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An Unquiet Death, Chapter 5: Doubt and denials

Jerome Lackner died in his bed early on a summer morning on July 9, 2010. In the hours that followed, Becky put the word out in the recovery community that held him in such esteem.

Friends were stunned.

Trino Savala, the former prizefighter who considered Jerome a second father, recalled visiting him just before he entered hospice. “My pops wasn’t dyin,’” he said recently, eyes welling.

Becky also called Jerome’s good friend Don Gomez. “I told her, ‘I’ll walk you through all this, and we’ll get Doc all the right work. Give him a beautiful send-off,’” he recalled. Don, Becky and her daughter Vickie Waite began to organize a wake and funeral.

That same day, Zelda called the Yolo County coroner to request a death investigation.

Zelda said when she called the funeral director the next day to inquire about the arrangements, Becky was there, and the director handed her the phone. At first, the two grieving women spoke politely, Zelda said. She offered to share the costs.

Then, “I broke down sobbing,” Zelda said. “The only thing I could manage to get out was, ‘Why didn’t you tell us he was in hospice? Why didn’t you tell us he was dying?’”

She said Becky replied, “It happened so suddenly; I just didn’t know.”

Preparations for the funeral proceeded, albeit not smoothly. Jerome was Jewish and Becky wasn’t, and Jerome’s children wanted to be involved in the arrangements. Deputy Coroner Gina Moya was actively looking into the case, and wanted an autopsy before burial, disrupting plans for the wake, which in any case fell outside the Jewish tradition. Although Becky had consulted a rabbi, her daughter Vickie Waite said, Jerome’s kids insisted, “We have to do it our way. Our religion. We know.”

On July 13, they prepared for broiling Davis weather. An awning sheltered arcs of seats overlooking the grave. More than 100 family members, friends and acolytes arrived to pay their respects.

Becky was late. Mourners fidgeted. The rabbi had another funeral waiting, so they started without her. As she gave her eulogy, Johanna said, Becky arrived with a “big woman – who had a gun and everything.” She was a bail bondswoman who had collaborated with Jerome on recovery issues. Becky sat with her son, Michael Steinke, in chairs reserved for family. Joseph Poirier sat in the back, Zelda said.

Becky’s behavior irked Don. “They’re putting her … husband in the ground, and she comes 25 minutes late! ... And doesn’t talk to anybody.”

Everyone had endured three rough months. The daughters had accused Becky of manipulating their father and cutting off access. Becky had accused the daughters of abusing him and holding him captive. Jerome had made claims, involving both Becky and the daughters, depending on who was in the room. He had filed for separation, then opted to reconcile. Soon after, he was dead, and now the coroner was involved.

The tense funeral seemed a fitting coda. Instead, it began years of anguish.

‘I killed Doc’

On the same day she buried her father, Zelda contacted Davis police Lt. Paul Doroshov with her suspicions. The coroner had already been in touch with the department. On July 22, the police launched an investigation of possible murder in hospice, a first for Davis as far back as records showed.

As detectives proceeded in their inquiry, they heard an interesting story from Jane Carpenter, another friend of Jerome and Becky’s. For 20 years, Becky had been Jane’s AA sponsor, a mentor for staying sober. Becky called her before the funeral, in need of a sympathetic ear. They talked over lunch.

“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I killed Doc,’” Jane said in an interview. “And I said, ‘What!?’”

“You know, I just really think we killed him. I just really think that Joseph and I killed him,” she said. They gave him too much morphine, Jane recalled Becky saying.

Earlier, Becky had confided in Jane about Jerome’s plan to divorce, worried how it would affect her finances. Jane wondered about the relationship between the two conversations.

“I said, ‘What do you mean by that, Becky? Do you mean accidentally? Do you mean on purpose?’” Jane said. “She said, ‘Well, you know, I just think I really killed him. I think that’s what I really wanted to do, and he’s dead now. And now I feel really bad that I killed him.’”

Jane said she relayed these conversations to the police and others, including Zelda, whom she met at a memorial gathering for Jerome. Soon after, Jane said, Becky and Joseph began to call her several times daily. “You don’t understand,” she remembered Becky saying about Jerome’s death. “Joseph was much more aggressive,” Jane said. “He’d call me ‘bitch,’ say that I was ruining everything, telling lies.” Zelda included Jane’s account of her conversations with Becky prior to Jerome’s death, and just after, in letters to the state attorney general and other authorities.

Trino said in an interview that Becky told him something similar just after Jerome died. “I think I killed Doc. I think I gave him too much morphine,” he recalled her saying. She sounded “terrified,” and implied it was by accident. At the time, he didn’t know what to think, Trino said. “I just shook my head.”

Trino never told Zelda about the discussion. He said he did tell the police.

In a recent series of phone interviews, Becky answered some questions about events surrounding Jerome’s death but not others, and ultimately declined requests for a more extensive interview. In the course of the conversations, she said the very idea that she would hurt her husband was untrue and hurtful, and that she has worked to forgive the people who accused her.

“I was shocked that anyone could think I could hurt him …” she said. “They treated me like I was a monster.”

Joseph called the idea of an overdose “ridiculous.”

“All I did was try to help,” he said.

Question of motive

About a month after Jerome died, the court appointed Zelda, Jerome’s executrix, as special administrator for his estate. That empowered her to obtain his financial, medical and personal records.

Tenacious and fiery, her emotions close to the surface, Zelda moved quickly to piece together how and why her father died. As she gathered documents and interviewed witnesses, her suspicions grew.

She provided authorities with financial records that she said suggested Becky and Joseph were stealing Jerome’s assets during his last weeks. Jerome had opened an account in Santa Cruz shortly before he died, with family help, after he complained that Becky had blocked access to his funds. The balance, nearly $7,500, was withdrawn two days after he returned to Davis.

Zelda obtained Jerome’s checkbook and bank records. Joseph had signed one check. Another was written to Joseph, the signature illegible. Neither was cashed. A third check for $7,472.61 was written to Becky over what seemed like Jerome’s unsteady signature. Becky’s lawyer later said the process was “nothing sinister” – innocent trial and error with Jerome present.

According to a police report, Becky drove 85 miles to Sebastopol to convert the personal check into a cashier’s check, which she deposited in her account back in Davis. It was two days after Jerome returned home to attempt to reconcile with her, and one day after he entered Mercy General Hospital with chest pain. Without addressing the specifics of the situation, Becky said in a deposition that she often drove to Sebastopol as part of her job at the time as a recovery counselor.

“It threw me to see Joseph Poirier’s signature on my father’s checkbook. To see what I interpreted as a process … to find the best way to empty the account,” Zelda said.

She shared the information with police detective James MacNiven. His report, which Zelda provided to The Bee, verified her description of the three checks.

Zelda also provided police what she considered compelling evidence of other crimes. Jerome’s signature might have been forged on changes to an insurance policy that would have transferred benefits from Yetta to Becky, according to handwriting analysts the family hired and the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general. Becky represented herself as Jerome’s agent to secure an $86,000 loan, when, as far as the daughters were concerned, Jerome had validly transferred that authority to Zelda during his Santa Cruz stay.

In a later probate case, Zelda said Becky and Joseph appeared to be stealing Jerome’s valuables and family heirlooms, including gold bars and coins.

Becky disputed all of the claims during that case.

At the heart of Zelda’s suspicions was her contention that if Jerome had lived to divorce Becky, she would get little from his estate, worth up to $1 million. Most of his fortune was tied up in their home, purchased in 1975, long before they married. Jerome had revoked his trust with Becky while in Santa Cruz, and Becky was challenging that action, claiming Jerome was incompetent.

Zelda was adamant that multiple professionals had found her father competent, and that the trust revocation would have withstood any legal challenges had her father lived. She maintained in a letter to Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto that the threat of divorce meant Becky and Joseph had not only the means to hasten her father’s death, but a possible motive.

The coroner’s story

Coroners examine suspicious cases to assess possible criminality or medical error. Moya worked, in parallel with the police, to learn the cause and manner of Jerome’s death.

After reviewing medical, social service and autopsy records, and conducting interviews with hospice employees, Jerome’s doctors, and the police, Moya concluded Jerome had died of natural causes.

If Jerome were near death before hospice, foul play seemed unlikely. And reading Moya’s report, his condition seemed dire. She noted chronic chest pain, multi-organ system failure, massive weight loss and treatment for heart problems in Santa Cruz among his serious ailments. A post-mortem examination showed his heart was enlarged to three times its normal size.

Jerome was dying, she said. “There’s no disputing that.”

Moya quoted supervising hospice nurse Cynthia Wolff, who praised Joseph as “very conscientious” for logging morphine doses. She interviewed Linda Boehm, Jerome’s primary hospice nurse, who said she never saw any signs of abuse in Jerome’s care.

Moya noted that numerous reports regarding Jerome had been filed with Adult Protective Services in Yolo County, and that no evidence of abuse had been discovered. She quoted from a report in the agency’s file on Jerome: “This family is well known to the Department. It is the case of the alleged victim’s daughters vs. the alleged victim’s wife constantly making allegations against each other.”

Moya’s report, issued in September 2011, concluded that Jerome died from natural causes, with “no evidence to support foul play.” For Becky, it was hard-won exoneration. She and Joseph said it proved their innocence.

Zelda and her sisters were stunned. As a starting point, Zelda and Sara had argued to the coroner that the drugs their father was on at Mercy hospital raised serious questions about whether he was even capable of making a sound decision regarding hospice care.

Zelda compared the coroner’s report against the medical record. “I was shocked and disturbed” at Moya’s gaps and unsupported assertions, she said.

A review of the coroner’s report shows that Moya often failed to cite sources or resolve conflicts between witnesses and documents. Medical records didn’t corroborate some key health issues that Moya cited as proving Jerome was near death. Becky’s claim that he lost 30-33 pounds in Santa Cruz – regarded by Moya and others as important – was not supported in the records.

In discussing Jerome’s capacity to choose hospice, Moya omitted evidence of possible dementia, confusion and disorientation. Even if he had been impaired, Becky could choose for him, Moya said.

Zelda said she told Moya about the affair between Becky and Joseph, and wrote about the relationship to Moya’s boss, Sheriff Prieto. Moya, in a recent interview, said she didn’t recall hearing about the affair.

Zelda also complained in her letter to Prieto that Moya’s report didn’t mention Becky’s adulteration of the second morphine vial. In an interview, Moya had no recollection of a social worker’s threat to report Becky to Adult Protective Services over the episode. She recalled that Joseph added morphine to Jerome’s beverages to “control” him, but didn’t think it warranted noting in her report. She recalled that Joseph couldn’t produce his morphine log – he provided an accounting for just the final 13 hours of Jerome’s life – but she did not know why.

“The patient has a right to refuse (morphine) if they don’t want to take it and they are coherent,” Moya said. But caregivers – Joseph and Becky – have the right to give morphine, even against resistance, she said, if the patient is suffering certain conditions. “They know the person better than you and I sitting here … that’s why you choose your caregivers carefully.”

Moya quoted Wolff as saying there had been “no concern in the house.” Perhaps the nurse didn’t feel the morphine problems were a concern, Moya said.

Moya’s supervisor – whom she replaced after his resignation in 2013 – approved her report. “I’m not blaming him, but it was his responsibility to say … ‘you left this out, you left that out,’” she said. “When you are in this report every day, all day long, for a period of time, you can miss stuff.”

Moya could not retrace her steps, because she destroyed her records. She said she did so to comply with office policy; federal and state regulators said coroners may retain such records.

Moya did keep something else important: Jerome’s brain. For autopsies, brains must be chemically treated to stiffen the tissue for examination. Coroners commonly return the brain to the family for burial, or inform them prior to its destruction. Deputy County Counsel Eric May said the length of storage for an organ or tissue sample varies with circumstances, but did not explain what had happened in Jerome’s case. He couldn’t say how many brains the coroner currently stores, saying it would be too time-consuming for Moya’s staff to review the records.

Zelda learned about the disposition of her father’s brain by accident, weeks after his burial. Visiting her father’s gravesite, she was haunted by the image of it soaking in a jar. “The most difficult part was knowing that his brain – what made him who was – wasn’t even there.”

Exonerated

Thomas Gill, the contract pathologist who removed Jerome’s brain while conducting the autopsy, spoke with Zelda long before his findings became public in the coroner’s report. Zelda said that Gill told her Jerome died from heart disease, with morphine toxicity as a secondary cause.

Morphine data can be hard to interpret, because its concentration in blood and tissue changes after death. In a letter to the California attorney general appealing for assistance in her father’s case, Zelda said Gill acknowledged he was not an expert in morphine metabolism and that a board-certified forensic toxicologist should assess the morphine result, to be more certain about the role morphine played in Jerome’s death.

Zelda asked the coroner to get a second opinion from a certified expert, without success. “We stand by (Gill’s) conclusions,” she said she was told.

A few months later, Gill became infamous. Investigative news articles and a TV documentary described him as incompetent. He was arrested for drunken driving on the way to work, and had admitted to a prosecutor that he had made serious errors in his work on a case, ruining that prosecution, according to the news reports. Yolo County barred Gill from further work. He had performed 146 autopsies for the county.

Soon after, the coroner agreed to vet Gill’s work on Jerome’s case. Moya said her boss selected Robert Anthony, another contract pathologist. His assessment also was included in the coroner’s report. Anthony said morphine played no role in Jerome’s death.

Zelda remained unconvinced, she said, because like Gill, Anthony lacked toxicology certification. Her family hired two leading experts to review the records: Bruce Goldberger, president of the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, the pre-eminent credentialing authority; and Marcella F. Fierro, formerly top medical examiner for Virginia. Zelda provided their comments to authorities.

“The circumstances of Dr. Lackner’s death are most disturbing and should inspire a serious homicide investigation to establish culpability,” Fierro said in a letter to Zelda.

“While morphine toxicity is a common finding in a patient treated by hospice, the dose and frequency of administration of morphine significantly contributed to his death,” Goldberger wrote.

Armed with the views of those authorities, the problems during hospice and her evidence of possible financial crimes, Zelda urged the Yolo County district attorney to prosecute.

Deputy DA Ryan J. Couzens, who had experience in elder abuse cases, reviewed Zelda’s evidence and that of the coroner. He had access to the complete police report, compiled over more than two years, which was never made public. After a few weeks, he decided not to file charges.

In an interview, Couzens declined to answer most questions because a murder investigation is never formally closed. He said, in general, he viewed the evidence as too thin to prove Becky committed any crime beyond a reasonable doubt. He told Zelda in an email that he could not rule out that in his waning days, Jerome verbally permitted Becky to take his belongings and funds. He would say nothing about Joseph, to Zelda or The Bee.

Zelda took her case to the next level. She wrote an impassioned 39-page letter to state Attorney General Kamala Harris laying out the events of the past year and her concerns about the conclusions reached by authorities. She asked Harris to force a prosecution by declaring the DA to have abused his discretion. She also urged the attorney general to “open an investigation into the actions and failures” of the coroner, saying the report constituted either incompetence or “gross malfeasance.”

She also took on the larger issue of elder abuse within hospice settings. She asked how it could be that two people who, by her account, were abusing her father were put in charge of his morphine. She called prosecution of such actions “a matter of public trust.”

Eighteen months later, in January of this year, Harris’ office declined both requests.

‘I love them’

Civil litigation, which began when Becky challenged Jerome’s will, settled last year, the terms private. The Lackner home in Davis was sold.

In reply to written questions to Becky, her lawyer, Judy L. Carver, wrote: “After years of litigation with (Jerome’s) children and the many accusations of wrong-doing they made against her, (Becky) wishes to be left in peace. Investigations by public officials establish that accusations made against her and others surrounding Jerome’s death were meritless. She wishes that people would remember Jerome for the wonderful man he was and the great things he did, and that his life’s work not be sullied by the vindictive actions of others.”

“I have to forgive anybody who’s harmed me and get on with my life and try to be a good person. … I don’t always achieve that. But I know that’s the answer,” Becky said in an interview.

She added, about Jerome’s daughters: “I wish I could hate them, but I love them.”

Zelda’s mother and husband, her siblings and their spouses worked together during the five-year odyssey to achieve what they saw as a kind of justice for Jerome. Zelda – the indefatigable Jerome Lackner’s daughter – never considered backing down. For years, Zelda urged her family to be patient. Give the system a chance to do its job, she told them. “I had such faith.”

Every layer of the ordeal “felt like a betrayal to my family, to my father, to my ideals as an attorney,” Zelda said. “I have been cured of my idealism …”

Sitting in a friend’s home on a recent weekday, just more than five years after her father’s death, Zelda considered a reporter’s question: Did she ever think that maybe her father had just grown tired? That after all the tumult, all the anxiety, he was ready to die?

“Not for a nanosecond,” she answered, without hesitation. “That was not who my father was.” She recalled his weeks in Santa Cruz at Sara’s, how night after night, she’d sit with him in the living room. Two night owls. They talked about movies and food, about her life and his.

“I spent a lot of time talking to my dad. I really cherished that time, and we had great discussions,” Zelda said. “And this is right before he died. And absolutely no indication, no reason for me ever to believe that this was a man who was ready or wanting to die.”

Charles Piller: 916-321-1113, @cpiller

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