EASTON -- A Worcester County grand jury has indicted three former employees of a Pocomoke City nursing home in connection with the death of 91-year-old patient who investigators believe was killed with an unauthorized dose of a powerful morphine-based painkiller.
Maidie Lang Shay died Jan. 29 at Hartley Hall Nursing Home, a well-known facility for the elderly on the Lower Eastern Shore.
The state medical examiner's office in Baltimore found traces of morphine in tissue samples taken from the woman's remains after investigations by nursing home officials and police raised questions about the cause of Mrs. Shay's death.
Mrs. Shay's remains were exhumed from a small cemetery outside Pocomoke City Feb. 20 after Hartley Hall administrators, responding to rumors that the patient had been the victim of a mercy killing, discovered prescription drugs improperly stored in the nursing home director's office.
Former employees Marjorie Karen Alpaugh, 51, of Princess Anne and Delores Lee Walker, 47, of Fruitland, were charged yesterday with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, distribution of morphine, conspiracy to distribute morphine and possession of morphine.
A third former employee, Sherrie Lee Agar, 33, of Melfa, Va., was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, distribution of morphine, conspiracy to distribute morphine and possession of morphine.
None of the three women charged was available for comment.
Ms. Alpaugh, who has worked at similar nursing homes in the area, had come to Hartley Hall less than a year ago to be its nursing director. Ms. Walker worked there as a staff licensed practical nurse, and Ms. Agar was employed as a registered nurse.
Ms. Alpaugh, who Hartley Hall officials said quit her job just hours after a search of her office turned up the drugs -- including the morphine-based Roxanol -- in a Manila envelope, hired Salisbury lawyer James V. Anthenelli soon after her resignation.
The Worcester County grand jury met all day Wednesday in Snow Hill before the indictments were returned.
Hartley Hall administrators invited families of patients to come to the nursing home yesterday to ask questions about the investigation, according to Louis Huber, president of Housing and Health Services Inc., the Baltimore firm that manages the 39-year-old facility.
"We have tried to be open and above board on all this," said Mr. Huber, adding that patients and their families will meet again today to discuss the latest developments in the case.
Hartley Hall administrators, who have scheduled a news conference in Pocomoke City today, have maintained that the Shay death is an isolated case and that the home's patients have no reason to worry.
Mr. Huber said Hartley Hall, which is one of Pocomoke City's biggest employers, has 65 of its 69 beds currently occupied.
Hartley Hall employees, who were shocked by disclosures that morphine was found in Mrs. Shay's remains, have been counseled by psychologists, according to Mr. Huber, who called yesterday's indictments "the beginning of the healing process here." He said that those indicted "were friends of the staff members."
In an earlier interview, Hartley Hall Administrator Rebecca L. Sutton said Mrs. Shay, who was from the Greenbackville area of Virginia's Eastern Shore, was never prescribed morphine during the four months she was at the facility.
Mrs. Shay had been taken to a nearby hospital shortly before her death, but Mrs. Sutton said it was "highly unlikely that she was given prescription painkillers there.
Mrs. Shay was described as a terminally ill patient when she arrived at Hartley Hall, but was not in pain and therefore not prescribed morphine or any other painkiller, according to facility officials.