The state-run veterans home where a former soldier murdered three women last month had security shortcomings that the California Highway Patrol identified in 2010, according to a report obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
It’s unclear whether any of the recommendations in the 22-page report could have prevented Albert Wong from attacking the therapy program he once attended at the Yountville Veterans Home. The California Department of Veterans Affairs (Cal Vet) also won’t say which recommendations it adopted.
The document revealed the state’s challenge in policing a sprawling campus that houses residents, hosts programs for others veterans and opens its doors to community events.
The CHP found that the home had:
- No security at its front gate.
- Few security cameras. The veterans department asked that The Bee not disclose the actual number of security cameras.
- Inadequate fencing along the campus perimeter.
- Spotty use of panic buttons and alarms at key buildings.
- A small staff of 10 unarmed security officers patrolling the grounds, with two officers on duty most of the time.
Wong, 36, an Afghanistan veteran, on March 9 killed Jennifer Golick, Jennifer Gonzales and Christine Loeber, three women who dedicated their careers to helping veterans with mental health care. They were affiliated with The Pathway Home, a nonprofit organization that served veterans at the Yountville site with outpatient care.
The Pathway Home has suspended operations, and a CHP investigation into Wong's killings is still underway.
The veterans department and the CHP denied The Bee’s Public Records Act request for the security assessment. Cal Vet would not answer questions about its response to the recommendations when The Bee obtained a copy of the document.
Cal Vet spokeswoman June Iljana said in a written statement, “We implemented a number of recommendations from the Yountville report. Consistent with state law, we do not release the details of this security information. We will continue to work with our state partners to assess and improve security measures and emergency preparedness.”
Two lawmakers who represent Napa County said Cal Vet and the CHP are conducting another security assessment.
"Once we get the report back, we can have a hearing, and I think we should," said Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.
Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry is "very concerned about the safety of the veterans home" but is waiting to comment on security needs until she sees the new assessment, her spokesman said.
The campus does not have security at its front gate. Records from the Napa County Sheriff’s Department show deputies are responding to calls for service there about 40 times per month, twice as often as a decade ago.
The veterans home, with more than 1,000 residents, houses almost half of the population of Yountville. Aside from the unarmed state security officers, the Napa County Sheriff’s Department is the primary source of law enforcement for the home.
Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Lombardi responded within minutes to the first 911 call about Wong. He and Wong exchanged gunfire as the heavily armed former soldier ran into the building that housed the Pathway Home.
Capt. Jon Crawford said the Sheriff’s Department had not seen the CHP report before The Bee called about it last week. He said the Sheriff’s Department has not suggested changes in the security posture at the veterans home, considering it a matter for the state.
“That’s our community and we’ve been serving that community for quite awhile. We have some ownership in our community. It’s not like it’s a high-crime area,” he said.
The CHP conducts vulnerability assessments of state properties when departments request them. Sometimes departments ask for a security review because of a specific threat. At other times, it’s a general request.
The CHP assigned a team of seven officers and one sergeant to conduct the Yountville assessment. They provided observations and options for Cal Vet to consider.
“It is then the respective agency's responsibility to act or not act on the recommendations made in the (site vulnerability assessment),” CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said.
The Yountville site is the country’s largest veterans home, although it’s operated by state government instead of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has its own police force, the Office of Security and Law Enforcement. Its 4,000 officers are expected to de-escalate tense situations, patrol hospital grounds and make arrests. They are allowed to carry weapons on VA property, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office.
Shootings at VA hospitals are rare. In 2015, VA psychologist Timothy Fjordbak was shot and killed by an Iraq War veteran at the system’s El Paso hospital. In January, a VA police officer shot and wounded a knife-wielding Army veteran at a southern Oregon clinic.
The Yountville Veterans Home had 10 security officers and one security chief at the time of the CHP assessment. Today, it has six security officers, a captain and a chief, according to the state budget.
Their union, the California State Law Enforcement Association, has lobbied Cal Vet to arm its Yountville officers.
“Our officers need the necessary equipment and training to keep safe those they have taken an oath to protect,” CSLEA President Alan Barcelona said in a March 21 news release. “When they respond to an active shooter in their workplace, what do they have? They are as much a victim as those lives they could otherwise be saving.”
The union’s proposal is stirring mixed reactions among Yountville residents, said James Musson, an outspoken Army veteran who lives there. Some support the union request; others don’t, he said.
Residents in March wrote a letter to Cal Vet asking the Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol to pass through the veterans home more frequently to reassure residents of their safety. The letter said that the Yountville Veterans Home practiced an active-shooter rehearsal last year.
“A drive around by the CHP or the Napa County Sheriff would go a long way toward the residents, staff, and the people of Yountville returning to normal,” said the letter from the Allied Council of the Veterans Home of California, an advisory board.
The Yountville Veterans Home dates back to 1884, and it has a well-documented backlog of deferred maintenance and construction projects. A 2017 report from the Little Hoover Commission called the site a “crumbling crown jewel” with fire safety deficiencies, electrical outages and problems with heating and air conditioning.
The governor’s budget last year set aside $58 million for a variety of projects at the home. This year’s spending plan includes money to build a skilled nursing facility and provide private rooms to more residents
Musson, the Army veteran who has lived at the home for the past 14 years, had not seen the CHP report on security vulnerabilities. He also hadn’t noticed the changes the report recommended.
“This facility has been neglected, and it’s still being neglected,” he said.