Mystery Cloaks Homicide Case At Assisted-living Site

August 25, 2009|By Don Markus and Larry Carson | Don Markus and Larry Carson,Don.markus@baltsun.com and larry.carson@baltsun.com

They were two elderly gentlemen living out their days at Harmony Hall, an assisted-living facility in Columbia. James W. Brown and Earl Lafayette Wilder didn't know each other, according to an official at the facility, and might not have had any contact until Aug. 14.

Now, Brown, 91, is dead and Wilder, 87, has been charged with killing him that afternoon in an incident outside the home where both men lived. It was Howard County's first homicide of the year.

Joseph LaVerghetta, the general counsel for Harmony Hall's owner, said that the details of what triggered the incident remain unclear.

"Nobody knows what happened, it just happened," LaVerghetta said. "It's shocking. It's sad, a very strange thing."

According to police, Brown was sitting on a bench outside Harmony Hall at around 4 p.m., when he was struck in the head by Wilder.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's editions incorrectly reported when a 91-year-old man was allegedly attacked by an 87-year-old man at Harmony Hall in Columbia. The incident occurred Aug. 17.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Brown was taken by medical helicopter to Laurel Regional Hospital and later placed in hospice care at the Lorien Nursing Home, like Harmony Hall a part of the company's Howard County Health Park, where he died from his injuries on Saturday.

The state medical examiner's office ruled Monday that Brown's death was a homicide, caused by head trauma. Wilder was charged by police with second-degree murder, as well as first- and second-degree assault.

A police spokeswoman said that Wilder is not in police custody but had been taken instead to a "private, nonprofit facility." No bail review hearing has been set until Wilder is released.

A law enforcement official said that Wilder had initially been taken to Howard County General Hospital but was later moved to a Sheppard Pratt Health System facility. Sheppard Pratt operates mental health facilities throughout the Baltimore region and the state of Maryland.

Police declined to comment on Wilder's mental condition, citing privacy laws. According to court records, family members petitioned the Howard County Circuit Court in March 2008 to take guardianship of Wilder. Two months later, Frances Crist of Westminster was appointed "guardian of person and property" for Wilder, records indicate.

Crist could not be reached for comment last night.

According to Sue Vaeth, administrator of Howard County's office on aging, elder abuse or exploitation affects between 1 million to 2 million people in the U.S. annually but is normally caused by younger family members or staff at an institution.

Incidents in which one elderly person kills another - a stranger - are unusual, Vaeth said.

"I think that is pretty rare," she said.

Dr. Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida professor who has studied violence among seniors, said there are only about two homicides per million each year committed by people older than 85. With a population of 5.3 million Americans in that age bracket, that equates to roughly 10 homicides a year nationwide.

Cohen said that an incident such as the one that took place at Harmony Hall could have been triggered by a "catastrophic reaction to some event around" Wilder, rather than a premeditated crime.

She said one question was whether officials at the assisted-living facility could have anticipated the attack. Cohen said residents who show signs of violent behavior are often relocated as quickly as possible.

LaVerghetta, the lawyer for Ellicott City-based Lorien Health Systems, said Brown had been a resident of Harmony Hall for two years, and Wilder had lived there for about one year.

A security guard refused a Baltimore Sun reporter entrance to the facility Monday afternoon.

The scene outside, near where the alleged attack occurred, was serene. A man and a woman sat on a bench enjoying the late afternoon breeze. They declined to talk about Brown's death, but the man, who didn't identify himself, said, "It's a nice place."

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