James Keith Brown used to make 41 cents an hour yanking the guts out of turkeys. It paid the room and board in a rat-infested rural Iowa bunkhouse five miles from the plant.
He now makes $8 an hour working for an Arkansas care facility and lives in his own apartment. It's a wage 20 times more than he ever made working for Henry's Turkey Service.
For Henry's, Brown had to show up to work by 5 a.m. every day. Regardless of how many hours he put in, he couldn’t make more than $65 a month. That was the arrangement for the more than 30 years, and a raise wasn’t part of the deal.
Basic qualities of life, such as adequate health care, a savings account, a safe place to live and even happiness, apparently also weren’t part of the deal, his sister, Sherri Brown, said this week.
She visited the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, over the weekend. That’s where her brother and dozens of other mentally disabled workers lived for several decades. As she came into Atalissa, she saw the bright blue bunkhouse, sitting on a hill overlooking the town of 312. She parked her car on the side of the road.
“That’s when I labeled it the house of horrors,” she said. “I needed to see it to start my closure.”
Forty miles away in Davenport, a federal jury awarded 32 disabled workers $240 million in damages Wednesday after finding Texas-based Henry’s violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The civil lawsuit was filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Brown is one of the 32 workers, and each is supposed to receive $7.5 million.
On her visit to the bunkhouse, Sherri Brown said she walked around the 100-year-old abandoned building, recalling several of her brother’s nightmares. They became her own flashbacks, such as seeing her brother’s supervisor, Randy Neubauer, heading into another worker’s bedroom carrying handcuffs.
Neubauer, Brown’s supervisor for 16 years, has denied he punched 20 workers or kicked them in the groin as punishment. He denied any incidents involving Brown.
Neubauer did admit that for amusement, he would pour water in the disabled workers’ boots, not knowing some of them suffered foot fungus problems.
When Brown eventually went to live with his sister in Arkansas, his feet were swollen and painful. She said he developed an obsession with socks in Arkansas, because back at the bunkhouse, he hardly saw a new pair even when his old ones got worn and full of holes.
He got used to taking showers at 3 a.m. At the bunkhouse, if he wasn't among the first in the shower, the hot water would run out, she said. Skipping showers was common.
He had another obsession — covering a bowl of potato chips, she said. At the bunkhouse, mouse droppings would be found in dry food.
Brown worked for Kenneth Henry, the company’s owner, for at least 30 years, since he was a teenager. Henry testified Monday that the disabled workers weren’t allowed to leave the bunkhouse without permission for their own good. He used the example of a worker who wandered off and was later found frozen to death.
Sherri Brown said there were times when supervisors locked her brother in his room. With the exception of trips home to Arkansas, he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. He also never used the phone to call home. His sister said the supervisors listened in on the calls. None of the disabled workers was allowed to have a cellphone.
Normally, the quiet Brown never talked about life at the bunkhouse and would pull away if you tried to touch him, his sister said. So it seemed strange to her when on his visit home in 2006, he refused to go back to Iowa. She inquired, and said a supervisor at the bunkhouse told her he was caught smoking marijuana. She didn't buy the story.
By 2009, the situation seemed stranger still when Dru Neubauer, Randy Neubauer’s wife, told Sherri Brown that the men were being moved into nursing homes in Texas but that the Neubauers were willing to look after her brother.
“It just didn’t seem right,” Sherri Brown said.
In February 2009, she made a hot line call to the Iowa Department of Human Services, concerned about her brother. Within a week, state authorities descended on the bunkhouse and relocated the remaining 21 men to a care facility in Waterloo. The state fire marshal ordered the bunkhouse shut down.
“We’re here today because of me,” she said.
Sherri Brown is tormented that she didn’t act sooner. She said the bunkhouse supervisors lied to her about her brother’s condition.
“The families did not abandon these men,” she said.
Many of the disabled workers either had no living relatives or were wards of the state. James Keith Brown was one of the few who visited home.
On the witness stand Monday, however, Henry told a different story about Brown. He testified to a phone call he had with Sherri Brown, claiming she didn’t want her brother ever to come home again.
“That’s a lie,” Sherri Brown said from the gallery of the courtroom.
During earlier testimony from a psychologist, she cried learning about what her brother went through.
“All these years, I just had no idea,” she said.
Robert Canino, the lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that sued Henry's, called what Henry’s did to the men “slavery.”
He said in his closing argument Tuesday that Henry’s created a “24/7” hostile environment at work and at home.
“You go to work and your supervisors are mistreating you, and you come home and your supervisors are mistreating you,” Canino said. “And they make you eat hot peppers for laughs.”
James Keith Brown was too afraid to testify, according to his sister. Sherri Brown said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression from his time in the bunkhouse.
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He now works for the Elizabeth Richardson Center of Northwest Arkansas. Sherri Brown said it’s the first time the center put someone with mental disabilities on staff.
“He can’t stop working so hard,” she said.
Brown isn’t the only one. Frank Rodriguez, another of Henry’s disabled workers who lived at the bunkhouse, has been named “employee of the year” at Sam’s Club in Waterloo.
When state authorities found the men in February 2009, another worker, David Crouch, had to wear larger shoes because his toenails had grown so long they curled under and injured his feet.
Crouch is now a bowling champ.
The men are learning to care for themselves, to manage their own money and to develop relationships.
Psychologist Sue A. Gant testified Friday that Henry’s isolated the men from the outside world for 30 years. Supervisors went so far as removing TV sets from their rooms, she said. A TV set probably was their only window to the outside world, especially because their actual windows at the bunkhouse were boarded up, she added.
They were so isolated that they were denied any interaction with females, Gant said. “Imagine touching a woman for the first time.”
Rodriguez was denied contact with his daughter or the child's mother for 20 years. They wrote him, but supervisors confiscated the envelopes so he couldn't see the return address, according to testimony.
Rodriguez is now married to the child's mother.
Brown doesn’t have a girlfriend. His sister said he’s not ready for that.
He likes spending time with family and doing his word search books. He's gained 60 pounds since he left the bunkhouse.
His dream is to work on the family farm.
"He wants to set a trailer out there and work," his sister said. "He's come a long way."