When Christopher Shelton moved into Maplewood Care nursing home in Elgin, he was just 21 years old and a violent rap sheet testified to his explosive temper.

Though in the prime of life, he had a disability that qualified him for nursing home care: mental illness. To keep Shelton and others like him segregated from older, more vulnerable residents, Maplewood officials reserved rooms on the home's second floor for psychiatric patients.

It was a barrier easily breached.

In January, two months after Shelton's arrival, staff reported finding a terrified 69-year-old woman draped over the edge of her bed, crying and moaning in pain. Shelton was hiding in her bathroom.

According to police records and a state investigative report, Shelton had made his way down to the first floor and raped the woman as she pleaded for him to stop.

The incident shines a light on a sometimes hazardous business in Illinois: nursing homes that take in mentally ill criminals and others on society's margins.

Maplewood is part-owned by two longtime nursing home executives, Bryan Barrish and Michael Giannini, who have extensive experience housing felons like Shelton.

Yet the facility didn't adequately check Shelton's criminal background, a state health department investigation found. Facility officials also told state investigators that Shelton and the woman had engaged in "consensual" sex -- a claim rejected by police, prosecutors and emergency room staff.

In a state that relies heavily on nursing homes to house patients with psychiatric disorders, Barrish and Giannini are key figures. They and their companies have an ownership stake or consulting role in 13 Illinois nursing facilities stretching from Elgin to the North Side of Chicago and Rock Island.

Those facilities hold just over 2 percent of the state's nursing home population, the most recent state records show, but they include nearly 10 percent of Illinois' mentally ill nursing home patients and, as of June, almost 6 percent of the 3,000 felons living in the state's nursing facilities. Although psychiatric patients are not inherently dangerous, some have amassed criminal records and can put other residents at risk if they are not carefully assessed, treated and monitored.

Barrish and Giannini say that over roughly two decades together their companies have cared for thousands of patients -- many with severe psychological disorders -- and worked diligently to prevent abuse and violence in the facilities. They said the facilities assign professionals to thoroughly assess the risks that younger mentally ill criminals may pose to other residents, and don't admit anyone considered a danger to others.

The partners said they could not discuss the alleged Maplewood rape in detail because of a pending lawsuit by the woman's family. But the events of that night were complex, they said, and Barrish vehemently denied that Maplewood tried to conceal an attack from state authorities by calling it consensual sex.

"I can assure you this: We didn't cover up anything," Barrish told the Tribune. "We reported it to (the Illinois Department of Public Health). ... We're really diligent in not covering things up. We don't do that."

Barrish said the newspaper was sensationalizing a few regrettable allegations of abuse and does not understand how the pair run their businesses. The nursing homes, while not flawless, offer a vital service to those in need, he and Giannini said.

"We're providing a very nice, homelike environment," Giannini said. "We have invested an enormous amount of resources in trying to attempt, to the extent possible, perfection. To achieve it is going to be very difficult."

Inside the homesMaplewood Care is an X-shaped, two-story structure that in late June held 15 felons among its roughly 200 residents. About half the population was younger than 65, and more than 40 percent had a primary diagnosis of mental illness, according to the most recent figures on the state public health department's Web site.

Federal authorities recently rated the northwest suburban home "below average," giving it two out of five stars for overall quality and for ratio of nursing staff to patients -- an important measure, experts say, of resident protection.

Since January 2008, state authorities have cited Maplewood three times for the most serious category of patient-safety infractions: those that involve a resident in "immediate jeopardy" of serious harm or death. Only 21 of Illinois' 1,129 nursing facilities have been cited for three or more such deficiencies over the same period.

Elgin police reports since 2008 chronicle some of Maplewood's problems: a 78-year-old resident allegedly punched in the face several times by his roommate, packets of marijuana and cocaine discovered in common areas, a worker quitting after allegedly striking and bruising a 75-year-old patient.