A former Arizona male nurse pleaded guilty Thursday to sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman roughly three years ago at Hacienda Healthcare, a long-term care facility in Phoenix, where she later gave birth.
Defendant Nathan Sutherland also entered a guilty plea to an "abuse of a vulnerable adult" charge stemming from his treatment of the woman.
As part of a plea agreement, the sentencing range for the sexual assault charge is between 5 ¼ and 10 years in prison, while the abuse of a vulnerable adult charge brings lifetime probation.
Another former Hacienda nurse blasted the plea deal as "a slap on the wrist," and said other Hacienda colleagues were "furious" about it.
"This man did a heinous crime and he's getting a slap on the wrist and it's not right and everyone I talked to that worked at Hacienda, they're furious. None of us can believe that's all he's going to get is a slap on the wrist," said Davena Ballard, who was a nurse at a Hacienda-affiliated program, according to KPHO-TV of Phoenix.
"This man did a heinous crime and he's getting a slap on the wrist and it's not right."
Sutherland was arrested after police conducted a DNA test showing he was the father of the patient's baby, KPHO-TV of Phoenix reported. The patient was in the long-term care facility after a near-drowning incident left her in a vegetative state.
Following Sutherland's guilty pleas, Perry Petrilli, chief executive of Hacienda Healthcare, expressed relief.
"We have cooperated in every way possible with law enforcement and investigators — and now we hope the judge will sentence Sutherland appropriately given the severity of his crimes," Petrilli said. "As ever, our hearts are with the victim and her family. May these final steps in the legal process help them find peace."
The pregnancy was discovered in December 2018 when an employee at Hacienda was changing the garments of the victim – age 29 at the time – and noticed she was in the process of delivering a child. Employees told police they had no idea the woman was pregnant.
The surprise prompted reviews by state agencies and led to the resignations of Hacienda’s chief executive and one of the victim’s doctors. It also highlighted safety concerns for severely disabled or incapacitated patients.
A lawsuit from the victim’s parents alleged that Sutherland had cared for their daughter on hundreds of occasions from 2012 through 2018, despite promises from the state that only women would tend to her. The state has contracts with companies like Hacienda to provide services to people with developmental disabilities.
Many of Sutherland’s encounters with the patient allegedly occurred overnight, when fewer staff members and visitors were around, according to an expert on behalf of the victim's family.
The victim lived at Hacienda for 26 years, until the child’s birth. Her medical conditions stemmed from a brain disorder that caused motor and cognitive impairments and vision loss. She was also left with no functional use of her limbs.
Loss of license
Sutherland was fired by Hacienda after his arrest and has since given up his nursing license. He was facing a maximum of 14 years in prison prior to the plea deal, FOX 10 of Phoenix reported.
A judge approved a $15 million settlement against a doctor who cared for the woman for 26 years while she lived at Hacienda. The doctor’s insurer has argued it has no obligation to pay that amount.
The state of Arizona, which contracts with companies like Hacienda to provide services to people with developmental disabilities, settled last summer for $7.5 million.
Sutherland is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 4.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.