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San Francisco sheriff details failed effort to find hospital patient

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Sheriff's deputies searching for a patient at a San Francisco hospital failed to look in all the stairwells and missed the one where the woman was found dead 17 days after she disappeared, the local sheriff said on Wednesday.

They also had the wrong racial description for British-born Lynne Spalding, 57, and waited days to share surveillance footage, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said.

Mirkarimi, whose department polices the city-run hospital, spoke at a news conference for the first time about a number of missteps his deputies made in searching for Spalding.

Her body was found by a medical staff member at San Francisco General Hospital on October 8, 17 days after she disappeared from her room.

Her death led Mayor Ed Lee to request an investigation from the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.

"I vow to make sure something like this never happens again," Mirkarimi told reporters at City Hall.

Spalding, a mother of two, was admitted to San Francisco General Hospital on September 19 and was last seen in her bed the morning of September 21. She was being treated for a urinary tract infection.

When Spalding disappeared, a sheriff's deputy radioed an alert for hospital deputies to be on the lookout for her and they checked the perimeter of the hospital grounds, Mirkarimi said. Hospital workers described her as African-American and a sheriff's log book listed her as Asian, even though she was white, he said.

Four days later, San Francisco police, as part of a missing-persons investigation, asked the sheriff to pull surveillance video to see if they could spot Spalding leaving, Mirkarimi said. But the sheriff's department waited eight more days to give police the footage, he said.

Nine days after Spalding's disappearance, a hospital risk manager asked deputies to search the 24-acre (10-hectare) hospital campus, but the search failed to include stairwells, Mirkarimi said.

On October 1, 10 days after Spalding was last seen in her room, deputies searched half of the stairwells, the sheriff said. On October 4, a medical staff member called deputies to say that someone reported seeing a person on a stairway landing.

"There is no indication that anyone was dispatched to that stairwell," Mirkarimi said.

A hospital employee found Spalding's body in a locked stairway of the facility on October 8.

Hundreds of friends and relatives had handed out leaflets throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in an attempt to find Spalding before she was found at the same facility where she went missing.

"It just becomes more and more troubling," Haig Harris, an attorney representing Spalding's children, said after the news conference. "They don't seem to know who their patient is."

In response to a reporter's question about possible disciplinary action over the failed search, Mirkarimi said the incident led to "staffing changes." But he did not elaborate.

The local medical examiner has yet to say how Spalding died.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Cooney)

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