Ex-Nurse Pleads Guilty to Sexually Assaulting Patient in Vegetative State

A former Arizona nurse accused of abusing a woman in a vegetative state who had been in his care and who later gave birth to his child pleaded guilty on Thursday to sexual assault, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

The nurse, Nathan Sutherland, who worked in a Phoenix nursing home, also pleaded guilty to one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult, also a felony.

Mr. Sutherland, 39, faces up to 10 years in prison for the sexual assault charge, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said in a statement; the abuse charge brings lifetime probation. Mr. Sutherland is being held at the Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix until his next court appearance, scheduled for Nov. 4.

Mr. Sutherland had previously pleaded not guilty during a minute-long arraignment in February 2019. A lawyer for Mr. Sutherland could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

The criminal case began to unfold in December 2018, when a woman at an Hacienda HealthCare facility in Phoenix who cannot talk or walk gave birth to a boy, much to the surprise of staff members at the facility, which specializes in long-term care of people with intellectual disabilities.

In the weeks that followed, the investigation became the main focus of the Phoenix Police Department, its chief said at the time, and led to questions about the company’s operations and conduct. The company’s former chief executive resigned shortly after the arrest, and the facility became the focus of not only police investigations, but also investigations by the Arizona Department of Health Services and investigations by the state into Medicaid fraud.

The state Attorney General’s Office eventually found that former officers with Hacienda improperly allocated funds, inflated expense reports and practiced improper billing, resulting in an overpayment of almost $11 million from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to the facility.

The case also led to a lawsuit filed by the victim’s parents claiming that despite promises from the state that only women would tend to their daughter, Mr. Sutherland had cared for her on hundreds of occasions from 2012 through 2018, The Arizona Republic reported.

The woman had been in the same condition, unable to communicate or move, since entering the nursing home in 1992, when she was 3 years old, according to medical records. The family’s lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment.

During the investigation, the Phoenix Police Department collected the DNA of male staff members at the facility, and zeroed in on Mr. Sutherland because he was among the medical staff members at Hacienda HealthCare who were assigned to care for the woman around the time in 2018 that the police believed she had been assaulted. A DNA sample from Mr. Sutherland matched that of the child, a boy who was born in December 2018. Mr. Sutherland was arrested the next month and sent to jail in Maricopa County on suspicion of one count of sexual assault and one count of vulnerable adult abuse.

A licensed practical nurse, Mr. Sutherland had worked at Hacienda since at least 2012 and was assigned to a unit treating intellectually disabled people in 2014, the company said in a statement in 2019. He was fired immediately after the company learned of his arrest, that statement said.

Since its founding in the late 1970s, Hacienda HealthCare has grown into one of the largest private providers of care in Arizona for people with serious cognitive and physical disabilities, operating mostly out of a single campus about six miles south of downtown Phoenix.

“After more than two and a half years, all of us at Hacienda HealthCare are relieved that Nathan Sutherland has finally pleaded guilty to his awful offenses,” the company said on Thursday.

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