SEAGOVILLE — Jerri Major couldn’t believe the scene she encountered in mid-February when she arrived at Seagoville Haven to visit her mother.
When Major had last been there before Christmas, everything seemed normal. Yet, on this day, she found the parking lot empty; the doors locked; and no one around — including her 72-year-old mother, Leatha Major.
"I knocked on the door and there was no one there," Jerri Major said. "That was very devastating to know my mother is not in the place where we placed her!"
That triggered an exhaustive search by Jerri Major and her siblings, who said the facility's owners never told them they were closing, and never told them where they moved the residents.
"We heard nothing from them — nothing," said Major's son, David Major. "When they moved her they should have notified the family."
To this day, Leatha Major’s location remains a mystery.
Her children say once they realized Seagoville Haven had closed, it took them a week to piece together what happened.
The owner shut down Seagoville Haven on January 3 and moved the eight remaining residents to several boarding houses he owns nearly 20 miles away in South Dallas.
Yet by the time the Majors realized this in late February, their mother was gone again.
Leatha Major, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, apparently walked out of a boarding house on Chalet Lane on January 11, six weeks earlier.
"My blood pressure is soaring," Jerri Major said. "I don’t know what to think at this point."
She said the owner never called the family or even police.
Dallas police spokesman Sr. Cpl. Kevin Janse said he could find no record of a call for a missing person from the boarding house. Janse said Major's daughter was the first to call police on February 23.
By then, the great-grandmother had been missing for more than six weeks.
"I entrusted them for the care and custody of my mother, and they just didn't care," said Gary Major, another son of the missing woman.
Seagoville Haven was owned by Edwin and Ruby Shields of DeSoto, who also run a company called Texas Our Home, Inc. Edwin Shields denied the Majors' account of what happened. He declined an on-camera interview, but insisted in a telephone interview that his staff had told the Majors about the move and that they called police when the family's matriarch wandered away.
"We did notify her family," Shields insisted, although he couldn't recall the details of who was called — or when. "Now, how many times they were notified? I don’t know."
Shields then suggested that Major's children would have known about the moving plans if they had visited their mother more often.
"Her family should have been concerned with her when she was in Seagoville," he said. "Now they’re upset because mamma's not there… when they should have visited with her more often."
Jerri Major said a surgery kept her from visiting her mother earlier. She said only a month had passed since one of the adult children had checked on their mother.
"I think the people that were entrusted to take care of Mrs. Major should be accountable," said Colleen Carboy, an attorney who is helping the family in the search for their mother.
Court records show the Shields purchased the former nursing home in March of 2005. The sprawling complex sits on nearly three acres of land on Fisk Road in Seagoville. Records show it can hold more than 100 residents.
The Shields apparently bought it with the hope of turning it into an assisted living center, but they never obtained a state license.
Instead, the Shields cleaned up the property, got a certificate of occupancy, and began accepting residents.
Within a year of acquiring the property, court records show, the complex was home to more than 50 disabled residents. For months, according to court papers, various social agencies continued to refer patients there.
The Majors say a hospital referred them to Seagoville Haven around that time.
In early 2006, however, complaints from neighbors and a nearby church got the city's attention. Inspectors found dozens of violations, ranging from exposed electrical outlets to bathrooms without running water.
Seagoville then moved to shut down the 65-room facility, but the Shields resisted, which sparked lawsuits and years of legal maneuvers.
All the while, the city alleged, the Shields continued caring for senior citizens and other special needs patients, in effect, illegally running an assisted living center.
In court papers, the Shields said they considered the property a boarding home, which does not require a license. The Shields, who are black, also accused the City of Seagoville of discrimination.
Edwin Shields insisted the problems were fixed and that the city simply didn't like the fact that they were serving disabled residents.
"We've done everything we could do," he told News 8. "They did not want anyone in their town that was mentally or physically disadvantaged."
The two sides settled in February of this year. By then, the Shields had closed Seagoville Haven and moved the residents.
The Majors said they had no idea the facility had never been licensed or regulated by state laws.
"We assumed this was an assisted living facility," Gary Major said.
Suzanna Sulfstede, an advocate for senior citizens, said that is a common perception. Through The Senior Source, a Dallas non-profit, she helps families place senior citizens in reputable facilities.
Boarding homes — unlike nursing homes or assisted living centers — don’t have to be licensed by the state.
"They're not being monitored by anybody in the state," Sulfstede said, "so I think it puts individuals at extreme risk of poor care."
If the group home holds more than four people and is providing personal care — such as grooming or dispensing medication — it must be licensed. Yet Sulfstede says many facilities fly below the radar.
"I definitely think there are a lot of them out there, both for older adults and also catering to individuals that have mental health needs," she said.
The Majors say they wish they could have afforded to put their mother under better care.
Now, they simply want her back.
"We trusted them to take care of our mother, and they lost our mother," Jerri Major said.