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Friends, family of man paralyzed after hospital attack, night in jail left with questions

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 17. 2013 12:22AM

Fern Ornelas 

MANCHESTER - The condition has improved of a psychiatric patient whose neck was broken sometime between his alleged assault on an Elliot Hospital security guard and his return to the hospital after being in police and county corrections custody.

"He's getting better," John Ornelas said Friday of his younger brother, Fern Ornelas, 54, who has been at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston since Oct. 17.

But John Ornelas said that is no reason to celebrate.

"He's friggin' paralyzed for the rest of his life," said Ornelas, 55.

Clearly irritated, Ornelas declined to say more, adding the family's lawyer told him not to speak.

"I've got nothing to say. Whatever happened should speak for itself," he said.

Massachusetts General Hospital listed Fern Ornelas in fair condition Thursday and Friday. The hospital had reported him in serious condition the previous week.

Fern Ornelas has been able to speak when his breathing tube is removed and recognizes his family, his brother and close family, friends have said.

"He knows everybody," John Ornelas said.

Whatever happened to Fern Ornelas, who has lived in Manchester since his family immigrated here from Portugal when he was a boy, is the focus of two investigations. One is being led by the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office with help from the Attorney General's Office. The other is being done by a three-member board Gov. Maggie Hassan appointed to get answers about Ornelas' situation and another Elliot Hospital emergency room attack involving a mentally ill patient that left two hospital staff hurt, one critically.

It also is the topic of late-afternoon conversation at the Derryfield Country Club, where Ornelas' golfing buddies drink Bud Lights at a bar and talk about their friend's predicament.

"Fern is a good guy," said Tom Thirsk, a retired Verizon worker who says he has known Ornelas for about 10 years. "Somebody is hiding something. This just doesn't happen by itself.

"I absolutely expect (a legitimate investigation), and if we don't get it, we are going to demand it," he added.

Fern Ornelas went to the Elliot emergency room the night of Oct. 15 for what his brother said was a mental health episode triggered when Fern went off his medications.

About 7:25 p.m. on Oct. 16, Fern allegedly became agitated, disrupted other patients and began punching a security officer in the head as the officer walked him back to his room, court records allege. The officer tried to defend himself, then exchanged punches with Ornelas, police allege. Security officer Lawrence Bolduc finally subdued Ornelas using pepper spray and helped by at least two security guards and a Manchester police officer, the police affidavit alleges.

Ornelas and Bolduc were treated in the emergency room for what police called "significant" facial wounds. Ornelas was "walking and talking" when released from the hospital to Manchester police custody, the hospital said. Police said Ornelas arrived at headquarters shortly before 11 p.m. and was booked on a charge of misdemeanor simple assault. He was then transferred to Hillsborough County House of Corrections about midnight Oct. 17, police said.

About 9:30 that morning, county jail medical staff sent Ornelas back to Elliot by ambulance, and he arrived in serious medical condition, according to Elliot Hospital's account. John Ornelas said his brother's neck was broken and he was paralyzed from the neck down. He was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he remains.

"Everybody misses him," Bill Conway said. Conway, a retired heating and air conditioning expert, said he has been friends and golf buddies with Ornelas for about 30 years.

"We would like him to actually get better and not be handicapped or crippled," he added.

Fern Ornelas' friends also want "to actually get to the bottom of the story because something went wrong."

"Is it possible he (Fern) did something? Yes, I guess. But that is out of context for him," Conway added. He said his friend is a "good worker" and a "nice guy" who has never shown a violent side.

"We miss him," added Danny Arvanitis. "The cameras, do they show anything at the jail? We would like to know something about that."

Jail Superintendent David M. Dionne initially opened an internal investigation into what happened. Later, he asked Associate Attorney General Ann Rice to oversee the probe, saying no agency involved in the "care, custody, transport, arrest" of Ornelas should be involved in the investigation.

"The situation necessitates an objective, impartial and independent investigation by detached parties ...," Dionne wrote to Rice in a letter presented at the Oct. 30 county commissioners' meeting.

Investigators were at the jail that afternoon, the commissioners said they were told.

Rice referred media inquiries about the status of the investigation to Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance. LaFrance did not return repeated calls last week.

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