Man who lived alone with rats awarded $8 million

SEATTLE — The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services has agreed to pay a developmentally disabled man $8 million for failing to check on him. It is the largest settlement of its kind in state history.

Vernon Gray lived with his parents in a simple frame home on Martin Luther King Way in Seattle.

When both his parents both died, Vernon stayed in the only house he ever knew. "He lived with her (his mother's) body for a while because he didn't know what to do," said Gray’s guardian, Channa Copeland.

Vernon, who is 64-years-old and has an IQ of 60, was left to fend for himself. "He couldn't pay his power, he couldn't pay his water. That all got shut off. So he'd been living, for probably 16 years or so, with no water or sewer or garbage or anything like that," said Copeland.

Neighbors said Vernon’s home became overrun with vermin. "We called it the rat house. I hate to say it and Vernon unfortunately was the innocent participant in that whole time. He couldn't help himself. We saw no one helping him.  He didn't cause any mischief to anybody," said neighbor Marty Liebowitz.

Vernon was vulnerable as he walked the streets by day, looking for food. The soft-spoken man found good food and a kind heart at Katy’s Corner Café at 20th and Union Street. “I love him. I don't think there's anyone who knows Vernon that doesn't love him," said Katy Leighton, of Kay’s Corner Café.

Members of Mount Zion Baptist Church regularly saw Vernon, dirty and hungry, pushing a shopping cart through Seattle’s Central District. “I know we kept Vernon alive and we kept Vernon with hope because he knew he had someplace to come where people cared about him and I wasn't the only one that cared about him," said church member Elma Horton.

Church members and neighbors contacted Adult Protective Services numerous times to tell them about the vulnerable man living in squalor. "Yet APS never came out. They never laid eyes on him. They never looked into it. They said it was too dangerous for them to go to, but not too dangerous for Vernon."

While Adult Protective Services sat on the sidelines, Vernon’s life became more precarious. He was beaten up and lost his eyesight.  Neighbors were worried about him.  "In Seattle, you never see a dog running the street without a leash. You never see a dog eating out of the garbage can. This society here cares more about animals than they do people," said neighbor Grace Williams.

In the basement, Vernon’s parents had stored tens of thousands of dollars in a suitcase. Without knowing how to pay the property taxes, the house went into foreclosure and was auctioned off. The suitcase filled with money disappeared. "There were a lot of people who really didn't do the right thing in the beginning and that is the sad part, just to continually see people just hurting him,” said Leighton.

For three years, while the new owners waited for a clear title, Vernon lived in the house with rats. But people who came his biggest predators, by claiming the $136,000 in excess proceeds from the sale. "There was an attorney and a man over in Eastern Washington who claimed to be relatives and opened up probate on his mother and then claimed those funds right before the three-year mark hit that they wouldn't be able to claim them anymore, thinking that nobody would ever notice. They stole it,” said Copeland.

When Vernon became physically unable to care for himself, he was taken to Harborview Medical Center. Copeland became his guardian and unraveled the rat’s nest of wrongdoing. “We got the money back,” said Copeland.

On behalf of Vernon, Copeland sued Adult Protective Services for failing to protect him. On Thursday, APS settled for $8 million. "I think that this was a horrific situation where there were a lot of chances for people to intervene and nobody did. He lost everything, everything he ever knew, everything he ever owned, everything he ever had," said Copeland.

Last week during a visit, neighbors welcomed Vernon back to the neighborhood. "I'm so glad you're back,” said Williams. Vernon has lived in the neighborhood since 1962 and Copeland would like for him to return with 24-hour care. “Oh, he's coming back. Yeah, he's coming back. I want to bring Vernon home. This is his home," said Copeland.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services sent KIRO 7 the following statement:

"Confidentiality laws prevent DSHS from discussing details of Adult Protective Services (APS) cases, but the agency is sorry for what happened to Mr. Gray and hopes this settlement can improve his quality of life.

"This was a system-wide failure. DSHS has made several changes that will improve its response to complex cases like this one. The agency has received funding to hire at least 100 additional APS investigators over the next fiscal year statewide and 80 more the following year.

"It helped create the recently launched King County Multidisciplinary Team that consists of APS, the King County Prosecutor’s Office, law enforcement agencies and area hospitals. The team now meets regularly and the goal is to create a collaborative approach that is more responsive to an individual’s needs.

"Adult abuse continues to skyrocket throughout Washington state. Adult Protective Services received more than 60,000 reports of alleged abuse last year, compared to 19,000 in 2012. We hope this case will not deter people from seeking help, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-866-ENDHARM."

More news from KIRO 7


Comments on this article