GULFPORT — The first thing officers noticed in Kathryn Ashe's apartment were the roaches, hundreds of them, scurrying on the floor, walls, and furniture.
Then they spotted her body on the living room floor. After interviewing her former roommates, Gulfport police arrested Debra Poulos and her daughter-in-law Jennifer on charges of abuse or neglect of an aged or disabled person.
But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office recently dropped the case. Ashe died of natural causes, prosecutors concluded, and the pair had no legal responsibility to care for her.
In fact, prosecutors learned that when the Poulos women moved out, Ashe refused to go with them. She chose to live by herself, despite her ill health and abysmal living conditions.
"The older lady didn't want to leave with them," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. "Maybe there should be some sense of responsibility, but there's nothing to support us going (forward) criminally."
The 66-year-old woman's death raises a troubling issue for Florida's aging population: What can be done to help seniors who may be endangering themselves by living alone?
"There are situations in our local area where there are people who are extremely frail and can't manage self-care at all," said Beverly Burton of the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. "It's not only a question of medical treatment, it's a question if we can ensure that at least they are evaluated to see if they are eligible for some in-home support."
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On June 24, Gulfport police received a call about a possible death at 5320 29th Ave S. After firefighters wedged the door open, officers ventured in and found piles of garbage and food containers on the floor, the kitchen countertops, and the sink. Mold covered the inside of the refrigerator. The A/C unit was broken. The report noted that the home was "unlivable."
"There were feces and used adult diapers on the floor," an officer wrote in a report, "and an estimate of thousands of roaches throughout the residence where hundreds of them could be seen at any given time even with the lights on."
After finding Ashe's body next to a recliner, police turned their attention to the 911 callers: Debra Poulos, 62, and Jennifer Poulos, 42.
The older Poulos told police she met Ashe in 1999. They lived together in the two-bedroom apartment with Jennifer Poulos' 4-year-old son. But after the apartment became infested with roaches and the A/C broke down, they moved out on June 10.
Debra Poulos said she tried to get Ashe to go with them, but she refused. She said Ashe made them promise they wouldn't take her to a nursing home. The women visited Ashe and brought her food.
Then on June 23, Debra Poulos said she found Ashe on the floor but didn't call for help, leaving because she didn't want to miss her bus. Debra and Jennifer Poulos returned the next day. Ashe was cold to the touch. After speaking to a pastor, they called 911.
Both women were arrested on felony charges of abuse or neglect of an aged or disabled person. Jennifer Poulos faced an additional charge of child neglect.
Police said the Department of Children and Families spoke to Ashe in 2015 and found that she was hard of hearing, a diabetic, and had a history of strokes. Ashe declined DCF services and refused to go to a nursing home.
Gulfport police Sgt. Thomas Woodman said the two women were arrested because Florida law defines a caregiver as a person "who has been entrusted with or has assumed responsibility for the care … of an elderly person or disabled adult." That can include adult household members.
"They admitted to me during the interview they were in a caregiver role," Woodman said. "They provided her all of the nutrition she needed, they had to help feed her, bathe her."
But the criminal case against the women crumbled, Bartlett said, when an autopsy showed Ashe died of natural causes: complications from diabetes and heart disease. The State Attorney's Office also determined the Poulos women were also not legally bound to care for her because they moved out and Ashe wanted to stay. Charges were dropped in November.
The child neglect charge against Jennifer was also dropped, but her son is in foster care, DCF said. Neither Poulos could be reached for comment.
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Ashe's death highlights the legal challenges surrounding an elderly or sick person who refuses care. "It comes down many times to a really hard question: Is the person competent?" Burton said.
Only a court can determine if someone is legally incompetent. But if a person is competent, they can choose whether they want help or not. "Then everyone's hands are kind of tied," Burton said.
Then the only options are to call their doctor or file a self-neglect report with DCF.
"They can provide guidance on what to do and how to handle it because you can't force a person to take care of themselves without some legal mechanism," she said.
"You can cajole a person to go," Burton added, referring to Ashe's refusal to leave the apartment. "But it's very difficult unless you have some responsibility for them."
Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org.