure at all. Regardless, it was reportedly not the resident's last encounter with Wright. On another occasion, in an incident filed with the Virginia Board of Nursing, Wright dipped his fingers in ice water and flung it on her breasts.

In affidavits obtained by the Scene, witnesses say these were far from isolated events. Aides claim they caught Wright masturbating as he fondled residents. One aide, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from NHC, says she found him with his hand between the legs of a female resident. When she inspected the woman, she found a hole in the woman's diaper the size of a "50-cent piece" directly over her genitals. Former aide Patricia Ann Davenport says she surprised him twice while he was massaging a patient's breasts.

Former NHC employees claim that their superiors paid little heed to their warnings. In one of the rare instances management looked into the charges, former nursing director Evelyn Nunez reportedly asked a male patient simply if he'd been "fingered." (Nunez never responded to messages left by the Scene.) Aides say numerous complaints were brought to the attention of nursing director Franklin or charge nurse Helen Roberts (who also declined to be interviewed), yet Wright remained employed by NHC.

That changed in 2007, after Bristol police showed up for what was evidently a cursory investigation. According to sources aware of the proceedings, Bristol police were never given Wright's name to begin with, despite the fact that several complaints had already been made against him.

Even so, sources familiar with Wright's departure from NHC say that in return for his resignation, he received a good recommendation when he applied to another area nursing-care facility, Brookdale Senior Living-Grand Court Bristol. In late March, Grand Court Bristol's executive director Libby Bailey said in a prepared statement that Wright had no complaints against him.

According to the Virginia Board of Nursing, however, there was at least one complaint against Wright at Grand Court Bristol. A resident claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him in May 2008. The day of the rape, sources close to the family say, the alleged victim received an anonymous call from a Canadian phone number—perhaps a calling card—saying, "I look forward to meeting you."

A coming lawsuit will show the extent to which the nursing home covered Wright's tracks, says Parke Morris, an attorney representing several of his accusers and their families. At least now, they know that someone is listening.

Email bhargrove@nashvillescene.com.

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