February 21, 1997 in Nation/World

Disabled Men Found Living In Squalor Property Owners May Face Charges Of Criminal Abuse, Fraud

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Four developmentally disabled men are in protective custody after being found living in “deplorable” conditions on a Spokane County farm.

The men shared a makeshift home on the property of Budd and Laura Otto for at least eight years, officials said Thursday.

“The place wasn’t fit for human habitation. It wasn’t meant to be lived in,” Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Ethridge said.

Deputies launched an investigation last week and may charge the Ottos and their son, Wayne McKearnan, with criminal abuse and fraud, Ethridge said.

Detectives said the three might have been cashing the disabled men’s Social Security checks and pocketing the money.

Tipped by a caller, investigators from the state Division of Developmental Disabilities and the Sheriff’s Department went to the South Marshall Road farm on Feb. 12.

They discovered the mentally handicapped men living in what appears to be a 20-foot by 20-foot outbuilding converted into living quarters.

The Ottos refer to the building as “the pump house,” although there is no pumping equipment inside, Ethridge said.

The building is divided into two rooms, one of which holds two bunk beds, a sink and a toilet, Ethridge said. The other has a table and a refrigerator.

Electrical wires are exposed inside the structure, and water leaks through the roof and into outlets, Ethridge said.

An electrical space heater used to keep the structure warm was placed right next to one of the beds, creating a serious fire hazard, he added.

The least disabled man apparently was put in charge of the others and helped feed and dress them, Ethridge said.

One state disabilities worker, who asked not to be identified, said Thursday the men probably hadn’t bathed for some time.

The most severely disabled of the group “had a number of lesions, sores and skin breakdown on his body,” according to a Department of Social and Health Services report on the incident.

Investigators rushed the men - who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s - to the Sacred Heart Medical Center emergency room, another report states.

The Division of Developmental Disabilities is a branch of Social and Health Services.

“I understand it was deplorable,” Tim Brown, a DSHS spokesman in Olympia, said of the living conditions endured by the men.

They were cleaned up and treated at Sacred Heart before being sent to two state facilities for developmentally disabled adults in the Spokane area, Brown said in a telephone interview.

State officials are trying to find a home where the four men, who have lived as a group for the past 15 years, can stay together, Brown added.

The Ottos and McKearnan, 62, live in a metal-sided trailer a short distance from “the pump house.”

Sheriff’s deputies arrested McKearnan recently on an unrelated child molestation charge, Ethridge said.

Laura Otto, who turns 85 next week, said Thursday that “the boys” were taken away because she didn’t have a license to run an adult care facility.

“I used to have a license,” she said. “I used to run a boarding house in town. I didn’t know I needed one out here in the country.”

Otto said she did all the cooking for the men, who came to her through referrals from her previous business.

She and her husband, also in his 80s, tried to keep the “pump house” clean and recently replaced the linoleum, she said. She acknowledged the building was a mess when state investigators showed up last week.

“Those boys are destructive, you know. There’s not much more I can tell you about it,” she said before ending the interview by closing the door.

Neighbor Wayne Springer said the Ottos did what they could to provide for the men. He said he admired the couple for giving them a place to live.

Springer said he used to hire the men to do odd jobs around his place.

“See all those pine tree stumps there? The boys used to come down here and rake pine needles for me before we took those trees out,” Springer said. “A couple of them used to come down in the evening and talk and have Cokes.”

He said the disabled men never complained to him about their living conditions. But he speculated the Ottos’ ability to care for them likely deteriorated in recent months because of the elderly couple’s health problems.

The men seemed content seven months ago when “the pump house” was remodeled, Springer said.

“One of them was real happy because he got to paint the inside walls blue or something like that,” he said. “That’s the last time I saw the place. I told the state man last week it looked bad then. But I thought it was in disarray because of the work they were doing.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Map of area where men were found living


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email