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San Francisco sheriff admits errors made in search for woman found dead in hospital stairwell

MissingPatient.jpg

This photo shows Lynne Spalding, 57, a native of England who was found dead in a rarely used stairwell at San Francisco General Hospital last month.AP/David Perry & Associates

San Francisco sheriff's deputies did not conduct a campus-wide search for a missing hospital patient whose body was eventually found in a locked emergency stairwell until nine days after the woman disappeared from her room, the city's sheriff said Wednesday.

Breaking a monthlong silence about his department's handling of 57-year-old Lynne Spalding Ford's disappearance and eventual death, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi also revealed that his officers never searched about half of the stairwells at San Francisco General Hospital even after a supervisor ordered the stairwells checked.

"She could have been anyone's loved one, which is why the gravity of the situation is not lost on any of us," he said. "What happened to Miss Spalding Ford should not have happened to anyone."

The details arose from the department's internal investigation and chronology of its employees' actions from the time Spalding Ford went missing on Sept. 21 -- two days after she was admitted for treatment of a urinary tract infection -- and when a hospital engineer found her body on Oct. 8. The sheriff's department provides security at San Francisco General, the city's largest public hospital.

The investigation also details that there was early confusion over what the missing patient looked like. At first, Spalding Ford was reported as a black woman, and later a sheriff's department worker wrote that she was Asian. Spalding Ford was white.

Mirkarimi did not comment on the findings, saying he does not want to offer opinions on the case because it still is under investigation by San Francisco police, an independent auditor hired by the city and the California Department of Public Health, among others. At a news conference where he unveiled the chronology, the sheriff nonetheless apologized to Spalding Ford's family, which includes two adult children.

Although sheriff's deputies at the hospital did a "perimeter search" of San Francisco General's 24-acre campus within an hour after Spalding Ford disappeared, it was not until Sept. 30 that they attempted a more thorough search of the grounds, Mirkarimi said. A request for a broader search came at a meeting a sheriff's supervisor had with hospital staff members who included representatives of the "risk management" department, he said.

The next day, after it became clear that not all the stairwells used as fire exits had been searched, a supervisor ordered the stairwell searches to continue, yet "only about half the stairwells" ever were, he said.

Then, on Oct. 4, a hospital staff member told the sheriff's department that someone had reported seeing a body in a locked stairwell of the building where Spalding had been a patient. A sheriff's dispatcher told hospital officials the department would respond, but "there is no indication that any one was dispatched to that stairwell."

Haig Harris, a lawyer for Spalding Ford's family, attended the news conference and said afterward the timeline revealed "extraordinary indifference" to the missing patient and her safety.

"I asked (Mirkarimi) specifically if the stairwell where they found Lynne's body was searched and it seems to me that the answer to that is no," Harris said.

The sheriff's department's chronology also revealed that miscommunication hampered the search for Spalding Ford from the beginning. The hospital staff member who first contacted the sheriff's department about 40 minutes after the patient went missing described her as being black and wearing a hospital grown.

That night, a sheriff's department employee made a notation in the security unit's log book indicating that Spalding Ford was Asian. She actually was white and when she was found, she was wearing her own clothes.

The sheriff's account indicated there was also confusion at the beginning over whether the hospital considered Spalding Ford to be in any danger.

Mirkarimi says her doctor initially told the sheriff's department that she had been planning to discharge Spalding Ford when the patient went missing. During the same conversation, however, the doctor said Spalding Ford was "very confused and not safe to be out on her own."

Hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan confirmed that the person who first contacted the sheriff's department mischaracterized Spalding Ford's race.

"We don't know why, it is a puzzle," Kagan said. She added that the mistake was corrected the same day during later conversations between hospital workers and the sheriff's department.

Harris said he didn't know which was most disturbing -- that hospital employees provided an inaccurate description of Spalding Ford or that sheriff's department employees missed so many opportunities to find her.

"This is our public hospital. This puts our entire public at risk, if this is what happens if you go to the hospital in San Francisco," Harris said.

Authorities have ruled out foul play in Spalding Ford's disappearance. The San Francisco Medical Examiner has not yet released a cause of death or estimated how long she had been dead when her body was found.

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