By Peter Szekely
(Reuters) - Phoenix police said on Wednesday they were gathering DNA samples and other clues in their investigation into the sexual assault of a comatose woman that apparently became evident only when she delivered a baby in a long-term care facility last month.
The woman, who is in her 20s and had been a long-term patient at the Hacienda Healthcare center after suffering an injury that left her in a vegetative state, went into labor on the afternoon of Dec. 29, police spokesman Tommy Thompson said.
“We’re looking first to find out who's responsible for this, and following our investigation wherever it takes us," Thompson told a news conference. "This was a helpless victim who was sexually assaulted."
He said the investigation was "of the highest priority of the Phoenix Police Department.”
Police served Hacienda with a search warrant for records and documents and also obtained mouth swabs for DNA from its male employees, he said. Thompson said he did not know if any of the staff had declined to provide their DNA.
"People have the right to refuse, but then we come back with a court order, and then they have to do it,” he said.
Hacienda spokesman David Leibowitz said police started collecting the DNA evidence on Tuesday after the facility got legal opinions it could not obtain the samples itself.
"As a company, we welcome this development in the ongoing police investigation," Leibowitz said in an email, adding that the company was cooperating and found the situation "deeply disturbing."
Police asked for anyone with information of the assault to contact them, and Thompson said potential suspects were not limited to Hacienda employees.
"At this point, I don’t know that anybody’s been ruled out,” he said.
Hacienda employees apparently did not know the woman was pregnant before she went into labor, and police were first alerted when the baby was born, Thomson said. Local news reports said the infant was a boy.
The woman, who remains in a vegetative state, and the baby are recovering at a hospital, Thompson said. He added that steps had been taken to protect other Hacienda patients.
Hacienda describes itself as Arizona's leading provider of specialized healthcare services for medically fragile and chronically ill patients and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A spokesman for Arizona Governor Doug Ducey over the weekend called the reports "deeply troubling" and said the state was re-evaluating its contract and regulatory authority over Hacienda.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)