An Unquiet Death, Chapter 2: A family divided

Looking back, Zelda said, “the real weirdness” in the Lackner family dynamic started in the weeks after Becky and Jerome went to court to stop his alimony payments to his ex-wife, Yetta Lippman, in September 2009.

“Becky started treating me and my sisters (Sara and Johanna) differently than she ever had before,” Zelda said. Warmth turned to hostility. Becky would hang up when they called. They began to see her as Jerome’s gatekeeper.

The daughters left voicemails, they said, but Jerome never called back. Every so often, he was home alone and answered the phone. “He was as sweet as pie. We’d have the most loving interactions,” Zelda said. “I asked him, ‘Dad, did you know I’ve been trying to reach you?’ He had no idea.”

Despite their anxiety, the sisters treaded carefully, Zelda said. The biggest danger, they thought, was alienating Becky so much that they lost touch with their father.

As the daughters mulled their options, events took a turn. In November, Sara, a physician, reached her father and heard a confusing story.

Visiting nurses had come to their home to see if Jerome could qualify for intensive physical therapy paid for by Yolo Hospice. Jerome “suddenly told the nurses that he wanted to (be) removed from the home, that he is scared of Becky and that he would rather be in a dump than in his home,” Sara said in an email to Zelda. “He was mad that Becky was gone for 12 hours the day before …”

Jerome told staff members that Becky was controlling him and that he feared for his safety, according to the hospice intake form. It was one of many records Zelda later would include in a complaint about her father’s death sent to California’s attorney general. If necessary, Jerome told the intake workers, he would “harm himself or get himself arrested” to escape his wife. He ultimately signed up for hospice – end-of-life care – rather than physical therapy.

A social worker thought that Jerome might be paranoid. Hospice records show Jerome told the staff he wanted to remove Becky as his emergency medical decision-maker.

The records say nothing about why he chose hospice as his escape route, rather than moving to a nursing home or calling his daughters, whom the intake form listed as “estranged.”

Jerome entered hospice at The Villa, a Davis facility whose director, Jagdish Goswami, had been a doctor in his native India. Goswami said he was baffled by Jerome’s placement. He seemed remarkably cogent and physically stable for a man supposedly near death.

He also found Becky’s behavior puzzling. She wept when Jerome kicked her out of his room, but initially seemed relieved to have him in hospice, Goswami said.

Becky “admits she sometimes wants to be free of the responsibility of his care and his emotional abuse and control,” the hospice spiritual counselor wrote.

“When (Jerome) started saying, ‘I’m very well, but I’d like to stay here,’” Becky became angry, Goswami said. “I felt very sad. … I said there is something not right about it.”

At one point, Goswami said, Becky accused The Villa’s caregivers of negligence. Fearing a lawsuit, he said, he interviewed Jerome on video. “The staff is unusually good,” Jerome said, reclining in bed, answering with crisp courtesy. Asked if he’d return if needed, Jerome replied, “Absolutely. In a flash.”

When Sara learned he was in hospice, she drove up from Santa Cruz and impressed upon her father that this was meant to be end-of-life care, not nursing care. Soon after, he signed himself out.

With just as little explanation, Jerome made his peace with Becky and returned home. The immediate crisis passed, but underlying tensions smoldered between Becky and the daughters.

‘Get out of my house!’

While Jerome was in hospice and for months after, the legal battle over his alimony raged.

“(W)e were having a difficult time making it because of all the money I was spending” for Jerome’s care and for remodeling to accommodate his wheelchair, Becky said. His penchant to serve patients without pay “cost both of us dearly.”

In a legal statement, Jerome called the alimony payments “a tragedy and a travesty.” Yetta’s practice as a psychologist proved she didn’t need the money anyway, he wrote.

Becky managed the family finances, and court documents showed that Jerome’s income was higher than he understood – about $10,000 a month. Yetta earned about $4,000, including alimony.

In May 2010, the judge decided in Yetta’s favor, castigating Becky in his ruling for what he called exaggerated testimony. After eight months of legal conflict, the relationship between Becky and Jerome’s daughters was left deeply damaged.

A court hearing in downtown Woodland a few months earlier provoked a confrontation that exposed the rift. Johanna was there with Yetta for moral support when Becky arrived, representing Jerome, with his attorney.

“She said my father was not present because – I remember this, because it shocked me – ‘he was on death’s door,’” under sedation with morphine, Johanna recalled. Hearing those words, she said, “I’m just freaking out” with worry. The moment the case recessed, Johanna raced to Davis, ahead of Becky, to see her father. A housekeeper let her in.

“He looked like he was dying,” Johanna said. “He was nonresponsive. He was breathing very shallow …”

Moments later, Becky returned home.

“At the hearing, (Becky) was this decrepit, slow-moving woman who was so old and so victimized … ,” Johanna said. But now, “she came roaring in there like a tiger. She said, ‘… Get out of my house! ... Get away from him! …This is my property! ...’ She got between me and my father and started pushing me out. … I was in tears.”

Following the episode, Zelda called Adult Protective Services to check on their father’s welfare. When she followed up, she said, the agency told her it had determined her father was not being abused. Later, a social worker with the agency would tell a Santa Cruz County deputy sheriff that the Lackner daughters had been making “unsubstantiated claims” for years against Becky, and that she had never found reason to suspect abuse. Zelda and Johanna maintain this was their only contact with APS.

Clarity of thought

During the legal dispute, Jerome’s relentless drive to serve dissipated. He used a walker and, increasingly, a wheelchair. He would need them for the rest of his life. His years of treating patients “24/7” were over.

While his physical decline was clear, the state of Jerome’s mental health was in dispute.

Becky said in a later legal declaration that he suffered from “acute dementia” – a perspective shared by her daughter, son and a paid caregiver. It was obvious to everyone who saw him, she said. “I depended on him for all his decisions. When his decision-making stopped, it was really difficult.”

In another declaration, Becky said that Jerome’s doctor thought he might have Lewy body dementia, caused by brain abnormalities and associated with Parkinson’s disease. Medical records from his hospital and hospice stays show no firm diagnosis of any kind of dementia.

During the last year of his life, Jerome was often “mentally agile … a cynical, sardonic son-of-a-bitch who cracked jokes with the best of ’em,” said Don Gomez, a friend for decades. But Jerome socialized less and less. When he surfaced, his wit sometimes lost its edge. He looked lost. Several friends attributed those moments not to dementia but to narcotics.

He seemed “nodded out,” Don said. As a former addict, he knew the signs.

In a series of phone conversations with The Sacramento Bee, Becky addressed various aspects of her life with Jerome, but answered questions selectively. Ultimately, she declined requests for a formal interview, and never addressed Jerome’s drug regimen before his final hospice stay.

Jerome was prescribed painkilling opioids at home, according to his medical records.

Although Becky said Jerome had dementia, her actions regarding his capacity vacillated. During the alimony case, he provided a legal statement that could only have been valid if he were deemed mentally competent. Yet soon after, in another court proceeding, Becky described him as suffering from acute dementia.

Weeks later, Jerome signed a life insurance policy to Becky’s benefit – something he had to be competent to do.

Whatever Jerome’s mental capacity, his declining physical health taxed both their strength. During one two-week period in March and April 2010, ambulances were called to the home three times. The stress of caring for him overwhelmed Becky, and she lost weight. In mid-April 2010, she asked his daughters, who lived near Santa Cruz, to take their dad briefly for respite care.

“Look, she’s wrecked. We have to be more supportive,” Johanna recalled saying. “She clearly is doing everything she can, and we need to step in.”

‘Dying without you’

Zelda, Johanna and their husbands greeted Jerome with round-the-clock care at Sara’s suburban-style home. Jerome had a bedroom downstairs with a power-lift chair to help him stand up and sit down. He was recovering from bronchitis, and a nurse visited regularly. What was intended as a brief visit stretched into many weeks.

Over time, Jerome regained some strength, and seemed alert and increasingly engaged. Though he still didn’t move well, he took no painkillers, Zelda said. He began to use his walker more around the house.

His daughters and their husbands buoyed his spirits with visits to local eateries. Jerome had loved Mexican fare since his days with the farmworkers. The entire family took him to The Whole Enchilada, a Moss Landing fixture on Highway 1, for his 83rd birthday.

Zelda said that a few days into his stay, Jerome began discussing life with Becky. She said he told his daughters that Becky berated him, and that she selected his caregivers to ensure that she controlled them. She often disappeared for hours at a time, Zelda recalled Jerome saying. Zelda later shared similar accounts with the coroner and other authorities.

Becky wouldn’t let him have any money, yet she spent freely on herself and got a face-lift, Zelda said Jerome told them. “He had no idea how much he received in Social Security, what his pension was, how much he received in a retainer from the plumbers and pipefitters union,” where he provided addiction counseling.

About two weeks into his stay, Jerome consulted an attorney to revoke his trust with Becky and to draw up a new will. He disinherited her.

Jerome also filed for legal separation, the first step toward divorce, and reassigned his powers of attorney from Becky to his daughters. His lawyer certified that Jerome understood what it meant to make such sweeping changes. She did so privately at her office near Santa Cruz on two occasions, according to her legal statement. A psychiatrist separately judged him as competent, but suggested that he appoint a conservator to be more confident that Becky could not successfully challenge his plans, Jerome’s attorney noted in a court document. Jerome opted against that time-consuming process.

On May 3, Becky learned Jerome had withdrawn thousands of dollars from their joint checking account, and $19,000 from the account for a nonprofit they ran. A few days later, she was legally served with copies of the filings for legal separation, power-of-attorney change and revocation of their trust. The proof of service does not show her getting a copy of the new will.

In her reply to the court, she said Jerome’s dementia made him incompetent to divorce her. She said his daughters “fraudulently procured (his) signature” for financial gain.

“I became worried about Jerome, and drove over to Sara’s home on four different occasions, but each time, no one would answer the door,” Becky wrote in a legal declaration. “One time, I tried to see if I could get in Jerome’s bedroom window, but couldn’t. I realized later it was probably a good thing I couldn’t, because they would have had me arrested.”

In interviews, Jerome’s friend Trino Savala, as well as Don, said Becky told them at the time that the daughters were holding Jerome captive, possibly at his son’s house in San Diego. (He actually lived in Sacramento.)

Angered, Trino told Becky, “Let’s go get him!” Abruptly, he said, her story changed. They were hiding Jerome at an unknown location, Becky said. “I now think she didn’t really want to pick him up,” Trino said.

Zelda said Becky “never came to Santa Cruz. Never.”

Becky spoke with Davis police, who asked the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department to check on Jerome’s welfare. Deputy Sheriff Julie Amaya arrived unannounced and interviewed him privately.

Jerome repeated to Amaya much of what he told his daughters, including Becky’s “constant” verbal abuse, according to Amaya’s report. He said that “his frail health was a strain on Becky” and that “there had been a lot of tension.” Jerome maintained he had decided to leave Becky even before he arrived in Santa Cruz. He “was adamant” that he had independently decided to divorce her, Amaya wrote.

“I asked Dr. Lackner if anyone prevented him from calling Becky,” she wrote. “He said, ‘Hell no. For the first time in 10 years I do what I want to do.’ He said if Becky called, he would refer her to his attorney, because he is choosing to not talk with her.”

Echoing the attorney and psychiatrist, Amaya wrote that despite Jerome’s frail health, “I had no doubt that he was coherent and clear in his thinking. …” She found nothing to substantiate manipulation or abuse by his daughters.

Meanwhile, in Davis, Becky confided her financial worries to Jane Carpenter, a close AA friend. Jane said she reassured Becky that even after a divorce, she would get half of the couple’s community property.

“She screamed at me … ‘I don’t want half of it! I want all of it!’” Jane recalled, echoing comments she said she later shared with police.

Seven weeks into his stay with Sara, unable to reach him by phone, Becky sent cards. “I love you, Jerome,” she wrote. “Paco is grieving himself to death.” He was their tiny rescue dog. “(M)y life is empty. … I am dying without you.”

Jerome’s resolve wavered. He told his daughters that he missed his old life. He missed his dogs. In Davis, he was revered in the recovery community. He missed being able to answer the phone, “Lackner here 24/7,” where everyone knew him. “When I answer the phone here, nobody knows me,” he told Zelda.

Jerome decided to give his marriage one last try.

Charles Piller: 916-321-1113, @cpiller