Operator of Missouri Group Home Where 10 Died in Fire is Convicted Felon

The owner of a Missouri group home for the elderly and mentally ill where a fire killed 10 people was a felon who under state law should not have been running such a facility.

Robert Joseph Dupont, 61, was convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud in 2003 for his part in a scheme to bilk the federal Medicare program by steering patients from group homes he owned, including the one in Anderson gutted by fire early Monday, to hand-picked doctors. Those doctors, in exchange, falsely certified that the patients needed home health services from two companies Dupont owned or co-owned, according to federal records.

Dupont was sentenced to 21 months at the Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas, followed by three years of supervised release. Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected Dupont's efforts to persuade the court to vacate that conviction.

According to state law, as a convicted felon in a crime involving a health care facility, he is not allowed to be an "operator" or "principal" in a Missouri long-term care facility.

But in a 2004 federal bankruptcy petition, Dupont listed his occupation as executive director of the Joplin-based group home operator River of Life Ministries Inc., a position he said he had held for more than three years.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which licensed the facility, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Records filed with the Missouri secretary of state show Dupont and his wife, LaVerne, own property and buildings where Joplin group homes sit, with River of Life Ministries as the licensed operator. Robert Dupont was listed as a ministries' officer in the group's 2002 articles of incorporation.

His wife remains listed — twice — as an officer of River of Life Ministries in the group's 2006 secretary of state's filing.

State investigators were treating the fire that broke out early Monday as a crime, but not ruling out the possibility of an accident.

Residents of one of the ministries' four group homes around Joplin say Dupont is a regular presence at the charity's offices. He was also inside the ministries' headquarters Monday afternoon as state investigators questioned him, other employees and survivors of the deadly fire.

On Tuesday, workers were installing new windows at the Joplin group home adjacent to the ministries' headquarters, a building that had previously been cited by state inspectors for fire code violations.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol identified eight of the victims: Amy Brown, 37; Nathan Fisher, 52; Patricia Henson, 54; Brian Rudnick, 33; Don Schorzman, 57; Alta Lemons, 74; Isaiah Joyce, 25; and Glen Taff, an employee of the facility whose age was not released. Highway Patrol spokesman Jason Clark said the victims were all residents of Anderson, but their original hometowns were unknown.

The patrol withheld the names of the other two victims pending notification of relatives.

According to McDonald County Corner B.J. Goodwin the families of the dead were primarily from southwest Missouri and nearby towns in Arkansas and Kansas.

Goodwin said it appeared most the victims had been asleep when the fire broke out, noting they were found dressed in bed clothes and without shoes.

"It appears they all died of smoke inhalation," Goodwin told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Clark said it appeared the fire started somewhere at the north end of the building, but he declined to say anything about the possible cause or any other details, saying the blaze was still under investigation. John and Jane McLaughlin, whose daughter was a resident injured in the fire, said that part of the house was used as a TV room.

State Fire Marshall Randy Cole said Tuesday no new details about the origin of the fire had emerged.

Whether the victims died of smoke inhalation or fire and whether they all were asleep at the time of the blaze also were under investigation, Gov. Matt Blunt said Monday after being briefed at the scene.

"We're not saying it is definitely a crime scene, but we are treating it as if it is and trying to determine if the fire was set by somebody who had a nefarious motive," he said.

The patrol said 33 residents and two employees/caregivers — a husband and wife — were present when the fire started. The blaze injured about two dozen people and reduced the privately run Anderson Guest House to a skeleton of cinder blocks. The tragedy stunned its namesake city, a former railroad town of about 1,800 people tucked in the Ozark hills about 35 miles south of Joplin.

John and Jane McLaughlin, from nearby Noel, had placed their daughter, Jesse, in the home about a year ago and had never really considered the danger of fire.

"We'd pick her up once in a while and take her out, but we never really never investigated the place or anything," John McLaughlin said.

The couple said their 41-year-old daughter was in a Springfield hospital Tuesday being treated for smoke inhalation and burns to her hands and face.

Jane McLaughlin said that although her daughter was hooked up to a breathing machine and couldn't talk, "You know, she was so lucky."

Eighteen people were taken to hospitals and seven were treated at the scene. By Tuesday morning, all those who were injured were either in good or fair condition or had been treated and released.

Investigators from the state fire marshal's office, Highway Patrol and Department of Public Safety, with assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, returned to the fire scene Tuesday, sifting through rubble as rain fell.

The home had fire alarms but no sprinklers, said Assistant Fire Marshal Greg Carrell.

"I saw the front door blow open with fire," said neighbor Steven Spears, 47, who was watching TV and saw the blaze erupt through security cameras outside his home.

Dupont issued a statement Monday expressing sadness and saying all displaced residents were being cared for with the help of local agencies.

"This is a very tragic situation that has saddened all of us at Joplin River of Life Ministries," he said.

The Anderson fire was believed to be the deadliest in Missouri since a blaze in 1979 killed 25 at care home in Farmington. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the nation's deadliest fire in a facility for older adults since 1950 was at the Katie Jane Nursing Home in Warrenton, where 72 people were killed in 1957.