Owners of nursing home where 35 died plead not guilty

Published 3:51 pm Thursday, October 5, 2006

The husband-and-wife owners of a nursing home near New Orleans where 35 patients died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina listened calmly Wednesday as their attorneys pleaded not guilty for both on 35 counts of negligent homicide and 64 counts of cruelty to the infirm.

“Not guilty to each and every count,” Bob Havans, who represents Mabel Mangano, said with heavy emphasis.

Salvador and Mabel Mangano had been booked with negligent homicide shortly after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, but they were not charged until late last month because a grand jury could not convene any earlier in badly damaged St. Bernard Parish. The couple remains free on bond.

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State District Judge Jerome Winsberg allowed defense attorneys to make a brief statement after the hearing despite a gag order in place for everyone involved in the case, including the defendants and witnesses.

James Cobb, who represents Salvador Mangano, said the prosecution of the couple is being done by the state attorney general without factual support.

“We have today entered a plea of not guilty to all charges,” Cobb said. “We have entered this plea because Sal and Mabel are completely innocent.”

Prosecutors said they could not comment.

If convicted, the couple could be sentenced to up to five years and fined up to $5,000 on each count of negligent homicide and up to 10 years and a $10,000 fine on each count of cruelty to the infirm.

Security was beefed up for the hearing, though sheriff’s department officials said they knew of no threats against the couple. There were protesters outside the courthouse, however.

For the first time since the storm, sheriff’s deputies scanned people entering the courthouse with metal detectors and searched bags. Sheriff’s department spokesman Col. Richard Baumay said a handful of extra deputies were in court for the arraignment, and more than a dozen accompanied the Manganos from the building after the hearing.

“We have a responsibility to provide security,” Baumay said. “Because of the type of case it is, we felt we should provide an extra few deputies.”

The families of several victims attended the hearing. Outside, Linda Montalbano and Michelle Stogna, the daughter and granddaughter of Helen Montalbano, who drowned in the nursing home, carried signs. One read, “Casualty of St. Rita’s care,” the other, “Thanks to St. Rita my grandmother is now in heaven.”

“I’ll tell you exactly what their punishment should be,” Linda Montalbano said. “They should be put in a straight jacket and then kicked into the water and see if they could swim.”

More than 30 lawsuits have been filed against the couple by patients injured at the nursing home and the families of people who died there.

The Manganos have sued the government, saying federal, state and local officials failed to keep residents safe. The couple argue that their hurricane plan — keeping frail residents in place with food, water and generators rather than risking their lives by moving them — was responsible, and that nobody would have died had the levees held.

The judge will hear motions for pleadings Dec. 7-8, as well as hear if the Manganos want a jury trial. Winsberg said he would set the trial date after that.