By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
OTSEGO, Ohio - Wires patched together with silver duct tape ran through the dilapidated trailer where Pete Angler lived last summer.
An extension cord tied to a doorknob kept the back door from falling off. Old clothes, engine parts and other trash piled up in back bedrooms and spilled onto his greasy living room floor.
At 77, Mr. Angler, who is severely mentally retarded and has Alzheimer's, never noticed the filth.
He wasn't aware of the overpowering stench or the flies that swarmed over an open peanut butter jar. He didn't know that he sometimes left his stove on for days, or that he'd spent years drinking well water so contaminated by bacteria that he wasn't supposed to bathe in it.
But officials in Muskingum County's Department of Mental Retardation, who are supposed to care for Mr. Angler and keep him safe, knew all about his situation.
In 1999, after Mr. Angler's brother became ill and had to move out, the county ran tests that showed the Anglers' water was contaminated. Officials at the time decided they should install a $1,200 treatment system. But on a hot July day last year, more than two years after the tests were first run, the new treatment system still wasn't there.
Meanwhile, Mr. Angler, who had lived alone since his brother moved into a nursing home, continued to drink rust-colored water from the bathtub. He erroneously believed it was safer than the water from his kitchen faucet.
"I don't drink the kitchen water," he reassured visitors before heading to the back of the trailer and pointing to the dirty tub. "I get my water from back here."
Mr. Angler's living conditions in the past year illustrate the best and worst of government care provided to Ohio's mentally retarded. He's now in a small but clean house in Zanesville where he gets help bathing, cooking and cleaning. But for much of his life, he lived in deplorable conditions without anyone to keep him safe.
Like Mr. Angler, 12,000 other mentally retarded people have waited for months or years for special Medicaid funds to pay for services they need to live on their own. Until they get it, many are left to fend for themselves.
Mr. Angler went for weeks without a bath because there was no one to help him get in the tub. He drilled holes in his trailer and poked electrical wires through them so he could turn on lights in the yard - even in the rain. He didn't understand he was tearing up his house and creating a fire hazard. He just liked to fiddle with things.
Mr. Angler's state-paid guardian, Yvonne Sawyer, says she'd wake up many nights and hear a fire siren and think, "Is it Pete?"
Mr. Angler spent years struggling with rats, roaches and other dangers, county records obtained by the Enquirer show. He often forgot to take his medicine. Once, he got confused and took 10 doses at once, making him "dizzier than hell." Another time, so much trash had built up in his yard that the county had to hire a bulldozer and truck to haul it all off.
Cathy Smith, department coordinator for the Muskingum County mental retardation board, says the county tried to help Mr. Angler. Officials bought him a new trailer, and they had planned to put the treatment system in Mr. Angler's home as soon as tests revealed contamination. "When his brother became ill, that was our first clue there was a problem," she says.
But she says the county never got around to installing the system because officials decided Mr. Angler would eventually have to move. Finally, in July 2001, county records pointed out that an Enquirer reporter had visited Mr. Angler and seen that he was still drinking tap water.
"This is not good as this water is contaminated," the report said, adding that Mr. Angler should be moved "as soon as we can get the funding."
The county classified Mr. Angler's situation as an emergency, moving him to the top of the waiting list. Still, it took another 10 months for Mr. Angler, whose brother is his only family, to get special Medicaid approval to pay for daily care at his home.
In April, three years after tests first showed that Mr. Angler's water was contaminated, the funds came through and officials moved him into a one-bedroom home in nearby Zanesville.
Mr. Angler's new place is a world away from his broken-down trailer. His shingled gray house is furnished with a bright blue couch and chair, a television, stereo - and city water. His backyard has a garden filled with pepper and tomato plants and a shed where he can tinker with old bicycles and lawnmowers.
Home-care aides visit him 10 hours each day, taking him to the store and helping him cook and clean. They even helped him learn to write his last name.
"I've seen a lot of positive changes in Pete," says Mike Jewell, an aide who works for the B&L Agency, the private company hired by the county to provide at-home care. "I make sure people don't take advantage of him and make sure he eats and remembers to turn off the stove. He just couldn't do it all on his own."
Ms. Sawyer, who works for the state-funded guardian agency Advocacy and Protective Services, can't believe the changes in Mr. Angler. He's put on weight. He bathes regularly, and he likes to show off the food in his cupboards and the clean water coming out of his tap.
"I sure like it better here than in that old trailer," a smiling Mr. Angler said two weeks ago, as he rocked back in forth in his new front-porch swing. "I wouldn't trade this place for anything."
Photo Essay: For Pete's Sake