Are They Killers?

updated 09/10/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tufanio "TJ" Gallodoro's three adult children didn't know what to do. Two days before Hurricane Katrina came crashing ashore, they began inquiring about the evacuation plans for St. Rita's Nursing Home, where Gallodoro, 82, had lived for the last year. They knew their father, a retired truck driver weakened by strokes, couldn't get out of his wheelchair; they also knew he had never learned to swim—and was deathly afraid of water. Before leaving New Orleans for higher ground, Gallodoro's grandson Shaun Emmons talked to the nursing home's owner, Sal Mangano. "Sal promised us he would get out if there was a mandatory evacuation called," says Emmons, 28. "Sal told me not to take [TJ] with us, that they would take him out in an ambulance."

When family members drove to St. Rita's in St. Bernard Parish to tell TJ they would be evacuating without him, the old man put up a fight. Says daughter Cheryl Emmons, 53: "I told him, 'No, Daddy, you have special needs and Sal has made arrangements.' He wouldn't look at me after that." TJ turned to his grandson next. "He said, 'Shaun, I'm riding with you,'" Shaun recalls. "He was crying." That was Shaun's last image of his PawPaw. After the levees broke on Aug. 29, 2005, 35 of the 59 residents at St. Rita's drowned; TJ was one of them.

The state of Louisiana aims to make somebody pay for the St. Rita's tragedy, one of the hurricane's deadliest. So on Aug. 16, their hands entwined, Sal, 67, and his wife and business partner, Mabel, 64, entered a St. Francisville courtroom two hours northwest of New Orleans to face 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty to the infirm. The lengthy roster of trial witnesses includes not only state and parish officials, but also Governor Kathleen Blanco. "Who should bear the blame in this case?" asks observer Stuart Green, a criminal law professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "That's really the question."

Prosecutors plan an unforgiving line of attack. "The failure to evacuate, the failure to heed warnings, the failure to accept help ... is all the fault of the Manganos," Assistant Attorney General Burton Guidry said in a pretrial motion.

But the Manganos are presenting a novel defense, one that has drawn considerable support in New Orleans. The way they see it, their plan to stay put at St. Rita's—which sits on high ground and had survived previous hurricanes—worked just fine during the fury of the storm. But what the Manganos say they could not foresee was the subsequent disaster—this one caused by human error—when the city's poorly constructed levees gave way and flooded the city. "The cause of this tragedy is not the failure to evacuate," defense attorney Jim Cobb argued at a pretrial hearing. "The cause is the collapse of the levees, which the Corps of Engineers admitted is their fault, and the multiple failures at the state and parish levels." High among those alleged failures: the decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation order.

What makes this case so compelling—and so painful—is that there are sympathetic people on both sides of the aisle. Even prosecutor Paul Knight called the Manganos "good people" during his opening statement, and described St. Rita's to the six-member jury as "a good, clean nursing home." Mangano supporters find it unconscionable that this pair, devoted since 1983 to serving some of society's most fragile members, is being singled out for having chosen to stay put. Many also think that Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, fresh off his highly publicized failure to secure murder indictments against a doctor and two nurses for the Katrina-related deaths of four patients at Memorial Medical Center, is once again overreaching by charging the Manganos with negligent homicide. "Everyone has been relying on these levees for decades," says Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. "The Manganos did what tens of thousands of other people did: They stayed."

But the Gallodoros and other families who lost loved ones at St. Rita's feel they were ill-served by the very people to whom they entrusted the care of their frailest relatives. "When you are an administrator in a nursing home, you are held to a different standard," says Darlene Goring, an LSU law professor. "You are making decisions for people who are incapacitated; you have to act with extreme caution."

The Manganos thought they had. For two decades, they had weathered Louisiana's hurricanes with back-up generators, medical equipment and ample stocks of medicine and food. Although the couple cannot speak because of a court-imposed gag order, relatives say they felt their charges were safer in the home than they would have been in vehicles on the clogged highways leading from New Orleans. "People evacuated nursing homes and died on buses [in the past]. We never lost one," says their daughter Tammy White, 41. "If the parish had issued a mandatory evacuation order, we would have gone. They didn't." White emphasizes the love her parents felt for their clients. When a family overlooked a birthday, Mabel would buy a card and write a message like, "Mommy, I'm thinking of you." Sal, White says, "knew what each of them drank, how many sugars they took in their coffee."

The younger Manganos also cared deeply about the home's residents. After the storm, White recalls, her brother Sal Jr. was headed to the roof to make repairs when he saw a 6-ft. wall of water rushing toward the home. Inside, the Manganos and staffers scrambled to secure the seniors' safety. Sedonia Augustus, a St. Rita's employee, described to the court how she was instructed to take people out of their wheelchairs and place them on plastic-wrapped mattresses. Tanner, 22, Sal Jr.'s son, blew out the windows with gunshots so those trapped inside could float free as the water rose to within inches of the single-story home's ceilings in 20 minutes. "Our children lost 35 grandmas and grandpas," says a tearful White. "My family is being prosecuted for doing the best they could."

The Gallodoros also did the best they could that day. After Cheryl learned that St. Rita's had not been evacuated, she placed a frantic call to her brother Steve, 57, an on-duty firefighter who stayed behind when his family decamped to Shreveport. Steve got into a boat, she says, but as he wended toward St. Rita's he was unable to ignore the cries for help coming from rooftops. "By the time he did get there," she says, "it was too late."

Two years on, Cheryl remains haunted by an image of her father in the flooding nursing home. "He would have taken the gulp of water in," she says, crying. "He would have been aware of everything." Whatever the outcome of the criminal trial, Cheryl plans to press ahead with a civil lawsuit, one of 34 filed against the Manganos. "It's not about the money," she says. "It's about making sure these people never take care of another elderly person again."

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