At 88, Vonnie Gidio had lived a full life. She’d married twice, had five children, worked as a manager in a Lake Tahoe casino where she’d met the likes of entertainers like Elvis Presley and Tom Jones.

She still drove herself, was in good health despite a lifetime of smoking and wanted to keep living on her own.

So in February 2020, her family found her a $1,640 a month studio in The Landing at Carmichael, an independent living center for older adults situated on Fair Oaks Boulevard a half block from Carmichael Park and its weekly farmers market.

The facility had been recommended by A Place For Mom, and the set-up seemed ideal to her daughter, Gina Petracek, who was working in Rancho Cordova at the time and whose daughter, Crystal Lopez, lived just five minutes away.

“Live life freely, while knowing that care and assistance are there for when you need them,” The Landing’s website promises potential residents.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, both women were able to visit Gidio regularly, bring her groceries and be comforted by the fact that an evening meal was being delivered to her second-floor apartment every day around 4 p.m.

An unanswered knock on the door

Then, one Saturday morning in November, Petracek’s mother didn’t answer the door when she came by to take her grocery shopping.

“I knocked again, and she didn’t answer,” Petracek said. “So I went down and found a maintenance worker about three doors down, and I said, ‘Can you please open my mother’s door?’”

The worker told Petracek that she wasn’t supposed to be at the door without permission, and that she couldn’t open Gidio’s door.

“There’s something wrong…,” Petracek told the worker. “And I yelled at her, and I got right in her face and I said, ‘Open the door,’ and so she did.

“And I found her dead. She was laying on the floor with her head in the corner, and blood all over, and I said, ‘Call 911.’ And the girl said, ‘No, I can’t do that, I have to call my manager.’”

Gidio had a gash on her forehead above one eye. Her hair was matted with blood under her nightcap, and a bloody handprint was on the wall near an emergency pull cord alarm next to the bed, one of two inside the apartment.

The pull cord was broken, and remnants from her Wednesday night meal were strewn about the floor of the normally neat apartment.

On a table just inside the front door, the meals for Thursday and Friday still sat — untouched — inside square, white Styrofoam containers, one with a piece of cake wrapped in plastic sitting atop it.

But how did Gidio die? And when?

Even now, five months after her death, her family doesn’t know the answers.

Altum Senior Living, the Bozeman, Montana, company that manages The Landing, says staffers did not report the pull cord alarm being triggered in Gidio’s room.

“Though in-room pull cords are one of the senior-friendly convenience features our building includes, we do urge all residents to call 911 as their first response in case of emergency and make it clear to them on move-in that a staff member will not necessarily be available at all times to respond to the pull cord,” Tod Murray, Altum’s president, wrote in an email response to questions from The Bee. “That said, we are aware of questions about this specific resident’s pull cord, which we have tested and confirmed to be working.”

Murray also wrote that there is no way to tell when Gidio was last seen alive by workers at The Landing.

“Unfortunately, stating the last time the resident was seen by staff before an incident four months ago would be pure speculation at this point,” Murray wrote.

Because The Landing is an independent living facility — essentially an apartment complex for older residents — there are no state licensing requirements or inspections.

‘There’s no state oversight’

“You don’t have any place to file a complaint, which is a problem because there’s no oversight in these kinds of places,” said Carole Herman, founder and president of the Sacramento-based Foundation Aiding the Elderly, or FATE. “If it’s not licensed, there’s no state oversight.”

That left Petracek and Lopez on their own in trying to find out what happened inside apartment 422.

The effort began with Petracek having to race down to her car after she found her mother’s body and grabbing her cell phone to call 911. The maintenance worker who opened the door wouldn’t make the call, Petracek said.

Paramedics responded, and Petracek asked them to pick her mother up off the floor and place her in her bed.

“And I said, ‘What do we do now? Call the police?’

“And they said, ‘No, we feel it was natural causes.’”

Petracek objected, but says the paramedics asked if Gidio had prearranged funeral plans, and when she told them yes they said, “Well, at this point you just call the mortuary and they’ll come and get her.”

But Petracek and her daughter weren’t satisfied.

02_SAC_PK_DEATH_0615.JPG
Crystal Lopez and her mother Gina Petracek speak on Monday, April 5, 2021 in Shingle Springs about the blunt force trauma death of Petracek’s mother Vonnie Gidio at The Landing, a Carmichael independent senior living center, in November 2020. Paul Kitagaki Jr. [email protected]

Gidio was not on any medications, had no obvious health problems and regularly saw her doctor every three months.

She had been to the emergency room at San Juan Mercy the Monday before she was found dead, complaining of a stiff neck and, after a series of tests, was told that she had slept wrong and simply had a stiff neck. She was sent home.

Gidio was upset because the hospital visit meant she had to quarantine and couldn’t go downstairs to smoke. But there was no indication of any illness, her family says.

Lopez last saw her grandmother Tuesday evening when she went to check on her, and she rushed back to the apartment Saturday after getting a call from her mother.

Lopez took photos of the apartment, including the meals sitting on the table, the broken alarm cord and a shot of her dead grandmother and the gash above her left eye.

Daughter paid for autopsy

And Petracek paid $400 to the Sacramento County coroner to conduct an autopsy.

The results came back Dec. 2.

Gidio’s cause of death was listed as “blunt force injury of head.” She also was found to have bruising on her left shoulder, both elbows and her right buttock, the autopsy states, along with “early decomposed changes.”

The death certificate, dated Dec. 21, says “the decedent had an unwitnessed fall.”

But the lack of any investigation — other than their own — frustrates the family.

“Nobody ever investigated it at all, nobody,” Petracek said. “Even after it was ‘blunt force trauma,’ it was kind of swept away, like, you know, she was 88.”

Murray, Altum’s president, wrote in an email that because the family called 911 and first responders came to the apartment “there was no need for us to call the Sheriff’s Office.”

“We understand why the public may be concerned when hearing about a recent tragic passing at our community, and though it is policy to not share specifics relating to any resident we would like to say what we can to reassure others,” Murray added. “It is important to note that The Landing at Carmichael is an independent living community, not an assisted living or ‘board and care’ facility which would provide regular assistance with activities of daily living or medical care to residents.

“Our residents live independently, primarily still drive, some have jobs, and many take trips regularly or choose to be very private and not participate in the group activities or other offerings. Because we are an independent living, not a licensed care facility, our staff is not legally permitted to provide care and supervision to residents.

“This is something that residents and families are made aware of before moving in. We do maintain staff on site in our office, as well as nighttime security, to assist with issues and help keep the building secure. Cooperating with first responders is a regular part of doing business as a senior living community, and the proper authorities are made aware of any incident occurring on site.”

He also suggested that it is not unusual for meals delivered to residents to sometimes go untouched, like the two inside Gidio’s apartment.

“Due to COVID regulations food delivery was being done by either placing meals on a tray outside or just inside the door threshold to prevent transmission, with separate employees handling drop-off and pick-up to further minimize the potential for spread of disease,” Murray wrote “It’s not unusual for some residents to leave delivered food untouched as they live fully independently, have at least a refrigerator if not full kitchens in their units, and when plans change will often choose to prepare something else or eat out instead.”

Did she hit her head days before she was found?

The family believes the most likely scenario is that Gidio had gotten up in the night and somehow fell, perhaps hitting her head on one of the bedposts Wednesday night, two days before she was found dead.

But they still don’t understand how someone dropping off meals twice didn’t call out to her and venture a few feet inside to check on her, and why the alarm cord did not summon help.

“In the big scene of things, it just seems like an abundance of neglect,” Lopez said. “This is an independent care facility, and you do have to prove that you can completely take care of yourself on your own.

“And you’re told you have security on site, you have these precautionary measures to make sure we know who’s on the campus, the facility, and you see these emergency pull cords in the room.

“The whole point was, we didn’t want grandma to fall and not be found.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.

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