The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nurse charged with sexual assault after woman in incapacitated state gave birth

Nathan Sutherland appeared in a Phoenix courtroom on charges of sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman who unexpectedly gave birth at Hacienda HealthCare. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Police have charged a male nurse with sexual assault and abuse of a vulnerable adult less than a month after a woman in an incapacitated state unexpectedly gave birth at a health-care facility in Phoenix.

The man was identified as Nathan Sutherland, 36, a licensed nurse who was at least partly responsible for the woman’s care at Hacienda HealthCare.

Authorities obtained a search warrant compelling Sutherland to give a DNA sample Tuesday morning. A few hours later, he was in handcuffs.

The birth — and the sexual assault that must have preceded it — cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

The 29-year-old woman, who gave birth a few days after Christmas, was a special — and especially dangerous — case: She had been in a persistent incapacitated state since 1992, when she was just 3.

Phoenix police Sgt. Tommy Thompson told reporters Wednesday that officers are still investigating whether Sutherland may have assaulted other people at Hacienda HealthCare. Sutherland had worked at the facility since 2011, but investigators don’t know whether he was an employee or a contractor — or whether he simultaneously worked at other facilities, too.

Phoenix police arrested 36-year-old Nathan Sutherland, a nurse at Hacienda Healthcare facility, for impregnating a woman who was in a vegetative state. (Video: Reuters)

‘We had no idea she was pregnant’: 911 call details woman giving birth in vegetative state

“From the minute we first became aware of the crime, we have virtually worked nonstop, seven days a week, to resolve this case,” Police Chief Jeri Williams said in announcing the arrest Wednesday morning.

Sutherland’s bond was set at $500,000, according to a probable cause statement, and he will be subjected to supervision restrictions and electronic monitoring if he posts it. The Associated Press reports that defense attorney David Gregan requested lower bond, citing the fact that Sutherland does not have a criminal record.

“There’s no direct evidence that Mr. Sutherland has committed these acts,” Gregan said, according to the AP. “I know at this point there’s DNA. But he will have a right to his own DNA expert.”

The probable cause statement further stated that Sutherland “worked around the victim, treated her on numerous occasions and thus had direct access to her for an extended period of time.” The statement also said he declined to speak with detectives about his involvement in the incident.

Important and difficult questions remain, authorities said. Investigators want to know as much about Sutherland’s work history as possible. Thompson said investigators are leaving it up to families to decide whether they want their incapacitated loved ones to be tested for signs of sexual assault.

It’s unclear what, if anything, other employees knew about the alleged assault.

“We’re asking people who have any information to come forward,” Thompson said. “If they’ve got information, we would like to get that information."

The investigation has already brought sweeping consequences for Hacienda HealthCare, a facility that started in the 1960s as Hacienda de los Angeles, or “the dwelling of the angels.”

Chief executive Bill Timmons resigned after the patient gave birth, and Arizona officials are reevaluating the state’s contract with the facility.

In a statement Wednesday, Hacienda HealthCare said every member of the organization was “troubled beyond words to think that a licensed practical nurse could be capable of seriously harming a patient.”

The facility said Sutherland had undergone an extensive background check when he was hired and that it has since increased security measures to ensure patient safety.

“Once again, we offer an apology and send our deepest sympathies to the client and her family, to the community and to our agency partners at every level,” the statement read.

One doctor who cared for the woman resigned, according to the Associated Press, and another was suspended.

The woman’s family also disputed earlier reports that the woman was in a comatose or vegetative state. Her parents described her as intellectually disabled, according to the AP — a result of seizures she suffered during childhood.

While she does not speak, her parents say, their daughter can respond to sound and can make facial gestures. The woman also has some mobility in her limbs, head and neck, the AP reports.

Especially troubling for many was the fact that a staff full of medical professionals did not realize the patient was pregnant until she was giving birth — a detail stated by a flummoxed nurse who placed a dramatic 911 call on the day of the birth.

“The baby’s turning blue! Baby’s turning blue!” the nurse screamed as she urged the paramedics to come faster. “We’re not prepared for this.”

But Thompson, the police sergeant, conveyed some positive news about the baby, who appears to be in good health.

“The baby, I am told, is doing quite well,” Thompson said Wednesday. Police said the mother was also healthy following the birth. “We can’t always choose how we come into this life, but we as a community can choose to love this child.”

Read more:

The risky surgery to remove a woman’s 132-pound tumor that grew by 10 pounds every week

A boy’s basketball-size tumor was slowly killing him. He died days after doctors removed it.

A gunshot destroyed her face. A rare surgery just gave her a new one.

Teen camper wakes up to ‘crunching noise’ — and discovers his head is inside bear’s mouth

A woman with a transplanted uterus just gave birth — a first for the U.S.