Sheriff's deputies arrested a man on suspicion of manslaughter and elder abuse who had been living in the same Merced house with his dead uncle for almost 30 days.
The bizarre case involved allegations by detectives that the nephew, Patrick Lara, 45, had turned on a swamp cooler in the back of the house because the body's smell was beginning to bother him. The room where the body was lying was covered with mold, and the swamp cooler leaked through the roof, causing part of the ceiling to collapse on the body.
At a Tuesday news conference, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin described the home the two men were living in as "disgusting."
Added Pazin: "It was molding, the heavy rains had basically collapsed the roof into the ceiling area and it basically surrounded the decedent with ceiling particles," he said.
On Sunday just before 2 p.m., deputy Joe Mello was driving in the 2000 block of Beachwood Drive when he was flagged down. Relatives told him there was a body inside a nearby trailer. Deputies confirmed the death and started an investigation as detectives were called to the scene.
The dead man, Adrian Lugo, was the 63-year-old uncle of Lara, his primary caregiver. Lara wasn't at the house when investigators were there, and it appeared that the Lugo had been dead for some time.
"What makes this even more despicable is a callous display of human behavior from the nephew, who was supposed to be the caregiver," Pazin said at the news conference. "I just find it abhorrent that the nephew was still in the same residence as his dead uncle. That's just absolutely bizarre -- it's unconscionable."
Investigators received a description of Lara and what he was driving. Later, Sgt. Steve Sziraki saw Lara's vehicle a few blocks down the road; it made an abrupt turn when it came into view of the house, according to deputy Tom MacKenzie. Sziraki got in his patrol car, stopped the vehicle not far from the scene and detained Lara.
Lara told detectives that on Jan. 22 his uncle had fallen and broken his arm. Lara said he put him in bed but never called for medical attention. Shortly after that, Lugo died, according to MacKenzie.
After a search warrant was served, detectives found receipts in the house. Lara said he was using the victim's ATM card to withdraw money from his account and had used it at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino after his death, MacKenzie said.
Lara said he was trying to save enough money to leave and then was going to inform authorities, MacKenzie said. Relatives became suspicious when they tried to enter the house and Lara would make excuses or stall them, saying it wasn't a good time, according to MacKenzie.
Lara had lived in the house since his uncle died.
Elizabeth Call, who lived next to Lara and Lugo, said she got along well with the two men and even had a birthday party at their home.
"They're both real nice," she said. "I did not expect this at all."
Lara was booked into jail on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter, elder/dependent abuse and theft of caretaker with elder abuse. He remains in jail on $175,000 bail.
Besides being arrested by Merced police for disobeying a court order, Lara doesn't have a criminal history, Pazin said.
Detectives said they will look into possible murder charges after the autopsy is complete and after they meet with the district attorney's office.
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