From the outside, everything looked ordinary at Legend Gardens, an assisted living facility in Palm Desert, Wednesday afternoon. The sun was shining and bright pink bougainvillea bushes bloomed along one side of the building, but inside there was no one at reception.
A resident, using a walker, walked back and forth between the main room and the lobby, exercising for the day. A sign-up sheet and thermometer lay unattended next to an advertisement for Bayshire, another senior community, in Rancho Mirage.
About ten residents of Legend Gardens will be settling there over the next few weeks. The rest will be finding another place to go. They must all leave before January 2.
The California Department of Social Services, which oversees assisted living licensing, is shutting down the indebted company after months of trying to deal with its callous owner, Mark Hellickson. The property itself is slated for an auction on December 14.
Hellickson was basically MIA. He did not respond to calls, emails and texts from his staff or requests from the state social services department. He is said to have abandoned the building and, since last month, had stopped paying employees. The day before Thanksgiving, paychecks made out to all staff had been declined – insufficient funds in the account.
Since then, the already struggling establishment has been taken over by a temporary management company under contract with the state until its 32 residents find new accommodation.
Hellickson did not respond to requests for comment from The Desert Sun and the listed phone number for his real estate development company, Prospect Companies (Prospect LG LLC.), Has been disconnected. His most recent address is listed as an apartment in WaikÅloa, Hawaii.
But, despite jokes that he must have fallen into a volcano, staff seemed confident Hellickson was alive. A staff member said Hellickson recently posted about hiking the island and just this week someone using their account “liked” a family member’s post on Facebook.
No supervision in the establishment
Community relations director Carrie MacDonald said she has been the facility’s informal administrator since September, but official documents say she may have filled intermittently for months since March. MacDonald has been doing the payroll by hand since the end of the summer, staying until 8 or even 10 p.m. to do it.
Although she tried to contact him, MacDonald said she never had a conversation about it with her boss. The employees have not been paid for a month, she said.
MacDonald, who typically has a lot of interactions with families as the establishment’s sales and marketing manager, is not a certified administrator. Administrator certification is required in California, and facilities that do not have one can have their licenses revoked. The California Department of Social Services is supposed to be notified within 10 days if there are any administrator changes – Legend Gardens has failed to do so.
Between September 22 and November 29, the establishment was fined $ 32,000 in civil penalties. Many of the charges relate to failing to make corrections and not providing the state with information regarding his administrator as well as his issues with utility companies.
An island of unpaid bills, growing debt
The state assessor was informed during his Nov. 29 visit to the facility that checks made out to 33 employees had been returned for insufficient funds. While there, the assessor learned that TGG, the accounting firm of Legend Gardens, had ceased operations with the property and Hellickson. The company had attempted to contact Hellickson to discuss the payroll issue, but received no response.
Legend Gardens hadn’t paid its mortgage or utility bills for months.
In May, the company had an outstanding balance of $ 7,934 in electric bills and had received a notice warning them of a potential stoppage of services due to non-payment.
On June 22, the establishment’s mortgage lender emailed the company, writing “We all agreed that we would extend your foreclosure sale date by approximately 90 days if you pay $ 143,479.65” , according to official documents.
The California Department of Social Services said Legend Gardens received a notice on Aug. 8 that its water would be shut off unless the bill was paid within 10 days. The water service was not interrupted, but the facility again received a similar notice on October 13.
On September 8, the facility’s dumpster was overflowing, surrounded by several additional bags of garbage, according to the observations of a licensing program analyst assessing the facility for the state. During their visit, staff said their trash can service ceased on August 27 due to non-payment.
Southern California States Edison Provided to Auditor beginning of October indicated that the facility had recurring overdue notifications and significant previously unpaid balances. There were also overdue balances for phone bills from October and December 2020 – more recent statements for phone service were not provided to the auditor, state documents show.
The October 5 audit found that the company did not have an adequate financial plan to ensure it could cover its operating expenses. Between October 2020 and May 2021, bank statements showed the company had insufficient recurring funds and / or negative and low balances. There was not enough income to support the residents he already had, nor sufficient cash reserves.
The auditor found that Hellickson did not keep financial records and / or submit them at the request of the Crown. Hellickson did not respond to any of the auditor’s inquiries.
In its order to shut down the facility, the state concluded that Hellickson should not be the majority owner of, or operate, another residential facility for the rest of its life based on the allegations.
Residents are waiting for new homes
Robert Evans, 59, is the youngest resident of Legend Gardens. He has lived there for about seven years, and on Wednesday was disgusted by the alleged actions of the owner of the establishment.
âI don’t know how a man can go in and buy an organization like this without realizing that we are real human beings – not all dollar signs,â Evans said. When he learned that the staff were working without pay, he said he was grateful but would have understood if they had left.
âIt’s because they love us,â he said. The staff even took it upon themselves to organize the Thanksgiving dinner for the residents, and he said it was the best he has ever had there.
âFor a lot of these seniors, it’s been tough,â Evans said. “I keep telling them I’ll be fine.”
Evans will be one of the residents to relocate in Bayshire to Rancho Mirage.
âWe try to match the rates as best we can,â said Lena Angell, business development manager at Bayshire. “It’s not fair that their home is taken away from them.”
Angell worked with Brett Shepard with Omni Senior Services to help understand how to get residents into new housing.
âOne of Omni’s goals is to bring as many residents as possible to the same facility to keep them close to their friends,â said Shepard, calling Legend Gardens a âtight-knitâ community. “Their friends are an extremely important part of their life right now.”
However, different care needs and budgets are a complicating factor, Shepard said. Some residents of Legend Gardens have been granted grandfathering at lower rates that are no longer available in the market, he said.
MacDonald didn’t seem too worried about finding new homes for the residents. She said most would likely be out before the Christmas holidays.
Uncertain future for caregivers, staff
This was Naomi Saavedra’s first job as a caregiver and medical technician. She’s been there for three years and on Tuesday she said she didn’t expect to love him so much.
âIt’s like they’re your second family,â she said.
âMost of the residents were quite upset about it just because it was their home and they were happy there,â Saavedra added. âThey didn’t want to leave.
The temporary management company that took over Legend Gardens, R2R Ventures, LLC, also took over the payroll and pays staff more than they previously earned. Staff were told that they would receive a state handover “soon”.
But, when her check rebounded before Thanksgiving, Saavedra said she was charged an overdraft fee. His bank only agreed to give up 50%.
âIt’s better than nothing,â she said.
Many employees have already been approached by other establishments in the hope of hiring them. At present, however, Saavedra and MacDonald have said they are focused on taking care of the roughly 23 residents who remained on Wednesday.
Editor’s Note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.
May 2020: ‘I was trapped’: Coronavirus in California nursing homes
Health journalist Ema Sasic contributed to this story.
Maria Sestito covers aging issues in the Coachella Valley. She is also a member of the Report for America Corps. Follow her on Twitter @RiaSestito, on Instagram @RiaSestito_Reporter or email her at [email protected]