Nursing home owner says he spent Medicaid funds on strippers

FESTUS, Mo. (AP) - The owner of a suburban St. Louis nursing home where 60 residents had to be rescued after food ran out and trash piled up has pleaded guilty to federal charges for stealing $667,000 from Medicaid and spending it on strippers, gambling and other things.

Johnnie Mac Sells, 52, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of health care fraud, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/2oO3Csp ). He could get up to three years in prison when he's sentenced July 25 and he has to pay back what he stole.

The Benchmark Healthcare nursing home in Festus was shut down last summer. Authorities said bills went unpaid, paychecks bounced, trash piled up and food deliveries stopped.

Missouri health officials in July sought to put Benchmark into emergency receivership. They backed down when food deliveries resumed, but an August follow-up visit found that four residents were not getting medicines they needed for congestive heart failure, epilepsy and schizophrenia because pharmacy bills hadn't been paid.

The state closed the nursing home in September and relocated its residents.

Prosecutors on Wednesday revealed that for three years starting in 2013, Sells stole a large portion of funds provided by Medicaid for Benchmark residents. He used Benchmark's debit card to pay $185,000 at adult entertainment clubs and $15,000 on pet care, $4,500 at casinos and $12,000 at his country club.

Sells' attorney, Scott Rosenblum, told Judge John A. Ross that his client struggled with drug and alcohol addiction but had been sober "for some time."

Nothing remains of the nursing home empire, Legacy Health Systems, established in 1938 in southeast Missouri by Sells' grandmother, Clara Sells. The business had expanded into a $100 million company with 27 facilities across Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee before its collapse.

Sells also is also due to stand trial in St. Charles County in June on charges of domestic abuse and sexual misconduct. Prosecutors say he slammed his girlfriend through a glass coffee table and exposed his genitals to her 12-year-old son. Sells told the Post-Dispatch last year that he "didn't beat anybody."

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