By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Van Rysseghem's thick glasses are missing a lens, but she wears them anyway. Her rosary, Salazar says, is also gone. She appears feeble, her lips quivering. She cannot say why she's in the hospital, only repeating in Spanish that she's scared. Once a bank clerk, she used to speak English fluently. Now she seems to have forgotten how. Salazar helps her into some slippers. One time, he says, he arrived at Ben Taub to find her nude, draped only in a blanket.
In January, Salazar's attorney at the time, Suzanne Kornblit, helped him obtain visitation rights without supervision. Kornblit noticed that Van Rysseghem stopped eating and acted agitated and combative when Salazar was not allowed to visit. "His presence is beneficial, not harmful, to his wife, as she will eat for him, put clothes on for him, and is generally happy when he comes to see her," she wrote in a motion to modify visitation.
But Salazar notes he could get visitation rights only after he removed his name in January from bank accounts he shared with Van Rysseghem. Under standard probate procedures, that money was then transferred to a guardianship account controlled by guardian Ellis.
Van Rysseghem's estate of more than $24,000 has since been exhausted. Salazar fired Kornblit in March because he thought she and Ellis had conspired to drain his wife's money. But Ellis says she had to pay herself, three other attorneys, two nursing homes and a funeral home, adding that she has worked for free on this case for the past two months. "I bought her funeral instead of paying myself," says Ellis, who earned more than $12,000 from the case. "There's no law that requires I have to do that. Had I not done that, she would be buried by Harris County."
Still, the curious fact remains that Salazar never paid Kornblit. Instead, the $200-an-hour attorney who had been privately retained by Salazar was paid nearly $4,000 out of Van Rysseghem's estate, in fees approved by the court.
When asked about Kornblit's fees, Judge Wood says, "I would be surprised if she's being paid of out of the estate." But after learning he signed the orders approving her fees, Wood reconsiders. "In general, I would not pay fees for an applicant, but this is apparently a very unusual case. [Kornblit] was instrumental in getting back assets from [Salazar] to the estate," he says. "Apparently there were funds put into a joint account with rights of survivorship, and he could have taken all that money, and she was able to get it back to Ann Ellis. She said although she represented Salazar, she and Ellis spent a lot of time chasing down the estate."
Also approved in her fee application were two $20 charges, one for each time the Houston Press left a message with her secretary. Kornblit did not return any of those calls. She also charged for receiving messages from Salazar and for her secretary admonishing him for speaking to the Press. Ellis says she reviewed the fees, but does not remember them since "that was months ago." Wood approved the fees in January.
Wood says he usually does not approve fees for checking messages. "I ordinarily wouldn't approve a fee for a phone call that was not completed, either way, whether the call is being called or received. It depends on the merits of the situation," he says. "I don't know for sure I would approve fees for talking to the press. That's not something in the ward's interest." He added that his staff attorney reviews the fees more closely than he does, but he has recently changed staff attorneys.
Ellis says she foresaw the money running out, which is why she placed Van Rysseghem in a nursing home that accepts Medicaid. At the end of January, Van Rysseghem moved to Heritage Sam Houston. The facility, which touts itself as Alzheimer's-certified, is just over two years old, yet already has a bad reputation with the state.
Salazar visited daily and says the conditions he found his wife in drove him to call the police. According to him, she sustained numerous bruises, but no one seemed to know how she got them. Sometimes he found bloodied cuts on her head or her sitting soaked in urine. Once, he found blood on her panties, another time human waste on the floor. He is also concerned that no one there can speak Spanish and communicate with her. "They already took her money. Why do they treat her this way? Why do they want her dead?" he says.
Ellis says Salazar's reports of abuse are unsubstantiated because the district attorney's office did not file charges and because she personally spoke to everyone involved, including Van Rysseghem's doctors. "I believe there was no abuse found after a thorough investigation by me," she says.
Had Ellis's investigation included a look into the state's records, she would have found that the Department of Human Services cited the facility for abuse and "immediate jeopardy to resident heath or safety." During an August inspection, the agency observed some residents soaked in urine, some covered in feces and some nude because the facility had run out of gowns. Employees were untrained, their backgrounds unchecked; they failed to keep residents from abusing each other. One resident had stabbed another in the head with a knife during breakfast and pushed another to the ground, causing a broken hip. DHS fined the facility $2,000 a day until it could clean up its act and temporarily suspended its Medicaid and Medicare payments.