Death spotlights risks of homelessness

October 02, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Helen Reightler's family and friends worried about what would happen to the 43-year-old recovering heroin addict living on the streets. But the delicate balance between looking out for a loved one and being fed up with the troubles she brought with her had tipped, and they had had enough.

Two weeks ago, police say, Reightler was on a bench along Pratt Street when she was stabbed in the neck by a homeless man who started an argument about some cardboard she was sleeping on. She was paralyzed and, while in the hospital, came down with a fever, later slipping into shock. She died Tuesday.

Freda Jess and Barbara Weigman said their sister was treated by doctors like "she was a homeless person looking for a bed." After she was released from Maryland Shock Trauma Center and transferred to a rehabilitation center, her temperature soared to 106.8 degrees. She was taken to Sinai Hospital, where doctors determined almost immediately that she had pneumonia and had slipped into septic shock, her relatives said.

"They said she might stay paralyzed, but nobody expected her to die," Weigman said.

Homicides are rare in the area where Reightler was stabbed, near the intersection of Pratt and Charles streets. The number of violent incidents around the Inner Harbor has increased slightly this year after eight years of steady decreases, according to unofficial statistics provided by the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes living and working downtown. Reightler is the fourth homicide victim; the other three were children drowned by their father in a hotel.

To help address the problems of the homeless in the area, the Downtown Partnership has hired outreach workers to connect them with city services.

"It's an extremely challenging population to work with," said Executive Director Kirby Fowler. "But our effort now is to try, one by one, to get them into housing. An incident like this certainly demonstrates some of the risks involved with homelessness."

Reightler's life followed a rocky path. In 1992, family members said, she was shot outside a Pigtown bar after getting into an argument. Weigman said she had to be resuscitated three times. She struggled with a heroin addiction and for the past five or six years and had been attending a methadone clinic, her family said.

According to court records, she was convicted in 1996 of drug possession with intent to distribute, receiving a suspended four- year sentence and three years of probation. Electronic records show she stayed out of court until 2006, when she separated from her husband. She would be arrested twice over the next five months, on theft and drug possession charges.

Jess said despite her troubles, Reightler was a caring person. Family members were willing to take her in, but Jess said there were frequent problems with Reightler's boyfriend, whom she had met through a methadone program. After exhausting other options, she was living with her 20-year-old daughter, whose patience also ran out, family members said.

About 8:30 p.m. Sept. 18, 54-year-old Edward Thornton stabbed Reightler in the left side of her neck, police said. The knife pierced her spinal cord, and she had no feeling from her chest down, her sisters said. She was hooked up to a breathing machine and was given a tracheotomy.

She was transferred to Kernan Hospital Rehabilitation, and the fever grew worse, family members said. Taken to Sinai Hospital, her condition was quickly diagnosed, but it was too late. She had no reflexes of any kind and no brain activity, and was being kept alive by a machine. She died 17 minutes after family members made the decision to remove her from life support, Jess said.

Her sisters believe her death could have been prevented had she received closer care from doctors.

"They had told us she would not be moved out of Shock Trauma while she had a fever - anyone with a kid knows that's a sign of infection," Jess said.

Thornton was initially charged with attempted first-degree murder. Now that Reightler has died, police said the charges will be upgraded to murder. Meanwhile, Reightler's family wonders how they could have handled the situation differently.

"I mean, we all wish we could've done more," Weigman said.

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