An employee accused of killing a resident in his care at a state-licensed group home for the mentally ill pleaded not guilty to a single charge of murder on Tuesday.
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. They’ve also asked the public to consider making a donation to the Autism Society of Alabama in Matthew’s honor.
On Wednesday afternoon, Waite released the following statement to the media on behalf of the Cox family:
“Our entire family would like to thank the community for its thoughts, prayers and expressions of love for Matthew. 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 from the incident, 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 Tuesday, Yates pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, and Mobile District Judge Joe Basenberg set a $200,000 bond with a $25,000 cash component for his release.
Jail records indicate Yates has yet to make that bond and remains in police custody.
The group home, located 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 and/or developmental disabilities.
They are operated 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 is still a bit hazy.
According to the ADMH, the home is one of 20 operated by the New Way Out Corporation, which does 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, the 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 New Way Out’s 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 Services 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.
In a written statement released Tuesday, 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 that ADMH requires service providers who operate group homes to perform background checks on their employees, which has become 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 Frech has made over the past few months seeking employees “interested in working with mentally challenged individuals in a group setting.”
Those posts also list various job requirements, including “no felony or domestic violence charges.”
They also say “no previous work experience needed on the job training is provided” and direct 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.
Cox’s death isn’t the first incident involving an ADMH-licensed group home to make headlines in Mobile.
As Lagniappe reported in 2017, the family of an autistic resident at a group home in the Axis area filed a lawsuit against the facility’s owner and AltaPointe after she was sexually assaulted in downtown 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 festivities. The family says she was assaulted after being left unsupervised and wandering from the hotel.
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