Crime & Courts

Slain woman's family settles suit against retirement community

HUTCHINSON — A Reno County civil lawsuit filed last year by the family of an 85-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted and killed while living in a Buhler retirement community has been settled.

The lawsuit against Sunshine Villa Inc., Buhler Sunshine Home Inc. and its administrator, Keith Pankratz, was filed in January 2009 by the estate of Pearl Arthaud, who was strangled in her bed in 2008 by Marvin J. Gifford Jr.

Gifford, 46, is serving a life sentence without parole at El Dorado Correctional Facility for Arthaud's death and attacks on two other elderly women in Reno County.

A hearing in the civil case scheduled for Wednesday in Reno County District Court was canceled, as the two sides reached an agreement, District Judge Tim Chambers confirmed. Terms of the settlement are confidential, however.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Arthaud's heirs, sought $510,000 in damages, including $250,000 for wrongful death, $250,000 for pain and suffering and $10,000 for funeral expenses.

The lawsuit claimed officials at the retirement community failed to take appropriate precautions to protect Arthaud after she'd reported that a man entered her apartment and tried to have sex with her. Arthaud had told Buhler Sunshine Home staff she awoke to find a man in her bed in March 2008, and he left after she refused his advances and asked him to leave.

Retirement-home officials were accused of being negligent by failing to investigate the attack, failing to warn other residents and staff of the attack, and failing to provide additional security in the retirement community.

In a response to the lawsuit, Sunshine officials denied the allegations, arguing they had no control over Gifford's actions or the events that led to Arthaud's death.

Matthew Bretz, the local attorney representing Arthaud's estate, obtained sworn testimony from Gifford, who admitted attacking and sexually assaulting elderly women in 2008 in the Hutchinson area. According to the motion, Gifford also admitted to being in Arthaud's Buhler Sunshine apartment twice before killing her in May 2008.

Gifford also said he drove around the parking lot at the retirement community and found there was little security.

Sworn statements were also taken from Buhler Sunshine Home employees, along with a deposition from Pankratz, according to the motion. Two employees voiced concerns about a lack of security at the retirement community, and one of the employees also questioned why no precautions were taken after attacks on elderly women in the area had been reported.

Gregory S. Young, a Wichita lawyer representing Buhler Sunshine Home, said Gifford's statements to Bretz contained many inaccuracies that contrasted his confessions to law enforcement, including his claim Arthaud's door was locked and that if there was security at the retirement home he would have gone elsewhere.

Buhler Sunshine Home has installed security cameras at the campus and mechanisms to secure the cameras that were in place prior to Arthaud's death, said Young.