Sacto 9-1-1
April 10, 2012
Nurses plead not guilty to elder abuse charges in Placerville case

By Marjie Lundstrom

Two nurses who worked at a Placerville nursing home have pleaded innocent to felony elder abuse charges in connection with the 2008 death of a Cameron Park woman.

Donna Darlene Palmer, 58, and Rebecca LeAn Smith, 38, appeared together in El Dorado County Superior Court on Tuesday to face charges by the California attorney general that their negligent care contributed to the death of 77-year-old Johnnie Esco, a Cameron Park home maker.

But the judge rejected a request by state prosecutors that the license of Palmer be revoked, pending the case's outcome. Palmer, a registered nurse, had been director of nursing at the El Dorado Care Center in Placerville when Esco died in March 2008 after a short stay.

Smith, who has since moved to Louisiana, recently turned herself in to California authorities and agreed not to practice nursing while the criminal and licensing matters are pending. Smith, a licensed vocational nurse, was a "floor nurse" at the skilled nursing facility during the 13 days that Johnnie Esco was there.

The judge agreed Tuesday to release Smith, who has five children, on her own recognizance.

In filing criminal charges against the nurses, the state alleges that the nurses provided "substandard" care and failed to adequately supervise their staff. The nurses' defense lawyers contend that state and local authorities investigated the case in 2008 but did not pursue criminal charges until the story began receiving substantial news coverage.

The state's Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse reopened its criminal investigation after The Bee in September chronicled Johnnie Esco's story in a series exploring the growing problem of falsified records in nursing homes. A lawsuit filed by the family in 2009 accused El Dorado Care Center of altering and improperly handling Esco's medical records as far back as her admission.

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