Report: Homicides point to growing concerns about elder abuse

Photo by Kelina Ariana.

A report from the Attorney General's office highlights the homicides of four elderly Vermonters in 2010. Photo by Kelina Ariana.

Four people between the ages of 78 and 89 were the victims of homicide in 2010, according to a state commission led by the Vermont attorney general’s office. Two of the incidents occurred in southern Vermont nursing homes.

Alice Williams, 89, was killed when another patient at a Vernon nursing home slammed her head against a wall.

Eighty-four-year-old Dorothy Papero, of Bennington, also a nursing home resident, was crushed by another patient and died two days later of internal injuries.

Donald Syron, 83, of Burlington, slipped over a dog dish in an altercation with his son, broke his leg and died two weeks later of a blood clot.

In a much publicized case, the remains of Sheffield resident Pat O’Hagan, 78, were found in Wheelock, Vt., by hunters after she had been missing for weeks.

No charges were brought in three of the homicides. The O’Hagan case is still under investigation by the Vermont State Police.

The Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission Report lists the number of homicides in 2010 and highlights the fact that four out of nine reported deaths were of elderly Vermonters. It does not, however, cite the names of individuals. Under statute, commission members who include advocates and state officials are not permitted to disclose information related to the fatality list. VTDigger.org compiled the names of these individuals from vital records, the Vermont State Police, nursing home investigations and news reports. State officials confirmed the homicides.

Each state entity we contacted to obtain information about individual cases had a different total number of homicides for 2010. The Domestic Violence Fatality Report cites 11 deaths; the Vermont State Police list includes six homicides; and the chief medical examiner’s office issued nine death certificates in which homicide is cited as the cause of death.

Elderly abuse, a rising concern

This is the first time the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission, which was formed in 2002 under then-Gov. Howard Dean, has taken up the issue of elder abuse and homicide.

Advocates and state officials say the 2010 homicides are not part of a trend, nor are they related to incidents reported to Adult Protective Services, the program that investigates complaints of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults — disabled and/or frail and elderly Vermonters. The authors of the report say the homicides highlight a more general concern about the extent of elder abuse in Vermont.

The commission authors note “that the APS (Adult Protective Services) caseload is increasing in the number of cases and severity of abuse.” The number of complaints reported to Adult Protective Services has tripled over the last 11 years, according to documents from the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

Susan Wehry, commissioner of the department, said she was “relieved to find these were not people with whom we had prior involvement.”

The report, Wehry said, bears no relationship to the current backlog of abuse complaints at Adult Protective Service, but it “begs more important questions.”

One of the questions that springs to mind for Ken Gordon, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for Northeastern Vermont, is whether the elderly citizens of Vermont are getting proper care or protection in nursing homes.

“We’ve been concerned for many years,” Gordon said. “People are supposed to be safer under supervision.”

Recommendations from the commission

The Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission wrote three recommendations to address elderly abuse. The first was that Adult Protective Services and the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living should work with Vermont Domestic Violence Council and the Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to develop outreach programs for isolated elders vulnerable to abuse.

The second recommendation was for the secretary of the Agency of Human Services to develop a protocol to connect with local services and obtain confidential support for vulnerable adults. It also suggests that APS investigators and law enforcement work together.

Lastly, the commission recommended that the Vermont Legislature consider enacting legislation to provide APS with the following:

— A statutory change that would result in a substantiated perpetrator in the APS registry remaining on the registry pending appeal.

— Access to the Department of Correction’s database, and for law enforcement to have access to the APS registry.

— Access to other states’ abuse registries.

— A review of the APS statute to consider an expansion of the program’s case management obligations under the law. (Currently, Adult Protective Services does not provide such services, even though it’s supposed to under statute.)

“The Vermont state police support the commission’s recommendations for preventing abuse, said David Covell, chief criminal investigator and committee member. “And we encourage anyone who suspects elder abuse to report it to your local police agency, so we can help end the violence.”

The commission’s report, released annually from the Vermont attorney general’s office, is developed by a multi-disciplinary group of state officials and advocates. Vermont is one of 28 states and the District of Columbia with a Domestic Violence Fatality Review group. The commission was created to collect data and “be better able to understand why and how the fatalities occurred and what Vermont can do to prevent these fatalities.”

How they died

Donald Eugene Syron: Aug. 17, 1926 – June 11, 2010

Syron, 83-years-old at the time of his death, was a retired pharmacist born in Clyde, N.Y. According to information gathered from the case, including a police report from the Burlington Police Department, Syron was no stranger to domestic abuse. In 2002, he had allegedly abused his wife in Florida. Syron’s wife had died earlier in 2010 and Syron had moved to live with his son and daughter-in-law before the time of his death.

On May 26, 2010, Syron argued with his daughter-in-law over a barking dog. His son allegedly came to the aid of his wife after his father raised a three-pronged cane at her. After wrestling over the cane for approximately 10 to 15 seconds, Syron allegedly stepped back, tripping over a dog’s water dish, which caused him to fall over backwards.

Syron died two weeks later due to blunt impact to his femur, which fractured the bone and resulted in a blood clot in his leg. He died at the Birchwood Terrace Healthcare Long Term Care Facility. The Chittenden County state’s attorney’s office decided the evidence did not indicate sufficient reason for a criminal investigation.

Dorothy L. Papero: March 6, 1926 – Nov.  26, 2010

According to an Associated Press article, Papero, suffering from dementia, wandered into another resident’s room at the Crescent Manner Nursing Home in Brattleboro. According to the report, 58-year-old dementia patient Rodolfo Davalos mistook Papero for an intruder and fell on top of her as he knocked her to the ground.

In a survey, the Division of Licensing and Protection reported: “Nursing staff heard loud yelling from Resident #2’s (Rodolfo Davalos’) room “get [him/her) (Papero) out of here”. Resident #2 (Davalos) was found on the floor, along with Resident #1(Papero), and Resident #1 (Papero) sustained serious injuries, requiring transfer to hospital.”

Papero suffered a head wound and nine broken ribs. She died two days later at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington. The death was caused by blunt impact resulting in a crushing of the torso. Charges against Davalos were dropped by the Bennington state’s attorney. Erica Marthage told WCAX Television that cases involving incapacitated patients are tricky to prosecute.

Pat O’Hagan: Jan.  17, 1932 – October,  2010

The high profile case of O’Hagan’s disappearance was covered nationally and investigated by local and federal officials. O’Hagan went missing Sept. 10, 2010 from her home in Sheffield, Vt.

O’Hagan was reported missing by a friend after missing a rug hooking class. The friend went to O’Hagan’s house to find her car in the driveway, and no one could give a reason for her to wander off.

The remains of her body were found by two hunters in the beginning of October in the town of Wheelock. Those responsible for the murder of O’Hagan have not been identified,  and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of those responsible for the disappearance of O’Hagan. She was 78 years old.

Alice Williams: June 1, 1921 – Sept.  12, 2010

Unlike the case of Pat O’Hagan, the case of Williams’ death was not well publicized. It was also difficult to obtain records of her death because the Vermont State Police said the investigation was ongoing.

The following information has been pieced together about the events that occurred at Vernon Green Nursing Home from a Division of Licensing and Protection report.

On Sept. 3, 2010, a resident of the nursing home allegedly grabbed Williams’ shirt from behind and pulled her to the left and down, causing Williams to fall against the wall,  hitting the left side of her head with force and falling to the floor. Immediately following the incident, Williams was transported to the hospital.

According to the survey, the Vernon Green Nursing Home didn’t report the alleged abuse to the state until Sept. 8. Under statute, nursing homes are required to report incidents immediately.

The resident, whose name was not disclosed, allegedly had a history of being “physically aggressive towards staff and other residents, episodes of biting stuff, may become aggressive without cause at times without warning.”

Williams died on Sept.  12. She was 89-years old.

Editor’s note: Because of an editing error, this story was originally posted in an incomplete form. It was reposted 6:30 a.m., Aug. 8, 2011.

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