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Judge acquits caregiver in 2019 vinegar death in Spokane

A former caregiver charged in connection with the 2019 poisoning death of a developmentally disabled woman has been acquitted of third degree felony assault.

Fikirte T. Aseged, 44, mistakenly gave cleaning vinegar instead of colonoscopy prep medicine to her 64-year-old client Marion Wilson, who later died.

Aseged showed no reaction as Spokane County Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke rendered his verdict Thursday through an Ethiopian language interpreter.

“This was a tragedy. It should not have happened,” Clarke said in announcing the acquittal. The judge said that while Aseged’s actions met the definition of criminal negligence, he could not find the vinegar was wielded as a weapon — a requirement for conviction based on a prior Supreme Court finding.

“The court is restrained by the reasoning of the Supreme Court and I will follow what I believe to be that reasoning in this case,” Clarke said.

Aseged, who waived her right to a jury trial, was charged last year by the Washington state Attorney General’s office. According to the investigation, Aseged confused the bottle of vinegar with the bottle of GoLYTELY solution when she and a fellow caregiver awakened Wilson at 3 A.M. to take the second half of her prep medication.

The next morning at her colonoscopy appointment, Wilson started having difficulty breathing. She was taken to a nearby emergency room where she subsequently died. An autopsy determined that the cleaning-strength vinegar had inflamed and killed the tissue in Wilson’s esophagus, stomach and small bowel, resulting in her death.

“I assumed it was the same … I just grabbed the bottle, I was rushing,” Aseged reportedly told state investigators.

According to the judge, Wilson had a cognitive level similar to that of a young child and would generally follow the direction of her caregivers.

The Northwest News Network first reported on Wilson’s death in 2020 as part of a series of stories investigating Washington state’s practice of contracting out community-based care for people with developmental disabilities. The industry, known as supported living, generally relies on a low-paid workforce with high turnover.

Aseged was employed by Aacres Washington, a Spokane-based company that in 2018 had taken over the care of clients like Wilson from its sister company, SL Start, after the state decertified SL Start for a “history of serious … non-compliance with the law and regulations.”

At the time, the legal advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, in a letter to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), said it had “grave concerns about an unqualified provider continuing to deliver services.”

Following Wilson’s death, an investigation by DSHS found that Aacres had failed to take a number of steps to protect Wilson. That investigation also found that 18 Aacres employees did not immediately report Wilson’s death as required by law. The state has since cancelled its contracts with Aacres to serve clients in Spokane County.

Last December, Aacres agreed to pay Wilson's estate $2.5 million as compensation for pain and suffering. The company did not admit to wrongdoing, according to a copy of the settlement released by the Attorney General's office.

Aacres, which still operates elsewhere in the state, is now in the process of being sold to a Minnesota-based company.

Aseged’s acquittal followed a four-day trial in May. Before issuing his verdict on Thursday, Judge Clarke noted the case was unusual because there had not been a police investigation. Instead, the attorney general brought the assault charge following an investigation by the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Division.

Clarke also noted that on the night Aseged gave Wilson the vinegar, she was 13 hours into a 16-hour double-shift.

In a statement Thursday evening, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said: “My office is still reviewing this decision and our options. We will continue to act as a watchdog against the abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults.”

Aseged’s attorney, Derek Reid, said in an email that his client, who no longer works as a caregiver, is “relieved by the outcome.”

“Ms. Aseged is grateful for the Court’s verdict and appreciates the well-reasoned ruling,” Reid wrote. “This was a tragedy, but not a crime.” [Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network]