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When 73 year old Nick Glumac died, nobody suspected his caregiver had been slowly poisoning him. Was this an isolated case - or a symptom of a hidden epidemic?
Nick Glumac took his last breath at LaPorte Hospital at 11:07 A.M. on June 19, 1999. Everyone, including his doctors, assumed the cancer had taken him, that his faltering organs had finally given out. The 73- year-old widower's body had been on the ropes for years. Along with cancer, he suffered from diabetes and partial paralysis brought on by a mild stroke. Before his death he'd been popping a better of life-sustaining pills ------Darvocet and Skelaxin for the constant pain in his back, Lasix to fight off water retention caused by the sputter of his last one remaining kidney, Verapamil to settle off-the-charts blood pressure, and Singulair to steady the wheezing breath rushing in and out of his single lung.
His medications were supervised by his live-in caregiver, Heather Shaw, 25, who occupied a room in his tiny white house in Kingsford Heights, Indiana. Beginning in the fall of 1998, she bathed and fed him and every week organized his multicolored meds in a long green plastic organizer.
When Nick fell gravely ill in the summer of 1999, it was Heather who phoned for the ambulance. She accompanied him to the hospital, then stayed by his side for nearly a week as he slipped away. In return for her warmth and compassion, Nick's daughters offered to let her stay on in his house until she found her own place. They even took up a collection to help her get on her feet.
But Heather Shaw turned out not to be what she seemed. She was the most egregious of predators, camouflaged in a caregiver's cloak. Enlisted to coddle bodies enfeebled by old age, she gained trust and then robbed and planned murder. Which raises a question of serious concern. How many Heather Shaws are out there? Millions of elderly Americans have put their lives in the hands of health care professionals. It's impossible to know how frequently they are abused, neglected and deceived, or as Nick was, snuffed out by those responsible for their care.
Some experts in law enforcement and forensic medicine warn that these "gray murders" --- the killing of some of our most defenseless citizens --- might be considered among the most overlooked violent crimes. For when death claims someone over 65, without blood or bruises, or sure signs of trauma, it's rare that a police investigation is conducted. "You see an old guy like me lying, dead on the floor," say retired detective Joe Soos, 57. "As long as I don't have any bullet holes in me, as long as I haven't been beaten, the television is there, the door is secure, I don't have a rope around my neck --- what is the cause? Natural death."
Soos, a big bear of a man with thinning red hair, a few years ago launched the "gray murders project," a one-man crusade to change the way law enforcement thinks about elder homicide. The field is barely in its infancy, with only a handful of researchers digging through death certificates looking for signs of foul play. "Work in this area is really just beginning," says Lori Steigel, associate director of the American Bar Association's Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly. "We expect old people to die. When it happens we don't think much about why."
In fact look at a certain way, federal crime statistics appear to paint a pretty rosy picture for Americans over 65. For 1997, the most recent year for which these figures are available, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all deaths in this age group were reported as homicides. By comparison, 3 percent of deaths among children under 14 were reported as homicides. But to Soos, the scarcity of foul play in deaths of older Americans only arouses suspicion. "Either the elderly must be extraordinarily safe or we're missing something," he says. "I'm inclined to believe the latter."
He points out that not so long ago there was rarely an investigation when unbruised young children turned up dead in their beds. Today, thanks to publicity about child abuse, we all know that caretakers and even parents are not above taking the lives of the small and vulnerable. And deaths among the young are scrutinized as never before.Cheshes
Soos continues to shell out thousands of dollars of his own money, compiling case studies to document murders of the elderly. Toting gruesome images of battered corpses, he travels the country lecturing to detectives, social workers, coroners, and medical examiners, trying to counter the kid of ageism that helped Heather Shaw come awfully close to getting away with murder.
As killers go, this plump girl from the neighborhood, who looked sweet and mousy when she wore glasses and combed her hair straight, could scarcely have seemed more harmless. But there were glimmers of trouble beneath her soft-spoken exterior, hints of a wild child who liked to frizz up her hair with bright blonde streaks, dabble in cocaine, and sometimes blow her salary on tickets to pro wrestling matches.
The daughter of divorced parents, she'd shown signs of instability at an early age, lashing out at her own father by one time trying to poison his dog and another time slipping rubbing alcohol into his new wife's contact lens case. After high school, Heather, who'd become pregnant when she was a teenager, struggled to raise a child on her own. By that time she's landed a low-paying job at a nursing home where taking advantage of free classes, she completed the two weeks training needed for promotion to certified nursing assistant. State certification later helped her land more lucrative work in home health care.
By all accounts, Nick was a difficult man to share a home with. He would question every aspect of Heather's life --- where she was going, who she was spending time with, how she was spending her money. He often told her he thought her lifestyle was unhealthy for her six-year-old son, who lived with Heather's mother. Beside Nick's bed was a doorbell buzzer so that he could call Heather at night if he was having trouble breathing or needed a drink or help getting to the bathroom. He used the buzzer all the time --- constantly, incessantly --- for the smallest of reasons. It drove Heather crazy. "They were like an old married couple," Shea Collins, Heather's best friend of 13 years, later told police. "The two of them would get into some pretty big arguments."
At the trial it would come out that shortly before Nick died, Heather swiped a few hundred dollars from his checking account and a slew of painkillers from his medicine cabinet. But it wasn't about the money or the drugs. Heather attacked Nick for all the accumulated petty slights and frustrations she'd had to endure as his caretaker and house mate. To put it another way, she simply got sick of him.
Murders of the elderly are like any other killers, explains Soos, with motives as diverse as the weapons they use. They are driven to kill out of anger, hatred, psychosis, desire, jealousy, and, of course, greed. Soos tells the story of old Mrs. Didrickson, whose son drove thousands of miles from Wisconsin to south Florida to smother her in a hospital bed. His plan was to collect his inheritance ahead of schedule, but he was caught in the act when a nurse walked in just as he'd finished squeezing the breath from his mother's lungs. The bounty he sought? A mere $2,000.
But not all perpetrators of eldercide, as some law enforcement officials call it, start out with malicious intent. In Heather's case caring for the elderly was initially quite fulfilling. Things began to unravel as this unstable young woman was pushed to the brink by an irritating old man. Caregiver stress is not uncommon. Although it rarely leads to murder, it has driven children to neglect their own parents, nursing home workers to bruise and batter, and spouses to poison their partners.
Still, one can't help asking, how could anyone take the life of a frail older person? The answer, says Soos, lies in part in the sheer vulnerability of the victims. In fact, America's most prolific serial killers aren't guys named Bundy or Dahmer, but health care professionals such as Michael Swango, a hospital physician who killed dozens of people in the late '80's and early '90s, most of them elderly men and women. He dispatched his targets with lethal injection, believing he was putting people out of their misery. For years, this trusted professional killed and went undetected. Health too, might have gotten away scot free, if only she'd been able to keep her mouth shut.
Heather Shaw liked to talk about everything she did, and many things she never did. Among friends and close family she was known as a compulsive liar who made up stories to earn sympathy or admiration. From the moment she first tried to harm Nick, she kept her friend Shea informed of what she was planning. "She's lied for as long as I've known her," Shea later told police. "I never knew if she was really doing these things or just saying it to get attention."
Heather's first attempt on Nick's life happened in May 1999. He had just returned from eight days in the hospital, where he'd been treated for a painful, scaly rash that had turned his legs and arms into swollen red baseball bats. When he got home he told Heather that doctors believed the rash had been brought on by an allergic reaction, either to the laundry detergent she'd been using or to Cipro, an antibiotic he'd taken before his limbs started to itch so bad that he'd scratched himself and bled.
The following evening, Heather crushed the remaining dozen or so doses of Cipro into a fine white powder and dumped all of it into a 64-ounce bottle of cranberry juice. For three days, morning and night, Nick washing down his meds with the tainted purple liquid. Heather watched for a reaction, but nothing seemed to happen.
Her next move was to swipe nitroglycerin pills from another client's home, hoping to swap them for Nick's kidney medication. On the morning of May 31, she began replacing his Lasix pills with nitro. Once again, nothing happened.
Heather took some time off from her plot to ponder her next move. One night while out for a drink with Patti Grabiakm who was the office manager at Heather's nursing agency, Superior Home Health Care, the pair began comparing notes about abusive ex-boyfriends. Heather told Patti that during a fight she'd shot but not killed her sons father (a lie).
"You think that's something," Patti responded. "I can top that." She said she'd once read a mystery story about a woman who put antifreeze in her husband's coffee every morning until he keeled over. Inspired, she'd decided "all right, I'm going to kill that bastard" and started putting "tiny, minute bits of antifreeze" in her boyfriend's morning brew. But the fluorescent green liquid, which tastes sticky-sweet, seemed to have no impact. "He didn't even get sick," she recalls. "It really made me mad. He knows about it now and he thinks it's hilarious."
It was with this story in mind, that bright and early on Monday, June 14, Heather decided to makeCheshes her move. At breakfast time, she filled a clear glass mason mug three-quarters of the way full with several ounces of antifreeze. Nick drank it all down while Heather watched, and after he was done she eased him into his wheelchair, took him over to the shower and scrubbed him clean. After his shower Nick settled into his hot tub to watch TV. "I was looking for any kind of sign that the antifreeze had had an effect on him," Heather later recalled. "I noticed no changes mentally or physically." She left for the day, scheduled to be back around 7 P.M. that evening. She returned to find Nick barely conscious, mumbling something but making no sense. She calmly picked up the phone and dialed 911. At the hospital Nick was unresponsive. Doctors said his remaining kidney had failed, that he might not make it. But by the second day he was starting to come around, and it looked as though he might recover.
Then, quite suddenly, early on the morning of June 19, everything shut down. His eldest daughter, Lynda, gave the go-ahead to pull the plug. Had doctors known then about the antifreeze they might have been able to wash the toxic liquid from his system. Instead, as his body broke down the ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze, the chemicals would shred his kidney, causing massive neurological damage, renal failure, and ultimately death. Nick's body was cremated and , in keeping with hospital policy, his blood samples destroyed. With no physical evidence of foul play, Heather seemed to be in the clear.
Then one evening in late June the plan began to unravel. A few days after the funeral, Kingford Heights Town Marshal Dennis Frances was off-duty having a casual conversation with Shea, Heather's old friend, when she started volunteering some startling information.
"You know Heather never really liked Nick," she said. "She told me she needed a break from him. She really wanted him out of the picture." Shea talked of how, on the day Nick died, Heather had bragged about how easy it would be to "make a lot of money" selling his meds. She told Frances about the detergent, the Cipro, the nitroglycerin, and the antifreeze.
On the strength of this information, Heather was arrested. She broke down under questioning on July 6, 1999. In a videotaped confession, she described everything she'd done to Nick --- the dates and times, the poisons and the amounts. But, with no body, no hard evidence the antifreeze had actually killed him, the police had only enough to charge Heather with attempted murder.
She was taken into custody and locked up in the county jail awaiting trial. There she ran into an old high school friend who was behind bars on a minor charge. They chatted briefly, and then the young man, who said he'd found God, handed her a Bible. Heather followed up by sending him a long letter. "Just seeing you Friday brought back many memories," she wrote. "I was partying with Ron, Brian, and Andrew, and we were talking and Ron said you died of a drug overdose. I'm very glad you are alive." Heather continued, acknowledging, that yes, she'd screwed up. "As far as my incarceration, guilty as charged," she wrote. "What sucks is that the only real charge is my own confession."
Heather's friend took the letter to the LaPorte County Sheriff's Office, hoping to use it as leverage in his own case. The officers urged him to continue writing. The two inmates exchanged four more letters. "I want to change my plea to guilty," Heather confided in her fifth and final letter, reasoning that this would draw a 20 year sentence at most. "Ten [years] can be taken away for mitigated circumstances --- my cooperation and no priors and whatever. So I end up doing five and [get] parole in two or three."
Fifteen months later Heather pled guilty. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison, the maximum for her crime. Nick's whole family had turned out for her sentencing hearing --- lined up teary-eyed on behalf of their murdered brother, father, grandfather. Heather will be eligible for parole in 25 years. If she serves out her entire sentence, when she walks out of the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis, she might need her own caregiver. She will be 76 years old.
Jay Cheshes is a former senior writer at Boston magazine. His work has appeared in Talk magazine, The New York Observer and CQ.