ASHVILLE, Ala. – The government sued last fall to close an assisted living facility where nine elderly, disabled people lived in two double-wide mobile homes parked in a valley miles from the nearest town. Yet the facility was still open April 27, when a tornado smacked the mobile homes and killed four residents along with the owner, his daughter-in-law and 7-year-old granddaughter.
The state filed suit because Shoal Creek Valley Assisted Living didn't have a license — the fact that it was illegally operating in mobile homes wasn't even mentioned in the complaint. But months passed, winter turned to spring, and the place remained open. Then came the day tornadoes killed more than 200 people across Alabama.
One of those tornadoes, an EF-4 with winds as strong as 180 mph, wiped out the homes in a direct hit, leaving only twisted metal, splintered wood and seven bodies scattered across a horse pasture. That nondescript plot of land about 45 miles northeast of Birmingham was the site of the South's largest cluster of deaths on that epic day of misery.
While other cities and counties suffered more total fatalities in the twisters last month, state emergency management officials across the Southeast said they know of no other single location where more people died in the April outbreak. However, the destruction was so total in some places that it's impossible to determine exactly where some people died, and other victims remain hospitalized.
No one will ever know if the seven people who died in the assisted living center would have survived in a more substantial structure, but 71 patients escaped without injury when another tornado struck the brick-and-masonry La Rocca Nursing Home in Tuscaloosa about 90 minutes before Shoal Creek Valley's trailers were demolished.
This week in Missouri, a larger and more powerful tornado killed 10 residents and one worker when it reduced a Joplin nursing home to a pile of rubble. However, about 80 other residents survived, as did more than 100 at a nearby facility that was also heavily damaged.
Friends and family of the Alabama facility's owner, 56-year-old Ronnie Isbell, described him as loving and concerned, a man who dedicated much of his life to caring for the aged and infirm. Isbell filled a void in the rural area by taking Alzheimer's patients other places couldn't or wouldn't accept, they say.
"What was going on? Helping the elderly age with grace and dignity!" Kelly Ward, a relative who has served as a spokeswoman for the family, said in a message exchange through Facebook.
An attorney who represented Isbell, Charlie Robinson, conceded the business lacked the required state license and was operating illegally, but he denied that anyone died simply because it was located in mobile homes. Nearby brick homes were reduced to rubble, too, he said.
"If it was anything short of the situation room at the White House it would have been destroyed," Robinson said. He called Isbell one of the best people he's ever known.
Jim Callahan saw a different side of Isbell and his business. Callahan claims his mother was physically abused at Shoal Creek before she moved to another assisted living home last year.
"I don't see how (Isbell) could have loved those people," Callahan said. Even after Isbell's death, Callahan plans to go ahead with a lawsuit filed last year over the treatment of his mother.
Isbell first opened an assisted living facility with his now ex-wife in the 1970s in nearby Ragland, and about 20 years later he moved the center to Shoal Creek Valley, in St. Clair County. Not far from Neely Henry Lake, the narrow valley is sprinkled with a mix of farms, large brick-and-wood houses and mobile homes.
Court records show two nurses from the Alabama Department of Public Health knocked on the door at the assisted living center on June 3 to investigate a complaint. They said they found nine elderly residents, eight of whom had Alzheimer's disease and weren't able to walk, requiring skilled nursing care. They also found Isbell, who told the nurses he was the owner but didn't have a license.
Apparently unknown to the state — which was acting on a hospital's tip about a patient who developed bad bed sores at Shoal Creek Valley — Callahan's mother already had sued four months earlier claiming she had been mistreated at Isbell's home. Laverne Callahan, who was 83 when she died in February, had deep bed sores and a black eye when her son removed her from the mobile homes, he said.
Jim Callahan said the assisted living home cost his mother $1,500 a month, which ate up all her government checks plus additional money from him and his brother. He didn't like the idea of her living in a mobile home full of elderly, bedridden people in the tornado-prone Southeast, but he said he had little choice.
"It was something I had to accept because I couldn't afford anything else," he said. "I didn't like the situation."
With the Callahan lawsuit moving forward in state court, the State Board of Public Health sued to shut down Isbell's business in October. Robinson, Isbell's lawyer, was the son of the circuit judge assigned to the case, Charles E. Robinson.
Isbell asked a court to throw out the lawsuit, which he claimed was baseless for unspecified reasons, but the court didn't immediately rule. But with his son representing the defendant, Judge Robinson stepped aside from the case Jan. 31, more than three months after the state sued.
A new judge was appointed, but there wasn't another hearing set until May 12 — two weeks after the tornadoes killed Isbell; his daughter-in-law Tammy Isbell, who worked at the assisted living center; and her 7-year-old daughter, Leah. Today, three white crosses bearing their names stand on the property; a stuffed toy bear and a white bow hang on the locked gate.
Only four residents remained at the center by the time the tornado struck. Killed along with the Isbells were Sandra Pledger, 68; Mae Lovell, 97; Bertha Kage, 91; and Oberia Layton Ashley, 86.
Brick houses were leveled along with mobile homes in Shoal Creek Valley, and St. Clair County Coroner Dennis Russell said the destruction was staggering.
"Thirteen people died on that one road," he said.
Alice Parker, whose mother spent about four years at Isbell's home before dying there in November, said Shoal Creek provided excellent care and accepted her mom — a late-stage Alzheimer's patient prone to outbursts — when no one else would. Some things are more important than state approval, she said.
"I always thought Ronnie was my angel," she said Friday.
Isbell's lawyer said no one was forced to remain at Isbell's home, and their relatives knew the center was located in mobile homes. Despite Callahan's claims, Ronnie Isbell generally provided top-quality care, according to Robinson.
"It was the choice of the residents or the choice of their families to be there," he said.
Citing Isbell's death, the second judge dismissed the state's lawsuit against Shoal Creek Valley Assisted Living. Callahan's lawyer, Beverly Owen Barber, said she is moving ahead with the lawsuit against Isbell's estate over the treatment of Laverne Callahan, however.
"We're not going to allow it to be dismissed," Barber said.