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By Phil Helsel
Phoenix police said Wednesday they are reaching out to the community to help identify a suspect for sexual assault after a woman who has been in a vegetative state for years gave birth.
A lawyer for the woman’s family meanwhile said they are “traumatized and in shock” by the “abuse and neglect” of her but that “the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for.”
Police were called to a Hacienda HealthCare center in Phoenix at around 3:42 p.m. on Dec. 29, according to statements by police and Hacienda.
Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson said Wednesday that an infant had “coded,” referring to emergency calls when “someone is in distress, having trouble breathing, or unconscious.”
The baby and mother were transported to a local hospital where both are recovering.
A sexual assault investigation was begun immediately, police have said.
“She was not in position to give consent to any of this,” Thompson said. “This was a helpless victim who was sexually assaulted.”
Hacienda HealthCare has said the woman was a patient at one of its facilities, and called it a “deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation.”
The San Carlos Apache Tribe said in a statement to NBC affiliate KPNX of Phoenix that the woman is a 29-year-old member of the tribe, and that she has been in a persistent vegetative state and coma for over a decade.
Police served a search warrant to obtain DNA from male staff at the Hacienda long-term care center, the health care organization said in a statement Tuesday, adding that “as a company, we welcome this development in the ongoing police investigation.”
Thompson declined to say if police were looking at visitors to the health care center in addition to employees, and he would not specify whose DNA has been obtained or is being sought.
“Suffice it to say, it is a large number of individuals that we will gather evidence from,” the police sergeant said. DNA samples are “going to be one of the key evidentiary factors we’ll use in investigating this and bringing it to a closure.”
As to the other patients at the center, Thompson said, “At this point it is our understanding that steps have been taken to protect anybody that’s there.”
An attorney representing the woman’s family told KPNX in a statement Tuesday that the family was not emotionally prepared to make a statement but that they “would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for.”
“The family obviously is outraged, traumatized and in shock by the abuse and neglect of their daughter at Hacienda Healthcare,” the lawyer said.
Hacienda HealthCare has said it is cooperating fully with police. The group’s CEO, Bill Timmons, resigned on Monday in the wake of reports on the case.
Hacienda HealthCare is privately owned and has more than 40 Phoenix-based health care programs that serve 2,500 people a year, according to its website. A majority of its patients are infants, children, teens and young adults.
Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.