Accused Batterer, 87, Boxed In Army

Records Indicate Dementia In Case Of Fatal Pummeling

August 26, 2009|By Larry Carson and Nick Madigan | Larry Carson and Nick Madigan,

Retired Baltimore Transit Company worker Earl Lafayette Wilder, the 87-year-old accused of killing a 91-year-old fellow resident at their Columbia assisted-living home, is a one-time boxer who suffers from dementia, according to court records.

The eldest of Wilder's five children, who is his guardian, said Tuesday that she was still struggling to comprehend the Aug. 17 incident in which Wilder is alleged to have risen from his wheelchair and attacked James W. Brown with his fists as the victim sat on a metal bench outside Harmony Hall. Brown died five days later.

"Right now, I'm in total shock. That's not my dad," Frances Crist said of the murder and assault charges.

In May 2008, Crist won guardianship of her father in Howard County Circuit Court. Two doctors at Lorien Nursing Home, part of a senior living complex that includes Harmony Hall, told the court that Wilder was unable to manage his affairs or live independently.

Dr. Rebecca Elon wrote that he was "not capable of comprehending the meaning of the appointment of a guardian," according to court records, and therefore did not need to attend the hearing in his case.

Harmony Hall is part of the Howard County Health Park, developed by Mangione Family Enterprises.

In June, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found a number of deficiencies in staff training and operations at Harmony Hall during an unannounced inspection conducted as part of the state's relicensing process.

"These are deficiencies and problems that need to be fixed, but are unlikely to lead to harm to a resident," said David Paulson, a department spokesman.

Joseph LaVerghetta, general counsel for Mangione, said he had not discussed the report with his client but would do so today.

Brown had lived in the complex for about two years, and Wilder for about a year, company officials said. Police said the men were strangers to each other.

Margaret Bell, a resident at Harmony Hall, said she would see Brown in the hallway at times but didn't know him or any friends he had made there.

"He was an average type of man. Thin," she said. "He was always by himself."

Brown's niece, Nancy Koza, was settling his affairs this week and was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

During World War II, Wilder served in the infantry in Europe and left the Army as a sergeant major, according to Keith Wynn Sr., 80, of Stanardsville, Va., where Wilder lived at a rural ranch home on 10 acres until last year.

"I'd go over to see him, and he'd break out all his uniforms and his medals," Wynn said. Wilder told him that he had boxed in the Army while stationed in Hawaii before the war.

Wilder was diagnosed with "pugilistic dementia" and Alzheimer's disease by the nursing home doctor as part of the guardianship process.

According to initial police reports of the incident, two witnesses said Wilder attacked Brown without provocation. A police spokesman said Wilder was in a wheelchair but got up to approach Brown. Others intervened, but not quickly enough.

"Brown attempted to fend off the attack with his walking cane," the report said, but suffered a severe head injury. Wilder, charged with second-degree murder and assault on Monday, is being held at a private hospital and has not been arrested, according to authorities.

Patients with dementia can become paranoid and delusional, and convince themselves that a stranger is someone else or that someone has stolen their property, said Dr. Alan Jonas, a Baltimore geriatric psychiatrist.

"People who have a dementia have periods when they lose touch with reality," said Jonas, who was not personally familiar with Wilder's condition. "Most of the time, they just talk and don't act it out."

Warren A. Brown, a Baltimore defense attorney and no relation to James W. Brown, predicted that, pending an evaluation, Wilder would end up in a secure health facility rather than in prison.

"It sounds like a slam-dunk for 'not criminally responsible,' " he said.

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