GILBERT, Ariz. — Lisa Lomeli can still picture the house. How it looked. How it smelled.
“Imagine a rental house that's never been really taken care of,” she said. “And you have loads of people living there that don't take care of anything. That's what the inside of this house looked like. Everything was worn, everything was old, stained, dirty. Like you could clean it a million times and still—just dingy. Very, very, very used.”
Not a very good rating, especially for a place her son was calling home.
“Plus, you know, you've got people with anger issues,” Lisa said. “And there's holes and this and that. So, you don't want to put a ton of money into it. But it was just the bare bones.”
This home she’s describing is the Tilda Manor group home on Wildhorse Drive in Gilbert, Ariz. Staying there was supposed to help her son with his behavioral and mental health concerns.
“All it did was make my son lie and scheme and manipulate to get himself out of there,” she said. “He hated it so much.”
And she never would have imagined that she and her son would unknowingly be exposed to a convicted killer.
Living at Tilda Manor
Lisa never planned for her son to live in a group home.
“I was hoping for a safe, comfortable, somewhat warm environment where he could learn life skills,” Lisa said. “Anger management. Where he could get, you know, the counseling and the information he needed to kind of start his adult life, kind of on his own since at the time he wasn't... allowed to come back to my house.”
We’re not naming her son to protect his privacy, but we can say he’s in his mid-twenties. And we have Lisa’s permission to share what she said happened.
“He's got a few diagnoses,” Lisa shared. “He has high functioning autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, which he was diagnosed with when he was 10. So, he's had it for a long time. But as he got older, he got much more aggressive. And I had to call the police quite a few times. He tried to hurt himself quite a few times.”
But in June 2019, he didn’t just hurt himself.
“On Father's Day, he just completely lost it,” Lisa said. “And he ended up breaking my arm, giving me a concussion. And so that was it.”
Her son wasn’t charged, but a police report showed he was taken to a hospital for a psych evaluation. And after that, he was court ordered into outpatient treatment. Lisa said the court also ruled he couldn’t live with her because he hurt her, so he was placed at the group home Tilda Manor.
“He was done the minute he walked in,” Lisa remembered. “But he knew he didn't have any place else to go, I didn't have any other place to put him. This was our first time with him as an adult in a government program. And so, I wasn't sure what was available to him and what he could do. So, I was relying on his team.”
Lisa said her son was receiving benefits for what the state calls his “serious mental illness,” or SMI. And typically, that’s how a lot of people come to live in these residential facilities, or group homes. State and federal programs will pay facilities to take in the people that are receiving the benefits.
“It wasn't the support that we expected,” Lisa said of TIlda Manor. “It was supposed to be a learning experience to help him get stable.”
Her son had a rough time transitioning, but he did make a friend on the inside. This friend was almost like an older brother.
“He helped my son navigate,” she said. “'Hey, don't talk to him that way. That's just gonna make things worse.’ He really gave my son some good advice.”
That friend was Christopher Lambeth.
Lisa learned through our news coverage that Lambeth, who helped her son in this tough situation, was arrested for allegedly killing someone else in the house.
“Unbelievable,” Lisa shared. “I know Chris. I've spent quite a bit of time with Chris and he was one of the most mellow, even-tempered fellows there.”
Lisa would try to visit her son in the group home as much as she could, and oftentimes that would include visiting with Chris. She’d take them out on walks and bring them around her other kids. And she said staff would let Lambeth go with her on these outings.
Lisa and her son had no idea Christopher Lambeth was a convicted double murderer after brutally killing his grandparents more than a decade before.
Locked Inside chapter 2: Locked Inside: How an Arizona law allowed a man who killed his grandparents to not go to jail
“I spent a lot of time with them,” she said. “And never, never, never, never, in my wildest dreams, would I have ever, never crossed my mind. He'd be the last person that I would have thought would have done something like that.”
It bothered her a lot that she didn’t know this about Christopher Lambeth. She understood some things were supposed to be private when it came to residents in the home. It’s not clear what Tilda Manor’s policy is on disclosing other resident’s histories, but Lisa wished the staff would have given her some sort of heads up.
“I needed to know,” Lisa shared. “This person has a history of, you know, violent behavior. No, he didn't have to tell me what it was. They didn't have to. But then I could have made the choice myself.”
'Clients are very unpredictable.'
At the time of publication, the owners of Tilda Manor or anyone representing them didn’t agree to talk with us for our series Locked Inside.
However, through public records, the 12 News I-Team was able to track down 23 people who at one point in time over the past few years worked at Tilda Manor. Some of them did not respond or declined to talk.
One woman even said she’d been instructed by Tilda Manor leadership not to talk with a reporter.
But a former manager at Tilda Manor who we're identifying as John, was willing to share what he remembered.
He said he worked at Tilda Manor for six years. He said he started as a behavioral health technician and then worked his way up to a manager with duties like quality assurance, where he made sure the homes were clean and records were kept straight.
“It was great,” John said. “Like I said, I stayed there for six years. If the place is not great and cannot be there for six years. So, it was great. Good work and experience.”
He said he left in 2020 so he’s no longer working at Tilda Manor. But from his view, everyone with the company was always trying their best.
“Mental health,” he said. “That was what we sign up for. Clients are very unpredictable.”
By clients, he meant the people who are placed to live at the home, people like Christopher Lambeth or Lisa’s son. He said most of the residents come to the home from the state hospital or other hospitals with psychiatric wards. Insurers like Medicaid or AHCCCS could reach out to Tilda Manor and provide the prospective resident’s case file.
Then, he said, Tilda Manor would screen the person by checking things like their diagnoses, behaviors and medical records. If it’s a fit and there’s a bed available, the person could be placed at the group home.
John said they don’t check to see if a person would be compatible with other people in the home. So, it’s possible someone placed there after a violent incident could be living there with someone who was not violent.
Records indicate it’s possible someone could also be transferred out of the home if a problem came up while a person was living at the house.
Police records show Tilda Manor on Wildhorse Drive has capacity for 10 beds, meaning 10 residents. And when it comes to around the clock staffing, John said they would have a 1:5 ratio. If a home had more than five residents, there should be at least two staff members there.
These staff members are usually behavioral health technicians, or people who are supposed to help give out medications, help residents with cooking, cleaning, preparing for appointments and other parts of their treatment plans. John said they would train staff in mental health, substance abuse and dealing with clients in different situations, like what to do if a person was having a violent episode.
“They're supposed to know what's going on so you can watch and see any change in behavior or anything,” he said.
Lisa said she saw discrepancies in staffing when she would visit her son in the home.
“During the day they had anywhere from one to four workers there,” she remembered. “But a lot of times they were on their phones or they were clustered together watching TV. They pretty much just let the people do what they wanted.”
Lisa also recalled a time when her son needed treatment for a skin condition. She said the home wouldn’t provide transportation to a hospital, so they told him to call his mom.
“The woman working said, ‘I can't leave,’” Lisa said “‘I can't leave less than two people here. So you're going to have to find your own way. Have your mom come pick you up.’”
But Lisa didn’t live close by. She said her son wound up taking an ambulance to the hospital. After he was done with the visit, he called the staff at Tilda Manor who told him again they couldn’t give him a ride, according to Lisa. She was floored. The whole point of having him in a home like this was for people to watch her son and make sure he was sticking with his treatment plan—not leave him hanging when he needed a ride.
“So, I found it very odd then that I would go there and sometimes there'd be only one worker there,” she said. “Because one of the workers had to run out and go pick her children up from school, or whatever. So that wasn't consistent either. When they felt they needed to do it for themselves, they would go. But when it was not convenient for them, they couldn't help.”
At this point, Lisa said she wasn’t her son’s legal guardian. He was an adult and Lisa said his treatment team from the state were the ones to make decisions about his care.
She said her son’s final straw was when he had an incident with a resident that prompted him to report a complaint to Adult Protective Services. Days later, she said her son was moved to another home.
12 News asked APS about this, but they declined to answer questions, citing privacy laws.
“And I would say probably creates an environment that could be unsafe for you know, the workers, but also the residents,” Lisa said.
>> Listen to episode 3 of the Locked Inside podcast:
'We are not qualified…'
The 12 News I-Team did speak with one other former Tilda Manor employee who wanted to remain anonymous.
She said she worked at Tilda Manor for about three years and would rotate between all of Tilda Manor’s five houses based on staffing needs.
In her role she said she’d serve residents their medications, drive them to appointments, and make sure they kept up with hygiene. They were supposed to help build independent living skills. She remembered being called in to cover shifts a lot and often felt overworked and overwhelmed.
She’d never worked in this field before and learned a lot on the job on how to care for people dealing with mental illnesses. She said they did get training on how to handle incidents with residents.
But talking about it and being face to face in a situation are two different things.
“Do this, do that,” she remembered.
This former employee said there were always at least two staff members working, sometimes three or four, and always two overnight. But she admitted that sometimes she felt she didn’t have the right training to handle this job and that she felt she wasn’t qualified to handle certain behaviors or diagnoses.
“We are not qualified to manage it,” she expressed.
Sometimes she said a resident would tell her they wanted to kill themselves and she wouldn’t know what to say. She said she’d do all she could to make a situation calm, but things could escalate quickly.
She remembered one time when a resident came back from an outing. She was pregnant at the time and out of nowhere, she said the resident tried to punch her. He wound up hitting the wall instead.
That scary situation and the hectic schedule were some of the reasons that ultimately led her to quit her job at Tilda Manor.
“In a normal household, those situations wouldn't come up,” Lisa Lomeli said. “But when you're in a situation where you have a bunch of volatile people, all together in a small place. And even just one of them by themselves could be volatile and difficult to deal with. But when you have a whole bunch of them together, and you don't know how to do any of this stuff, then situations just escalate. And it's just not enough. Not enough help.”
When John thinks back on his time at Tilda Manor, he felt he and the other staff members really made a positive impact. He said he saw a lot of people go through their programs and step down into lower levels of care or even independent living.
Again, no one who currently works at Tilda Manor would talk to us, so we’ve never been able to ask them about any success stories. John assured us that there were some. But as he said before, the people living in these homes can be unpredictable.
John explained that if a person was being violent or a situation got to a point where a staff member couldn’t handle it, protocol is to call 911. They weren’t allowed to lay a hand on the residents.
“And if, if you're a tiny little woman or man and you don't have any skills in breaking up fights or walking somebody through a mental breakdown, or somebody that's having a seizure, and all you can do is dial 911, your job is going to be so, so incredibly hard,” Lisa Lomeli said.
'How did they let this happen?'
Both John and the other former employee we talked to remembered Christopher Lambeth. They also knew his background, how he killed his grandparents.
John and the other former worker told us Lambeth was a model resident. He always took his medications. He’d help clean around the house. He’d play hockey. He’d visit with his sister. He didn’t have any angry outbursts. He seemed content.
“I was shocked,” John said, of learning Christopher Lambeth was accused of killing Steven Howells. “Because Christopher is one of the oldest clients there. I've worked with him, he was respectful. He did everything [he] was supposed to do.”
John also said he talked with some of the staff after the killing and was told Christopher Lambeth was supposed to move out that day, but wasn’t ready to leave the home. It was the same thing we heard at the PSRB meeting. And the same thing police suspected when they walked through the house after it turned into a crime scene and noticed his room wasn’t packed up.
It still perplexes Lisa.
“I still think there's no way Chris would have done something like that without some huge mitigating factors,” she shared. “I don't know what they are. I can guess. But I was floored. So surprised. I want to go see him. ‘Chris, what happened?’ He calls me mom. I'm just still—how do they let this happen? That’s what I want to know. How did they let this happen?”
From Lisa’s view, this home was set up to fail.
To her, there was a disconnect in how the staff were trained, how they communicated, how people were placed there, how Tilda Manor ran the house.
“I don't want anybody else having to go through this,” Lisa shared. “Whether they flip out and do something terrible or whether something terrible gets done to them.”
The 12 News I-Team tracked down both of the employees working the morning of the killing at their homes back in September 2021. At that time, both were still working for Tilda Manor and both ultimately declined to talk with us.
A state investigation later found that those two employees did break a very big rule. And that wasn’t only problem going on inside that house.
You can catch the next part of our story in the next chapter of Locked Inside: Safe Space starting May 10, 2022, wherever you listen to podcasts.
Anyone working with or representing Tilda Manor declined to talk with 12 News at this point in our story.
Christopher Lambeth’s current attorney did not respond to any of our requests for comment at the time this story was published.
Locked Inside Podcast: Tilda Manor coverage
Locked Inside, a new 12-News I-Team and VAULT Studios podcast, follows the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Christopher Lambeth and those who crossed his path along the way.