An Unquiet Death, Chapter 3: A fateful homecoming

In June 2010, Sara Lackner called her sisters Zelda and Johanna, saying, “Dad has something he wants to talk to us about.” They gathered in the living room of Sara’s home in a Santa Cruz-area subdivision a short drive from the beach. Jerome explained that he was going home to Davis. Back to Becky. He spoke in gentle tones, Zelda recalled, sensitive to their fears.

Zelda and Johanna, now in their 50s, sat together recently in Dharma’s, a vegetarian restaurant in Capitola, thinking back. Zelda wept as she spoke.

“We didn’t know what he was going home to …,” Zelda said. “My biggest fear was that I might not see him again,” that Becky would block all contact.

They said they pleaded with him not to go, and he assured them he knew what he was doing.

“He was rational, and this is what he wanted to do,” Johanna said.

“We had talked about a plan,” Zelda said. “… My dad said, if things don’t go well that he would let me know, and we would bring him back.”

Though still frail, their father seemed energized, Johanna said. She took him shopping, pushing him from store to store in his wheelchair. He needed shorts for the hot Davis summer, a bathrobe for winter. He and Sara were mapping out his memoirs. They saw a man looking forward.

Zelda said the sisters feared Becky might again accuse them of manipulating or abusing him. The day before he left, at their suggestion, he underwent a medical check and toxicology screening at Dominican Hospital, the local facility that had provided them with a visiting nurse during his stay.

For a man with chronic heart disease and hip pain, the results seemed encouraging. He “appears well with no signs of physical abuse,” mentally competent and free of any painkillers, the doctors wrote in the medical record.

He also met with his attorneys to clarify his plans: He would attempt to reconcile with Becky, but wanted to keep the legal process toward divorce on track for the time being, Jerome’s lawyer said in a letter to Becky’s lawyer.

Sara’s husband, Arnon Foa, and Johanna’s husband, Jonathan Marx, drove Jerome back to Davis early the next morning, June 20, 2010. Given the tensions between the families, Zelda said, the men stopped by the Davis Police Department to get an official escort to the home. Becky greeted them at the door with Joseph Poirier, introduced to the husbands as a family friend.

They said their goodbyes and walked to the car. It would be the last time anyone from his Santa Cruz family spoke to him or saw him alive.

Close encounter

Hours later, Becky reached out for a trusted witness. Trino Savala, a longtime family friend, said Becky told him Jerome had suffered at his daughters’ hands, and that she wanted him to hear Jerome’s account. Trino hurried over. He was intensely loyal to Jerome, a mentor who had helped him achieve sobriety and qualify as a drug counselor.

“A Jewish white man who took this hard-core thug kid, who he didn’t know from Adam, and trusted me to come into his life,” he said.

When Trino arrived at the home, he said, he saw Joseph, whom he knew from the AA community. Joseph also came into Jerome’s life as an addict who needed help; his path to recovery was erratic. Sacramento County court records show Joseph pleaded no-contest to DUI in 2000, and for DUI and possession of paraphernalia to smoke narcotics in 2007. In June 2010, he was struggling to finish a drug-diversion program for the latter crimes, the records show.

Becky had hired Joseph to remodel their home and help care for Jerome, she said in an interview. Family and friends claim the relationship went deeper.

In a legal declaration in 2011, Don Gomez, a close friend who knew Joseph and Becky through AA, would say that Becky told him two years earlier that she was having an affair with Joseph. Don urged her to end it, he said in the declaration.

Becky, in a series of recent interviews, did not directly address questions about their personal relationship. Joseph, in a separate interview, described her as an “intimate friend.”

In his own legal declaration written in November 2010, Joseph suggested a kind of intimacy with Jerome as well – long talks about politics, philosophy, religion and their personal histories. “I felt that I could talk with him openly and freely, even critically, and it appeared to me that he shared that sentiment,” Joseph wrote. Near the end of Jerome’s life, Joseph wrote, “I provided physical assistance to Dr. Lackner, as well as providing friendship and emotional support.”

More recently, he praised Jerome for his good works, but backpedaled on the relationship. “I didn’t know Dr. Lackner real well,” he said in an interview. “I knew of him.”

Among friends and family who said they knew about the affair, none could say if Jerome knew that she had been unfaithful.

“As worldly as Doc was, I don’t think Doc caught on to the fact that Becky and Joe were having an affair until late in the game …” Don said recently. “He wanted to believe the best of everybody.”

Donald Steinke, Becky’s son, said he believed his mother was involved with Joseph and that it disturbed him. “He’s my age. My age!” he said. “I thought he was trying to take advantage of her.” Donald said he tried to warn Jerome at one point, but that Jerome had stopped him cold, saying “Don’t try to get your mother in trouble.”

Standing at Jerome’s bedside, Trino squeezed his hand and kissed his forehead. Jerome was lying on his bed, exhausted by the long drive from Santa Cruz, Trino recalled. Then, Trino said, Joseph started a recorder and leaned over Jerome. Trino found his questioning aggressive, a description he would echo later in a court declaration.

He asked, “‘Did your kids take money from you?’ Doc looked like he was terrified,” Trino said, calling it an interrogation. “Becky was laying next to him, caressing his hand, like she was all in love. … And I’m like, ‘this doesn’t look right.’”

“(Doc) was just going, ‘Yes. Yeah. Yeah,’” never a complete sentence, Trino said.

“I almost started bawling …” Trino said. He walked out. “I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

Neither Becky nor Joseph would respond to written questions from The Bee about interviewing Jerome that day or his care at the time.

Changing stories

The next day, Becky called Davis police to report that her husband had been held against his will and physically abused by Sara.

Officer Nick Doane arrived at their home to investigate. In private, Jerome said he had been “held captive,” but then clarified that he was not “physically” held captive, and that he had never asked to leave, Doane wrote in his report. Jerome also offered that “he opted not to contact his wife,” without explaining why. The officer found him “coherent,” “mentally capable” and “very well spoken.” Doane left briefly to make a call.

When he returned, Becky told him Jerome had more to say. Becky and her daughter Vickie Waite began “talking to (Jerome) stating, ‘tell the officer how you were held captive.’ (Jerome) looked at me and stated ‘I was being held hostage,’” Doane reported. Prompted by the women, Doane wrote, Jerome said he was bruised while “trying to escape.”

“I asked (Jerome) if he had asked (Sara) if he could go home and reminded him of our earlier conversation,” Doane wrote. “I never asked them to bring me home,” Jerome replied. “I just assumed they wouldn’t if I asked.”

Doane concluded in his report that Jerome had not been restrained or harmed.

Six weeks earlier, a Santa Cruz County deputy sheriff, also responding to a complaint from Becky, had interviewed Jerome at Sara’s home and reached a similar conclusion. And in the weeks since, several doctors and lawyers had independently met with Jerome – either to check his health and welfare, or to ensure that he was competent to change his testamentary documents. Each concluded, like Doane, that Jerome was capable in his thinking.

Hours after the police interview, Jerome was admitted to Mercy General in East Sacramento with chest pain.

According to Mercy hospital medical records, doctors quizzed Becky about Jerome’s history. She said Jerome had been “on vacation” when his pain began and that he had returned confused. The records make no mention of their estrangement or his decision to attempt reconciliation.

She told officials he’d lost 30 pounds during the months in Sara’s care, according to a later coroner’s report, and that assertion would show up in subsequent hospice documents. Records from a January 2010 checkup and the Mercy hospital visit showed no notable weight loss. He had lost 45 pounds between June 2008 and January 2010 while living at home, medical records show.

Jerome was given opioids to treat sharp pain when he arrived at Mercy. Tests showed that the chest pain was not heart-related. During his stay, Mercy doctors spoke by phone with his cardiologist, who prescribed a Fentanyl patch, a long-lasting, powerful opioid that enters the body through the skin. Later, Jerome described his pain as mild or nonexistent, and said he didn’t want additional painkillers, records show.

Three days after Jerome was admitted, Becky and Joseph requested removal of the Fentanyl prior to a discussion about his again entering hospice for end-of-life care.

That day, doctors and nurses offered conflicting views of his mental state. One diagnosed “questionable mild dementia.” Another said Jerome appeared “confused at times” and “does not answer appropriately to situation.” At other moments, he seemed clear and competent.

The medical staff didn’t address a condition that several experts said could account for his cognitive decline: delirium. Unlike dementia, delirium waxes and wanes. Opioids make it worse.

“It’s total disorientation,” sometimes called “hospital psychosis,” said Vincent Di Maio, a highly regarded forensic pathologist who reviewed Jerome’s documents for The Bee. He said he has seen many cases turn on an elderly victim’s delirium.

The hospital records summarize discussions with Jerome, Becky and Joseph. “Patient was seen again for the chest pain; and I think primarily, the wife is overwhelmed about taking care of him at home …,” a doctor wrote. The doctor described Jerome as depressed, “with flat affect.”

The doctor suggested a nursing home, the record shows, but said “they (would) prefer him to go home.” The patient, the doctor wrote, “requests hospice care.”

Trino, so intimate with Jerome that he helped him in the toilet and carried him like a baby into the car, still can’t comprehend the choice. “I never once seen him look like he wanted to give up on life. … Doc wasn’t dead here,” he said, touching fingers to temples.

Becky and Joseph validated Jerome’s decision, according to the hospital record. Except in one case, the record referred to Joseph as Jerome’s son. His real son and daughters didn’t know he had been hospitalized.

The doctor used “pt” to abbreviate “patient” in this passage: “Pt seems depressed and has stated to family that ‘he does not want to prolong the time until his death’ – family (pt’s wife and son) states that they are aware regarding his wishes and want to be able to take pt home on hospice so that pt feels more comfortable.”

“Imagine if, instead of thinking that Joseph was Jerome’s son, the doctors were aware that Joseph was, in fact, Becky’s lover,” Zelda said. “Would the doctors have accepted as truthful Becky and Joseph’s representations as to Jerome’s wishes?”

While in Santa Cruz, Jerome had revoked his living will and the medical power of attorney that designated Becky to direct his care if he were unable. He instead assigned Sara that role.

At Mercy, with Becky and Joseph at his bedside, Jerome informed a hospital social worker about the changes. But he and Becky repeated the claims about his having been kidnapped and said the changes were the result of his daughters’ abuse and manipulation, the Mercy record shows. Jerome told the social worker that he wanted Becky as his representative after all.

Seven months before, Jerome had done his brief stint at Yolo Hospice, where he complained about Becky to caretakers. This time, the record shows, Becky chose Sutter VNA & Hospice. Jerome agreed.

On June 24, 2010, Mercy discharged Jerome into the care of his “son,” Joseph. He rolled out in a wheelchair for his final ride home.

Charles Piller: 916-321-1113, @cpiller