Worker Charged With Manslaughter, Elder Abuse for Poisoning Deaths at Senior Home

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A 35-year-old worker at the Atria Park assisted living facility in San Mateo is facing two counts of involuntary manslaughter and elder abuse charges for the poisoning of three elderly residents mistakenly served cleaning solution instead of cranberry juice, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned.

Alisia Rivera Mendoza of East Palo Alto is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of elder abuse stemming from the Aug. 27 incident at Atria Park in San Mateo. One resident, Trudy Maxwell, 93, died shortly after she drank the cleaner. Another resident survived, but a third, Peter Schroder Jr., also 93, died 11 days later.

“It's been pretty anguishing,” said Schroder’s daughter, Susan, who was with her father when he died. “You know, it's hard to sleep at night. But, you know: My father loved me and I loved him, and that's the most important thing.”

In filing the charges earlier this month, prosecutors allege that Rivera Mendoza’s negligence caused the victims to endure “unjustifiable physical pain and mental suffering” and “willfully caused and permitted” lives to be put in peril.

Rivera Mendoza did not respond to requests for comment. She is due in court on May 12 for arraignment.

Officials with Atria Senior Living told us they are aware of the charges and “will continue to cooperate with the authorities” during the legal process.

“We took immediate action in response to this incident, including reviewing and reinforcing our training and policies on chemical safety. As always, we remain focused on the safety, health, and well-being of all our residents.”

San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said that while Rivera Mendoza has been remorseful and clearly did not intend for the fluid to be served to residents, there’s clear evidence of criminal negligence.

“If you are criminally negligent and failing to take care of the person in your charge, we're not going to say ‘that's too bad,’’’ he said. “We're going to hold you accountable for it.”

One critical piece of the case, he says, is the kitchen surveillance video showing Rivera Mendoza pouring out cleaner from a larger container into the pitcher. “It's very hard to deal with a 5-gallon drum,” Wagstaffe said, “and so she poured it into a fruit pitcher that is used to serve drinks, intending to then take that and move it elsewhere to do the cleaning with just a simple little container. And she left it, she got busy with some other things.”

The video also shows another worker warned Rivera Mendoza about what she was doing, but then both became distracted, Wagstaffe said.

Schroder, who is suing Atria for wrongful death, says she is uncomfortable that the only charges filed so far are against the care worker, not the management.

“It seems like she's a scapegoat to me,” she said, adding that Atria mangers are “the ones that are actively holding people's lives in their hands because of the example they set.”

Wagstaffe says that while he has met with victims’ families and understands them wanting to have Atria held accountable, that decision now rests with the Attorney General’s office.

“We will let the attorney general, with all their broad resources, decide if that's appropriate,” he said, adding that his office joined with Contra Costa prosecutors in seeking the state’s involvement. That office has charged a worker at Atria Walnut Creek with the death of Constantine Canoun. Authorities believe Canoun drank cleaning solution that the worker left out. The incident happened four days before the Atria Park poisonings.

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