Monday, February 14, 2011

Autopsy Cutbacks Reveal 'Gray Homicides'

Unlike what you see on CSI, many suspicious deaths aren't properly investigated.

Allen says once the team started looking they found a lot of elderly people dying under suspicious circumstances.

"I normally have at least 15 active cases on my caseload at any time," she says. "It is amazing how many more cases we had than when I entered this unit five years ago. ... The level of seriousness and complexity of the cases has taken on an additional dimension as well."

Allen says it is hard to prove murder or neglect in the elderly because they have many medical problems. But she says that doesn't mean coroners and medical examiners should simply stop doing autopsies on older people.

In the investigation into Kittower's death, Allen says she had a lot of evidence showing caregiver Cesar Ulloa had beaten and abused him.

"Because [Kittower] had a blood clot dislodge and that wound up killing him, we couldn't say to a medical certainty ... that the physical violence that he had suffered shortly before his death caused the clot to dislodge," she said. "I realized that we really weren't going to be able to charge a homicide."

But the more she thought about Kittower and what he had suffered, she decided to charge Ulloa with torture. A jury agreed that's what happened to Kittower and four other residents. Ulloa was sentenced to life in prison.

Kittower's Autopsy Unveils Additional Trauma

After Richard McDonough, a former Hollywood TV director, retired, he began to develop dementia. His night wanderings became too frequent and dangerous, so his wife, Mary, along with their three children made the difficult decision to move him into a home where he could be safer.

But we can't just say it's complicated and push it aside. We can't just say they're old and they're going to die soon and not look at it as something that is significant.

- Robin Allen, Los Angeles deputy district attorney

"We had promised each other we would never put the other one in a nursing home. I would say, 'I will always take care of you,' and Richard would say, 'I will always take care of you,' " Mary McDonough says.

The first couple of nursing homes were a bad fit for his needs, but then in December of 2006, McDonough says, they found Silverado.

"It was perfect," she says. "He could walk out any of the doors, except the front door ... and walk all around. They had a little pitch-and-putt course, a swimming pool that was well-guarded and fenced. It was a lovely place. It was like a home."

She says Richard seemed less agitated at Silverado and she thought his care was very good. But one day, the home called a meeting to tell the families a caregiver had been arrested in connection with the death of one of the residents: Elmore Kittower. Mary McDonough said she was shocked but not worried about her husband.

During the time the caretaker was being investigated, Richard died. That was in 2008. Mary says it wasn't a surprise because he had become very weak.

What did surprise her was when six months later a detective came by to talk with her and her daughter Molly. He told them caregivers at the home had seen the suspect in the Kittower case beat other residents, including Richard.

"What could I have done?" Mary McDonough says. "That always goes through your mind, what could I have done to stop that. But I never saw anything. He had bruises and maybe a little abrasion here but so did a lot of the others."

Without the autopsy, Kittower's abuser would have gotten away with it, says Allen.
by Sandra Bartlett

"The deaths are complicated," Allen says. "But we can't just say it's complicated and push it aside. We can't just say they're old and they're going to die soon and not look at it as something that is significant."

Allen says if autopsies on the elderly are stopped, the truth about a suspicious death may never be learned.

"In this particular case, the truth did go to the grave; it was buried, it was 6 feet under with Mr. Kittower. And this abuse would have just continued," Allen says. "It was only that death that actually got someone to come forward. And I think [if] these secrets go to the grave ... more and more people will just get abused in the process."


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