SAN DIEGO — A woman accused of causing the death of a 74-year-old man in her care by withholding food from him over the course of several years was ordered to stand trial Thursday on murder and other charges that could have her facing life imprisonment.
Shirley Montano, 52, is accused of causing the Oct. 7, 2016, death of Robert Chagas, who died at Sharp Memorial Hospital of pneumonia, which prosecutors argue was exacerbated by severe malnutrition. Montano is additionally charged with kidnapping, elder abuse, false imprisonment, identity theft and perjury for allegedly limiting meals and keeping Chagas and an elderly woman essentially captive at the defendant’s apartment, while spending the senior citizens’ Social Security benefits for personal use.
Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Zipp said the weight of both Chagas and the woman, Josefina Kellogg, “plummeted once in (Montano’s) care.”
Chagas was “emaciated” when he was brought into the hospital, where he died five days later. Montano, who allegedly posed as his niece, told medical personnel that Chagas did not wish to be resuscitated, according to testimony. Chagas’ family members were only notified of his hospitalization after his death, they testified.
“She took on the duty of care and responsibility for his well-being, and that care fell so woefully short that he died in part due to inadequate nutrition,” Zipp told San Diego County Superior Court Judge Esteban Hernandez at the conclusion of the week-long preliminary hearing.
The prosecutor alleged that Chagas and Kellogg were kept isolated from others who lived with Montano and confined to their respective bedrooms. Montano’s niece, who stayed with the defendant for about a year, said that for the first month she lived at her aunt’s apartment, she was not even aware Kellogg existed because the woman would hardly ever emerge from her bedroom.
Others who resided at Montano’s apartment or visited the home were offered various explanations for Chagas and Kellogg’s presence, including that Kellogg was Montano’s sister or Chagas’ wife, according to testimony.
Kellogg testified that she stayed in her bedroom for several hours each day and feared angering Montano, who would hit her if she did not obey the rules of the house.
Zipp said that Kellogg “had no agency” and would not even eat without Montano’s permission, even when the defendant was in custody.
Following Montano’s arrest, she phoned her downstairs neighbor from jail and asked her to go into her unit to bathe Kellogg. The neighbor testified that she was reduced to tears upon seeing Kellogg’s skeletal figure, and that the senior would not leave the apartment until the neighbor lied and said she had called Montano and received her permission. Kellogg also did not allow the neighbor to touch a wooden spoon in the kitchen — which Montano allegedly used to strike Kellogg — because she feared moving the utensil might anger Montano, the neighbor testified.
Zipp alleged that while keeping the seniors under her thumb, Montano spent their monthly benefits for personal purposes such as a new truck and frequently gambling their funds away at local casinos.
“There is one person whose needs and wants she considered, and that are those of the defendant,” Zipp said.
Montano’s attorney, Shannon Sebeckis, argued there was no evidence that Chagas’ malnutrition was caused by Montano, and was not the natural result of aging. Sebeckis reiterated the testimony of San Diego County Chief Medical Examiner Glenn Wagner, who declined to classify Chagas’ death as a homicide. Wagner said Chagas was not getting sufficient food, but he could not opine as to why, only that it appeared to be due to non-medical factors.
No calls were made by family or medical professionals to Adult Protective Services in Chagas’ case, which also contributed to Wagner’s opinion not to classify his death as a homicide, the doctor said.
While evidence was presented that Chagas once told a doctor that his weight loss was due to not having enough money for food, Sebeckis said this was not proof that Montano was taking his money or withholding food, especially in light of Chagas’ issues with handling his own finances. Chagas’ family members testified that an accident that occurred at childbirth had left him “slow,” as his brother Richard described it, and that throughout his adult life, Chagas was susceptible to being scammed and had lost exorbitant amounts of money to fraudsters in the past, leading family members to take an active role in assisting him with taxes and paying bills.
Sebeckis argued there was little direct evidence that Montano didn’t feed the seniors, as plenty of her past roommates said they had seen her providing food for Chagas and Kellogg. The attorney also said Chagas was not confined at all, and regularly left the apartment each day for his janitorial job at Sea World, which he attended with a sack lunch prepared by Montano each day.
Sebeckis said it was “pure speculation and conjecture” that Montano didn’t use the seniors’ funds to pay for their basic needs.
Hernandez said the murder charge was the most difficult for him to rule on, but said that the totality of circumstances held Montano culpable in Chagas’ death, saying the seniors “basically wasted away while in her care.”
Montano is being held on $1 million bail and will return to court April 11 for a Superior Court arraignment.