AG investigates how man seeking psychiatric care came to be paralyzed while in custody
MANCHESTER — The state Attorney General's office will launch a criminal investigation of how an Elliot Hospital psychiatric patient arrested by Manchester police for allegedly attacking a hospital security officer then transferred to county jail ended up back in the hospital paralyzed with a broken neck.
"We need to determine how these injuries occurred," Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said Thursday of Fern Ornelas, 54, of Manchester.
Ornelas came back to Elliot Hospital by ambulance from Hillsborough County jail in serious condition with a broken neck. He was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he has been in the intensive care unit on a breathing tube for the last week, family members said.
"We need to look at what happened from when the incident occurred at Elliot Hospital up until the time he was taken back to the Elliott and how he got in to the condition he is in," Rice explained.
The Attorney General's office will work with Hillsborough County Attorney's office and state police on the probe. It will begin once an investigative team is assembled, she said.
Meanwhile, Ornelas remains in legal limbo with a Hillsborough County House of Corrections officer standing guard outside his MGH hospital room, family members said. He is being held without bail and has yet to be arraigned on the misdemeanor simple assault charge. His older brother, John Ornelas, said the family has to request permission to visit their brother in the hospital. They said they saw him last Friday and Saturday, but were denied permission to see him Sunday. No reason was given, they said.
Hillsborough County House of Corrections Superintendent David M. Dionne has not returned media calls since Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Dionne said he was conducting an investigation and creating a timeline of events since Fern Ornelas was brought to Elliot Hospital emergency department the night of Oct. 15 for a mental health episode until the county jail sent him back to Elliot by ambulance sometime between 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Oct. 17.
"I think we need to let Superintendent Dionne conduct his investigation and finish his investigation and then he will provide us with the information we need," Hillsborough County Commissioners chairman Toni Pappas said.
Pappas said she has spoken with Dionne about the Ornelas case as recently as Thursday.
Family members claim county corrections, police and Elliot have neither provided them nor MGH with information about when and how Fern Ornelas' neck was broken.
Pappas said Dionne provided her and fellow commissioners Carol Holden and Sandra Ziehm with information about the case.
Pappas said commissioners would have to vote as a body to set a deadline on when Dionne must present the findings of his internal investigation and timeline to them.
But the commissioner first would have to meet as a body and vote to do this. Their next scheduled meeting is Wednesday. She said they could call an emergency meeting with 24 hours notice "but that is something I need to decide with my fellow commissioners."
Holden and Ziehm did not return a call for comment.
Fern Ornelas is accused of attacking an Elliot security officer about 7:25 p.m. Oct. 16. He was a patient in the Elliot secure psychiatric evaluation unit waiting for a bed to open at New Hampshire Hospital, the state's acute psychiatric hospital.
Ornelas allegedly punched security officer Lawrence Bolduc, who returned blows and subdued him using pepper spray and with the help of other security guards. Both Bolduc and Ornelas were treated in the emergency room for "significant" facial injuries. Ornelas then was "medically cleared" and released to the custody of Manchester police, according to police and hospital accounts. Police said Ornelas arrived at headquarters about 11 p.m. for booking, which was uneventful. Police said he refused the services of a bail commissioner, so no bail was set for him when he was transported to the county jail about midnight Oct. 17.