Two years ago, Tracie Ponds walked to her car in the parking lot of the Fort Worth nursing home where she works as a nurse aide and discovered that someone had stolen her purse.
That simple crime led to one of the biggest identity theft capers in Tarrant County, one that targeted more than half a dozen area nursing homes and home healthcare businesses and at least a dozen seniors, frail and vulnerable.
Ponds, then 25, reported the missing items to Fort Worth police. Stolen items included her expired driver’s license along with a document showing that she had paid for her renewal, her checkbook, debit card, Social Security card and, perhaps most important, an identification card from the state that showed she is a certified nurse aide.
The thief hit the jackpot. Ella Dehaven Brown was a certified nurse aide, too, but she had been convicted of identity theft crimes and served two stints in prison. State officials never learned that and didn’t pull her certification. Still, she couldn’t get a job as a nurse aide using her name because she couldn’t pass a state-required criminal background check conducted by a business wishing to hire her.
So she used Ponds’ ID papers so she could pose as Ponds and get nurse aide jobs at nursing homes and home healthcare companies in Richland Hills, Hurst and other area cities, court records say. Once inside, the records say, she stole more identity papers from more elderly patients to keep her one-woman operation going.
Brown worked the scheme for two years.
She got caught only after some tenacious investigating by a Richland Hills police officer who unraveled the crime, still considered so complex by investigators that they don’t know exactly where Brown worked or the names of all her victims.
The Watchdog reported last month how another senior, Paulette Jones, said her $20,000 ring was stolen while she lived at Renaissance Park Multi Care Center in Benbrook. That facility was the scene of other thefts from residents, police records say. Four days after my report, Jones died. Her ring was never recovered.
Proper background checks and training for nurse aides in Texas have been an issue since the Star-Telegram reported in 2007 that the state did not regulate nurse aides or keep the kind of accurate databases that it does for nurses. Several legislators introduced bills to tighten supervision over nurse aides, but they did not become law.
In this case, it might not have mattered. When hiring officials met Brown and she presented them with Ponds’ papers, everything appeared in order. Sometimes she worked at a facility only a few days. Other times, she stayed longer.
At Lexington Place Nursing & Rehabilitation in Richland Hills, where she worked several months, Brown stole identity documents from at least seven residents, police say.
When officer S. Parsons began looking at the crimes, she at first suspected Ponds. Working with Richland Hills police Detective J.L. Robinson, the officer learned about Ponds’ stolen purse. Ponds was shown videotape of Brown posing as her at a Hurst bank. Work friends of Ponds’ recognized Brown and identified her from a police photo lineup.
When police went looking for Brown, they didn’t have to look hard. She was already in the Tarrant County Jail after being arrested by White Settlement police on an unrelated charge. In February, Brown, 36, pleaded guilty in the Richland Hills/Lexington Place thefts to two charges of forgery and one charge of possessing ID papers belonging to someone else. She was sentenced to three years in state prison.
Lexington Place officials declined to comment.
Brown’s ability to get hired at so many places while posing as Ponds is troubling, Robinson said, because for two years Brown never had a valid Texas driver’s license in Ponds’ name, only a piece of paper showed that Ponds had paid her renewal. A smart hiring official would have zeroed in on that, the detective said.
Brown easily gained others’ trust. A Haltom City couple hired her, believing her to be Ponds, from an ad on Craigslist to work as a nurse aide at their home. After Brown stole personal documents from them, the couple described her to police as a “super pleasant lady.”
When I contacted the state last week about Brown’s caper, officials had no knowledge of it. None of the businesses where she worked as Ponds reported the crimes to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services as required, spokeswoman Allison Lowery told me. “Obviously, we want facilities to tell us when they have a reasonable suspicion of a crime,” she said.
This failure to report illustrates the lax state oversight of nurse aides, says Terry Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Nursing. No regulatory board oversees nurse aides. With a shortage of them, she says, employers are eager to hire.
State law requires that nurse aides show proper ID before they take the state test. Nursing homes must also conduct criminal background checks not only before hiring but also every two years. The state offers databases to check the certification, but as Brown’s case shows, those databases are incomplete.
In Texas, nurse aides earn certification after training followed by an examination. They do not get a license, and that’s why, Jones said, “it’s incumbent on whoever hires them to check references.”
“I can see how this happened,” Jones said about Brown’s crime spree. Nurse aides “have direct access to patients in their most vulnerable state. So yeah, there’s a lot of potential for abuse there.”
One victim in the Richland Hills nursing home is Katy Buckley, who at 95 is blind and bedridden. Buckley kept her purse in her room because it helped her keep her sense of identity, stepson Paul Buckley told me. Brown stole her Social Security card and driver’s license and ran up charges under Katy Buckley’s name.
“You just have to depend on the facility to be the last line of defense, and it just doesn’t seem to happen,” Paul Buckley said.
Robinson says police know about only a few of Brown’s victims. “There may be more that we haven’t discovered.”
Ponds is still working to clean up the mess. Brown ruined her credit and reputation. “I had a squeaky-clean work history,” she said. “Now I don’t because she worked at all those places under my name.”