An employee accused of killing a resident in his care at a state-licensed group home for the mentally ill has pleaded not guilty to a single charge of murder.
Prosecutors say 21-year-old Matthew Cox died after group home employee Trent Yates, 27, “stomped [his] abdominal area causing injuries” ultimately leading to his death. An attorney for the family previously said Cox was autistic and had the mental capacity of a 4-year-old.
Though no civil action has been formally filed, the Cox family has already retained the services of personal injury attorney Dean Waite, who has released a statement on behalf of the family.
“Matthew was an ‘angel in human clothing,’ who left a positive impact on every life he touched,” the statement reads. “Matthew loved everyone and everyone loved Matthew. His entire life was marked by the innocence and affection that only a child can have. We will miss him dearly.”
According to a criminal complaint, Yates assaulted Cox on Saturday, Oct. 27. He was initially arrested and charged with first-degree assault but the charge was upgraded to murder after Cox died in a local hospital as a result of severe damage to his internal organs.
The Mobile Police Department said Yates was “physically and verbally abusive” to Cox prior to his death, though the exact circumstances leading to the assault are unclear. Yates, who goes by “Big Gates” on Facebook, was employed as a caregiver at the group home where Cox lived.
At an arraignment Oct. 30, Yates pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, and Mobile District Judge Joe Basenberg set $200,000 bond with a $25,000 cash component for his release.
Jail records indicate Yates has yet to make bond and remains in custody.
The group home, located on Colonial Circle North, is one of the hundreds of “community providers” licensed to operate in Mobile County. These providers offer residential treatment for patients suffering from substance abuse, mental illness or developmental disabilities.
They operate in residential areas throughout the community and are regulated through the Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH). However, exactly who manages day-to-day operations at the group home where Cox lived remains unclear.
According to ADMH, the home is one of 20 operated by the New Way Out Corp., doing business locally as Petway Residential Facilities Inc. The company is owned and operated by David Petway, who has several other registered businesses in the area.
However, ADMH allows service providers to subcontract the operation of their state-licensed group homes to other companies, and state records indicate more than a dozen of the New Way Out group homes are operated by subcontractors, including the one where Cox lived.
State certification records indicate the facility is managed by a subcontractor doing business as French Residential Facilities Inc. — a company established by Danny French in 2005.
French Residential appears to be a relatively new provider of services for the developmentally disabled. The only record of any site inspections at either of its ADMH-licensed facilities in Mobile were related to “initial visits” during July 2017. Both facilities received a 92 rating from ADMH inspectors, according to its website.
ADMH spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert said the agency was “heartbroken” over Cox’s “tragic death.”
“The Alabama Department of Mental Health is conducting an investigation of the incident according to department policies and procedures,” she wrote. “The department will cooperate with local authorities to investigate and take necessary action to ensure the health and safety of other residents are maintained.”
Valdes-Hubert also noted ADMH requires service providers who operate group homes to perform background checks on their employees, a particular point of interest in Cox’s death because of Yates’ notable criminal history in Mobile County.
Jail records indicate between 2010 and 2014, Yates was arrested for second-degree assault, two counts of domestic violence and theft. At this point it’s unclear whether the responsibility of performing a background check on Yates would have fallen to Petway Residential Facilities or its subcontractor, French Residential Facilities.
Either way, Yates’ employment appears to go against French Residential’s own policies, according to social media posts Danny French has made over the past few months seeking employees “interested in working with mentally challenged individuals in a group setting.”
Those posts show a flyer that lists various job requirements, including “no felony or domestic violence charges.” It also says “no previous work experience needed on the job training is provided” and directs applicants to New Way Out’s main office on Oak Circle Drive in Mobile.
Emails sent to an address associated with French Residential Facilities have yet to receive a response, and a receptionist at New Way Out’s front desk told Lagniappe the company would not be commenting on Cox’s death or its group home operations in Mobile.
While nothing has been filed in court, Waite gave the impression the Cox family would most likely be pursuing some type of civil litigation in the wake of their son’s murder. However, it’s still unclear who might be named as defendants.
“The family really wants to make sure nothing else like this happens again. There were failures at multiple levels to allow something like this to occur,” Waite said. “We are investigating how this happened, why it happened and looking at every entity that is possibly involved here. We don’t know yet what the investigation is going to show.”
Most likely ADMH would be dismissed from any lawsuit because of the sovereign immunity it enjoys as a state agency. Cox’s death isn’t the first incident involving an ADMH-licensed group home to make headlines in Mobile, though.
The family of a severely autistic resident at a group home in Axis filed a suit against the facility’s owners and AltaPointe in 2017 after she was sexually assaulted in Mobile. The lawsuit, which is still pending in state court, claims the victim was one of several residents at the Agape House who were allegedly put up in a downtown hotel while staff members attended Mardi Gras.
The family says she was assaulted after being left unsupervised and wandering from the hotel.
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