Operator of Missouri group home where fire killed 10 was a convicted felon

Tuesday, November 28th 2006, 5:53 am
By: News On 6

ANDERSON, Mo. (AP) _ The owner of a group home where 10 people were killed in a suspicious fire had been convicted in 2003 in a Medicare fraud case, raising questions of whether he was legally allowed to operate the place.

Robert Joseph Dupont, 62, was found guilty for his part in a scheme to bilk the federal program and was sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison.

Missouri law prohibits a felon convicted of a crime involving a health care facility from being an ``operator'' or ``principal'' of a long-term care facility, but Dupont's exact role in the home for mentally ill and elderly people was unclear.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which licensed the home that burned on Monday, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Investigators are not calling Dupont or anyone else a suspect in the fire, and revealed little about what may have sparked the blaze. Fire officials said the flames originated in an area that included a living room and some bedrooms.

``There is no one at this point that we are going to say is a suspect or even a person of interest,'' state Highway Patrol Sgt. Jason Clark said.

Coroner B.J. Goodwin said most of the victims had been asleep when the fire broke out, noting they were found in their pajamas and were not wearing shoes. All of them died of smoke inhalation, he said.

Police said 33 residents and two employees were there when the fire started. The blaze injured about two dozen people and stunned this town of 1,800 people in Missouri's Ozark hills.

As the investigation continued, questions emerged about whether Dupont actively oversaw the home's operation.

In a 2004 federal bankruptcy petition, Dupont listed his occupation as executive director of the Joplin-based group home operator River of Life Ministries Inc. The ministries group operates the group home.

Nursing home industry watchdogs said Tuesday the distinctions between a licensed operator and a facility's owner are murky.

``That's something we've never been able to determine,'' said Phyllis Kranbeck, secretary of the nonprofit Missouri Coalition for Quality Care. ``We just have never been able to get a satisfactory answer.''

State records show Dupont and his wife, LaVerne, own property and buildings on the site of Joplin group homes, with River of Life Ministries as the licensed operator. Robert Dupont was listed as a ministries officer in the group's 2002 articles of incorporation.

A spokesman for Gov. Matt Blunt said there is no prohibition against a felon owning the land and buildings for a group home. ``I'm told he is not affiliated with this entity in any legal sense,'' Blunt spokesman Brian Hauswirth said.

The home had fire alarms but no sprinklers. Under state law, it was not required to have sprinklers, because it was only one story high and because it was built before 1980.

Also Tuesday, police identified eight of the victims: Amy Brown, 37; Nathan Fisher, 52; Patricia Henson, 54; Brian Rudnick, 33; Don Schorzman, 57; Alta Lemons, 74; Isaiah Joyce, 25; and Glen Taff, an employee of the home who was believed to be 19.

Victims' relatives grew anxious for answers about the fire.

``We just want to know why,'' said Judy Lemons, 36, Alta Lemons' daughter. His niece Diana Gow said: ``This has been the hardest thing I think we've ever been through. We expected her to pass on some day but we sure didn't expect this.''