MARIETTA — Despite a dozen witnesses who spoke to her “pleasant” nature and “by-the-book” operations, a Cobb judge sent Sheila Bell Hawkins, of Atlanta, to 10 years in prison for her role in the neglect and exploitation of three mentally-ill men at an unlicensed personal care home.
The 54-year-old Hawkins had been convicted last month of all the charges against her, which stemmed from Cobb Police’s November 2014 discovery of the men in the unheated, dirty basement of Hawkins’ mother’s Windy Hill Road home.
The men’s clothes were dirty and not warm enough for the basement — so cold that detectives could see their breath — and the three also smelled of urine and had not bathed recently, Cobb District Attorney’s office spokesperson Kim Isaza previously said.
Among the witnesses called by Hawkins’ attorney, Torris Butterfield, were those who had worked with her in the past, who said they knew Hawkins as a “professional colleague” and someone who “always wanted to do what wasright,” while leaders at her church, Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, called her “a woman of faith” often seen in the pews on Sunday.
But most of the 12 men and women who took the stand said they knew little to no facts about the case or the charges that had been levied against her.
“She has not told them the facts of the case because she doesn’t want them to know the facts of the case — I hope that means she is capable of the shame that is necessary for her to accept her role in this crime,” said Senior Assistant DA Jason Marbutt in his closing remarks.
According to the DA’s office, the three victims had been clients of Hawkins’ business, Serene Reflections for Holistic Behavior Wellness LLC in Atlanta, and the men’s sole source of income was Social Security benefits and health care benefits.
In addition to the cold and dirty conditions, police said the men’s beds were child-sized and had no sheets — just a blanket and a pillow. The bathroom consisted of a toilet on a concrete slab and a sink and tub with only cold water. The bathroom had no shower curtain or door to give the men privacy and no toilet paper or other toiletries.
Hawkins last month was found guilty on 16 charges: operating an unlicensed personal care home where people were abused, neglected or exploited; three counts of neglect of a disabled person; nine counts of abuse of a disabled person based on mental anguish, unreasonable confinement and willful deprivation of essential services and three counts of exploitation of a disabled person, for improperly using the victims’ government benefits.
‘Dungeon of a basement,’ judge says
Hawkins herself took the stand before Superior Court Judge Tain Kell deliberated on the sentence, saying she took the charges against her very seriously.
“My poor decision clearly was providing mental health service, allowing my staff to provide mental health service to anyone that may have known, lived with, lived under, whatever connected to my mother. That was a poor decision on my part that I have to live with for the rest of my life,” Hawkins said. “I’ve lost everything in my life except my biological family, my church family and these people that are here to support me. They’re here because they believe in me, my integrity and my character.”
But Marbutt argued that Hawkins in her words to the judge failed to admit guilt for what had happened to the three men in her care.
“This is a Jerry Sandusky case. This is a Bill Cosby case. This is a case where you have somebody who, for all intents and purposes, leads a life where they are doing things that are good in the community, but they have this secret, this something that they also do that they don’t want everybody else to know about, because it means they’re not who they’re presenting themselves really as,” Marbutt said. “And she still can’t take accountability for that. The answer still is ‘It’s all about my mother.’”
While Hawkins asked Kell to consider a sentence of probation, Marbutt sought a 30-year sentence to serve 15, along with a $50,000 fine. The sentence Kell handed down fell closer in line to that sought by the prosecutor.
“Make no mistake about it — you helped to place those three men in that dungeon of a basement, and you helped keep those three men in that dungeon of a basement,” Kell told Hawkins before reading the sentence. “I believe, based upon the evidence I reviewed, that you correctly were not in that house, but I think you were not in that house because you didn’t want to see what was in that house that you knew to be present there.”
Hawkins was sentenced to 30 years with 10 to serve, and a $100,000 fine. Once she begins her probation, Hawkins will not be allowed to have contact with her victims, nor will she be allowed to work in any position, paid or volunteer, in which she would be responsible with the care or finances of another person.
After Kell read the sentence, Butterfield asked the judge to reconsider the punishment and levy one equivalent to the one Hawkins’ mother received. Helen Flournoy Bell previously pleaded guilty to all 16 charges, and Kell in July sentenced the 72-year-old Marietta woman to 20 years, with five years to serve in prison and the rest on probation, and was fined $5,000, according to Isaza.
Kell said that while he had considered such a decision during his 20-minute deliberations, Bell’s circumstances were much different from Hawkins’.
“I remember her mother standing before me and admitting what she did wrong, and pleading guilty to all of those offenses, taking responsibility for them,” Kell said. “I also in her case took into consideration her age and the fact she was likely going to spend most of the rest of her years in prison, and those are not factors that are present in this sentencing.”
Hawkins’ son and Bell’s grandson, 26-year-old Micah Anthony Bell-Hall, was the facilities and operations manager of Serene Reflections. He pleaded guilty in May to one count of exploitation of a disabled person and was sentenced under the First Offender Act to five years of probation and fined $500.
Kell said the case was “unfortunate” and “shocking,” and spoke to “the incredible ripple effect that a case such as this has on not only the defendant and victims, but all of those people with whom they come in contact.” While he told the estimated 40 people in attendance who came to court to support Hawkins that he appreciated their presence, he said he also appreciated the fact that two of the three victims in the case were able to testify at last month’s trial.
“I’m happy that I got to see them in a better state than the state they were in in November of 2014,” he said, “and I’m glad to know or at least have the hope that someone now is helping to make sure that their lives are better and that they will continue to be better.”