Man free from jail, but not from past

August 06, 1991|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. AJB — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mercy killer Roswell Gilbert is no longer behind bars -- but his friends say he might as well be.

A year has passed since politicians, friends, a daughter living near Baltimore and an ex-prosecutor won Gilbert's freedom, saying he did not deserve to die in prison for killing his wife, Emily, 73, after Alzheimer's disease reduced her to a confused child and osteoporosis caused severe pain in her bones.

Gilbert, 82, may be free from prison now, but in many ways he is still a prisoner. A prisoner of age, health and loneliness.

Although he remains a national symbol for the tragedy that Alzheimer's disease can bring to families, he also is like countless men and women in South Florida who spend their last years alone in towering buildings by the sea.

"Any widow or widower can tell you that you can die of loneliness in these apartments," said Gilbert's good friend, Lillian Irvin. "They are another type of prison. Personally, I was sleeping better when he was in jail. At least he had three meals a day, someone taking care of him and people always around him."

Gilbert, a retired electrical engineer, still lives in the 10th-floor condo in Sea Ranch Lakes that he shared with Emily for 18 years. It is the same apartment where Gilbert sought a desperate solution to his wife's pain and put a gun to her head as she slept, pulling the trigger twice.

Gilbert now spends much of his time reminiscing about Emily, the woman he spent 51 years with.

"He talks about Emily all the time," said Jackie Rhodes, a close friend. "There's not much excitement in his life now. It's very quiet. He watches the sun rise and the sun set."

There are the lunches and early bird dinners with friends, a daily shot of bourbon, some tinkering with electronic gadgets and visits from his only child, Martha Moran, who campaigned to win her father's freedom from her home in the Ruxton area of Baltimore County.

But there is little else now in Gilbert's life.

He has outlived most of his friends and family. Ms. Irvin's husband, Aubrey, a close friend, died while Gilbert was in prison. Gilbert's longtime friend, John Rhodes, suffered a fatal heart attack a couple of months ago.

Gilbert's legs and emphysema also restrict him from walking much farther than across the street to the Publix supermarket or to a nearby Howard Johnson's for lunch. In the morning, it sometimes takes him a half-hour to get out of bed.

Despite his breathing difficulty, he refuses to give up smoking.

There is little that has changed in the apartment that Roswell and Emily bought to spend their golden years together. It remains the same as the day Gilbert phoned the security desk on a March afternoon in 1985 and told them he had just shot his wife.

Several times a day, Roswell Gilbert looks fondly at a small black and white portrait of Emily that he placed on a living room table.

"You can understand how a guy could be in love with this lady," Gilbert said while sitting on his couch, holding the framed photograph of his wife.

When he returned home from prison, his friends wondered whether he would be haunted by memories of the day he ended Emily's suffering.

There was also concern about how he would be received in Sea Ranch Lakes. Would some of his condo neighbors, who wrote the governor asking that he be kept in prison, put up a fuss about his return?

Neither neighbors nor morbid memories have disturbed Gilbert. He said he is at peace and harbors no regrets.

"I feel right at home here. I have no complications with what happened with my wife. She died where I'm sitting," he said in an even tone. The same tone that appalled jurors when he testified coldly and calmly on the witness stand during his murder trial.

"I think about her a lot. I dream about her. She wanted to die. She said so.

"It was a rough go, though. I sure in hell miss her. I wish she could be back."

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