22 in San Bernardino found living in squalor at unlicensed group home

On Friday, September 4, twenty-two people were found living in chicken coops that had been converted into rooms as part of an unlicensed group home in San Bernardino, officials said.

Investigators found 22 tenants on the property, 12 of them apparently mentally ill and two confined to wheelchairs, City Attorney Jim Penman said. Buckets were being used as toilets in two 20- by 40-foot structures in the back of a home in the 2800 block of North Golden Avenue.

“It’s really squalid. It’s one of the worst places I’ve seen in a long time,” Penman said.

Pensri Sophar Dalton, 61, was arrested on suspicion of elder abuse, Penman said. He said authorities learned of conditions on the property when a police officer went there Friday morning to arrest one of the tenants on a drunk driving warrant.

Across the street, neighbor Jessica Cruz said police visited the home about twice a week for fights and disturbances.

Three barrack-like buildings could be seen in the backyard with coiled barbed wire running along half of the gated property. Penman said it wasn’t clear how many people lived in buildings behind the house because Dalton had also converted several rooms in her home into makeshift sleeping quarters. Each of the converted coops had five bedrooms and all appeared to be in use, Penman said.

Resident Trevor Castro said he had been living at the home for about four months and was paying $700 rent and receiving three meals. He said he is bipolar and schizophrenic and had nowhere else to go, having been in and out of jail.

Castro said when police came to arrest him for an outstanding warrant they discovered conditions at the home.

Castro said there were about 17 people were living at the home and in one of the back buildings. One back building was used to house several of the owner’s relatives and the third was for storage. He said he and other residents in the back used buckets to urinate in because Dalton, or “Mama Sophar,” locked the house at night. He didn’t know why barbed wire surrounded the house or why she locked them out at night.

On Tuesday, September 8, at a San Bernardino City Council meeting about squalor at an unlicensed group home, the city attorney acknowledged that the facility had somehow escaped notice.

“I know from conversations I’ve had with other elected officials today, we all feel that this was inexcusable,” said City Attorney Jim Penman. “While there are reasons it wasn’t discovered, we are not satisfied about that. I think we will be going through a process to try to determine what we can do to identify these places more quickly.”

At the council meeting, Gloria Lechuga tried to explain how her sister, Betty Herrera, came to spend the last two years of her life living at the home in conditions Lechuga described as disgusting. She said it was partly her family’s fault. Herrera was placed into one of Pensri Sophar Dalton’s homes after a nephew was referred to it by a co-worker. He promised to alert authorities when told about the filth, theft and poor food there, she said.

But Herrera remained at the home, where Lechuga said she often appeared to be over-medicated. Herrera, 82, died in January, she said.

Lechuga’s daughter, also named Gloria Lechuga, said she worries that similar group homes may be operating in the city. “If there are more places like this, don’t just look at the outside,” she said. “If someone calls and says something, go check it and check it thoroughly.”

San Bernardino annexed the neighborhood “a few years ago,” Penman said, adding that he thinks Dalton already may have been operating the facility there.

Penman said it appears that the people running the home collected medications to distribute to residents. Under state law, they should have had a license to do that, but investigators have found no such license.

He acknowledged that police and paramedics answered several calls for service at Dalton’s property. But public safety personnel often are so busy that they simply hurry on to the next call, he said.

Code enforcement officers need permission or a warrant to enter homes, said Deputy Director Marianne Milligan. An inspector visited the house Tuesday and found that razor wire bordering the house will have to be removed, she said.

The agency has no complaints on record about the house and does not regulate room and board homes.

The State Department of Health, one of many agencies that licenses such homes, had no listings for Dalton, spokesman Ralph Montano said.

The home would have to be providing some type of health care to qualify for a license from that agency, he said. It’s not clear what other licenses from other agencies Dalton may have needed.

Gina Clark said she lived at various “Mama Sophar” homes in the San Bernardino and Highland area during the 10 to 12 years that she was using drugs. She said she has been sober for more than four years and wishes authorities would have cracked down earlier.

But she was in no position to call the police, she said.

Her adopted mother, Shirley Clark, said the home seemed safer than seeing her daughter on the streets.

“They’re basically hotels for druggies, and very substandard hotels,” she said.

Posted in: Recent News, Uncategorized, Wrongful Death
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