A 90-year-old woman’s death this week is the first alligator-related fatality in state history, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Bonnie Walker was reported missing Wednesday morning from Brookdale Charleston, the West Ashley assisted-living facility where she was a resident. Her body was found in a retention pond behind the property a few hours later.
The Charleston County Coroner’s Office ruled her death accidental. The cause was “multiple sharp and blunt force injuries” consistent with those made by an alligator.
Robert McCullough, a spokesman for DNR, confirmed Friday afternoon that the case was the first time an alligator-related incident in the state had turned fatal.
“It’s the first one as far as we’ve been keeping records,” he said.
Agency staff completed a necropsy on the alligator and confirmed it was involved in Walker’s death. They turned it over to the coroner’s office.
“The injuries are consistent with those which could be inflicted by an alligator and our investigation has confirmed that an alligator was involved in the decedent’s death,” said Coroner Rae Wooten.
Investigators believe Walker slipped and fell down a steep embankment and landed in the water, attracting the alligator’s attention.
She was reported missing from the Brookdale Charleston on Charlie Hall Boulevard around 7:40 a.m. Wednesday. Police divers recovered her body from the pond shortly before 11 a.m.
Alligators range throughout the Southeast, including Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, according to Florida State University. Florida and Louisiana have the largest populations with around 1.5 million alligators each.
While alligators are highly territorial and have been known to attack, fatalities are relatively rare.
Florida has seen 23 fatal alligator attacks since 1948, including the recent death of a boy at a pond outside Disney World, according to a June 15 Orlando Sentinel story.
As authorities investigate Walker’s death, an analysis of state Department of Health and Environmental Control records shows a history of complaints but few violations at Brookdale Charleston.
The records, which date back to 2010, document allegations of issues ranging from inadequate staff training to patient abuse.
“Our thoughts continue to be with Ms. Walker’s family,” according to a statement from Kristin Puckett, public relations director for Brookdale’s corporate offices in Tennessee. “We are cooperating with the authorities regarding (Wednesday’s) tragic event. ... Additionally, we will continue to work closely with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to address their recommendations.”
Requests for interviews with Brookdale administrators were declined.
Puckett also declined to answer questions about how Walker ended up outside and whether she was housed in a facility for residents with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
The most recent complaint — alleged abuse by a staff member — was investigated July 7 and involved a resident in the dementia unit, according to state records. A resident’s family member witnessed the resident hit the staff member, who responded by striking back, but the investigation did not turn up any evidence of abuse.
A Sept. 22 investigation into complaints of filthy conditions and staff failing to provide help in a timely manner for a resident who had fallen ultimately led to several violations. Inspectors documented foul odors coming from residents’ rooms, and feces left in beds and on floors. Documents also listed several incidents in which a resident had fallen while trying to go to the bathroom.
A routine inspection on Jan. 17, 2013, noted that records for staff training in areas such as CPR, contagious diseases, bloodborne pathogens and fire response were not available.
According to DHEC records, the facility changed its name from Horizon Bay Assisted Living and Memory Care at Charleston, to Brookdale Charleston sometime between late 2014 and 2015.
Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.