Developmentally disabled man kept in ‘rat-infested shack’ for 30 years awarded $9.3M

A Whatcom County Superior Court Judge on Friday ordered the Northwest Regional Council in Bellingham to pay more than $9.3 million to a severely developmentally disabled man who was abused and neglected by his caretaker for more than 30 years.

Judge Lee Grochmal signed off on the settlement Friday after the plaintiff’s lawyers and NWRC came to an agreement in August.

The Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) is a taxpayer-funded facility that provides case management services under the state Department of Social and Health Services. It serves seniors, individuals with disabilities, and family caregivers in Whatcom, Island, San Juan and Skagit counties.

NWRC will have 10 days to pay the fines levied against them to the court. After the plaintiff’s attorney and the man’s guardian ad litem are paid out of the settlement, the remaining money will be placed in a trust for the man.

This is the second time Judge Grochmal has awarded the plaintiff, James Rupke, financial compensation. In June, the judge approved a settlement against DSHS for $13.35 million.

In total, Rupke has now been awarded over $22 million as a result of legal action.

“This brings to a conclusion a case that involved 30 years of abject neglect and abuse that he suffered while he was supposedly being case managed by DSHS and (NWRC),” said David P. Moody, the attorney for Rupke. “The settlement in this case is enormous but it reflects the neglect and the severity of the neglect that he endured for 30 years. This is undoubtedly the largest settlement ever in state history on behalf of a disabled person.”

Despite the large settlement against DSHS, Moody said he believes NWRC is the most culpable of the two defendants.

The lawsuit alleged that DSHS, the state Attorney General’s Office and NWRC failed to protect Rupke from “readily foreseeable harm at the hands of his state-approved and state-paid caregiver, Alf Vatne.”

Vatne “subjected James to abuse, neglect, exploitation, and abandonment, all of which could have been avoided if DSHS and NWRC had conducted even the most rudimentary assessment of Alf’s qualifications or conducted any meaningful oversight of the ‘care’ that Alf was being paid to provide at taxpayer expense,” according to court filings.

Court filings also noted that Rupke was “stashed away” in a disrepaired, rat-infested shack in Vatne’s backyard for more than 30 years. Rupke was unable to protect himself against Vatne as a result of his extreme disability.

No case managers ever entered the shack, and the rats and smell were never mentioned in any assessments. The lawsuit contended that Vatne lied to case workers about Rupke having his own room in the house, but neither DSHS or NWRC “took any steps to ensure that James had a safe place to sleep.”

The filings noted that Vatne would leave Rupke alone for long periods of time with no care while he used Rupke’s money to travel on vacations. Because of the lack of care, Rupke was “filthy — covered in dirt and smelled of eye-watering body odor, feces, and stale urine.”

Additionally, the lawsuit maintains that Rupke was sexually abused by Vatne. Vatne also would hire sex workers to perform sex acts on Rupke while Vatne watched.

In Vatne’s deposition, he said that he first met Rupke at a bar near his home. He said that after Rupke began living on his property in the 1980s that a man from DSHS showed up at his home and informed him that he would be paid by DSHS for being a caretaker for Rupke.

“There was really nothing to it. DSHS just started paying me,” Vatne said in the deposition. “For more than 30 years, DSHS just kept paying me.”

No background checks were performed for Vatne, and no inspection was ever made of his home, Vatne said.

Vatne said he became aware at some point in the 1990s that NWRC was handling case management for Rupke, but that they, along with DSHS, never asked about Rupke’s condition, nor did they check to make sure that Vatne himself felt like he was in enough physical shape to care for Rupke.

Moody noted previously that years of Rupke’s records were missing, and that the state had no explanation for the missing records.

Moody said that the case involved clear neglect by DSHS.

“Instead of recognizing that early on, and trying to get this settled early on, the Office of the Attorney General dug in its heels and made this much, much worse for the taxpayers in the state of Washington than it had it be,” Moody said. “If they would have come to the table early, and negotiated early instead of playing games and hiding documents, this case would have probably resolved for less than it did. The Office of the Attorney General did a very poor job of defending the taxpayers in this case.”

Rupke is now under the care of two other guardians.

Moody told McClatchy that Rupke is now “full of life” and is “moving forward.”

While DSHS referred Vatne to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office in July, the Sheriff’s Office has yet to file any criminal charges against the 91-year-old.

NWRC did not respond to multiple requests for comment from McClatchy.