A serial killer on the loose at senior living facilities — deaths overlooked as ‘natural causes’

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  • Dianna Tannery: “I was more… horrified just knowing that… that she didn’t die peacefully in her sleep. That her last few minutes was struggling and trying to breathe. So I think about that every night.”
  • Loren Adair: “My brother and I both started having nightmares. I would have visions of her going to the door, and someone trying to get in. And I would say to her, “Don’t open the door. Don’t open the door, that person looks okay, but they’re not.” So um, and then I would, I would try to save her in my, in my dreams all the time.”
  • Ellen French House: “We share the same dreams, a lot of us, just what our moms did … what they, they thought. If it took long. The look on her face when she realized what was happening … recurs in dreams all the time.”
  • Lawyer Trey Crawford: “I’m not even sure what the real number is. I don’t think anybody will ever know….this may be the most prolific serial killer in the history of our state, if not the country. And I don’t say that lightly.”

Imagine hearing that your mom or dad had died peacefully in their sleep — mourning their death, dealing with their estate — then learning years later they’d actually been murdered.  And the killer had spent at least two years rampaging his way through independent living facilities suffocating victims, stealing their jewelry, leaving the crime scene just neat enough that authorities wrote the deaths off as “natural causes.”

Billy Chemirmir was recently sentenced to life in prison for his reign of terror, but there is still a long list of questions about this serial killer. One thing is clear: Ageism was the weapon Chemirmir used to get away with his crime spree for so long.  Institutions designed to protect the victims failed repeatedly.  Autopsies were not performed, theft reports not shared, suspicious facts were ignored, mainly because the victims were old.

I’ve spent the past couple of months doing a long set of intense interviews with victim families to examine what went wrong in Dallas four years ago.  In a four-part podcast series that starts today. you’ll get to know many of the victims. You’ll hear how they were living when they died. Glenna Day had just finished restoring a 19th Century painting, and had been out dancing the night before. Norma French had a big salad and was sitting down to enjoy the Texas-OU football game.  Leah Corkin had been out to see a Hugh Grant movie with her daughter the night before. Carolyn MacPhee was about to drive to church — it was New Year’s Eve, so she had a special outfit on.

In all, Billy Chemirmir was indicted for 22 murders and 2 attempted murders; — convicted of two — but perhaps we’ll never know how many lives he ended, and how many others he destroyed. These deaths must not be forgotten. A murder rampage committed by a madman but enabled by age bias must never happen again. Please listen to today’s part 1 by clicking the play button below or visiting The Perfect Scam home page. A transcript appears below that.

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[00:01:34] Bob: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy. These are the names of the serial killers that almost everyone knows. And yet, the man who might be the most prolific serial killer in Texas history, well his is a name that most Americans do not know, and in a strange way, that’s part of the reason why Billy Chemirmir was able to kill so many victims for so long, because he chose to attack those that sometimes as a society we find the easiest to forget. Billy Chemirmir stalked and killed the elderly. During a two-year rampage of terror, Billy Chemirmir made his way through independent living facilities near Dallas Texas, suffocating victims, stealing their jewelry. Despite this horrid trail of death and theft, he kept on getting away with it because facilities and institutions designed to protect these residents failed repeatedly. And they wrote off the murders as innocent, unattended deaths. The families involved were often told their loved ones had died peacefully from natural causes. Ageism is rampant in America, often with devastating impacts on the victims. But in the case of Billy Chemirmir, the ageism was quite literally fatal. This is a very, very hard story to tell. But these deaths cannot be forgotten. A murder rampage committed by a mad man, but enable by age-bias must never happen again. So today at The Perfect Scam, we begin a 4-part series on Fatal Ageism in connection with AARP – The Magazine. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. We begin in Dallas a luxury, gated retirement community named Edgemere with Loren Adair, whose mom moved there a decade ago with big plans and dreams to enjoy the next phase of her life.

[00:03:37] Loren Adair: My mom was Phyllis Payne.

[00:03:39] Bob: And where was she born?

[00:03:42] Loren Adair: She was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

[00:03:44] Bob: So she lived her whole life in Texas?

[00:03:46] Loren Adair: She did not. Actually, after she and my dad married, he was working for a company that moved them all over the United States. She laughed and said that they lived in 20 houses in 20 years.

[00:03:58] Bob: But the family settled back in Texas when it was time to raise the kids. Phyllis loved being a mom and a grandma.

[00:04:06] Loren Adair: Yeah, well she was, she was just so involved and loved being part of everything that we were doing. She was a very supportive mom, very, that mom that believed in you and loved all of your activities, and just supporting and taking you everywhere, you know. And she was the same way with my kids, and she was always at their baseball games or their ballet recitals, or whatever it was that they were doing.

[00:04:35] Bob: Phyllis was in her 80s when her husband died. Within a year, she decided that big, old house was too much to take care of.

[00:04:43] Loren Adair: She was living in the house where she raised us, she and my dad, they’d been in that house for 46 years. And one day she said, “You know what, the garage door just broke again, the sprinkler system just broke again. I am tired of taking care of this house.” And she knew people at Edgemere. And so she said, “I want to move.” So this was her decision, and she was very excited about it. She loved it. After she moved in there, whenever people would ask her, “How do you like living at Edgemere?” she would just say, “What’s not to like?”

[00:05:19] Bob: Edgemere looks more like a resort than an independent living facility. People move there to live, not to grow old, and Phyllis was thriving, still driving into her 90s, not that she had to drive far.

[00:05:32] Loren Adair: It was nearby. We lived 5 minutes from her in the house that they lived in, but then when she moved, we were just about 10 minutes away, so it was still very convenient to, to get to be with her.

[00:05:46] Bob: In 2016, it was so important that Mom lived that close because Loren’s husband was dying from terminal cancer. Loren leaned on her mom a lot.

[00:05:57] Loren Adair: Oh goodness, she, she was the person that I talked to every day. We were together multiple times a week, and just doing simple things, just if, even if we were just running errands, she wanted to be with us. She wanted to be doing whatever we needed done.

[00:06:16] Bob: When Phyllis wasn’t with Loren, she had very full days at Edgemere.

[00:06:21] Loren Adair: She typically ate her breakfast in her apartment. Her apartment did have a full kitchen. And so she would get up and fix herself some breakfast and read the newspaper was her first thing. Then she would probably go for a, a walk around, and she also was volunteering at Edgemere in the, there was a little store there, and she would volunteer in the store. And so she would go down there and, and volunteer on certain days. She was in a bridge club, she was in some different organizations, and so she would, you know, go see friends for lunch, or we would go have lunch together, go run errands. She had her church and her other organizations that she was a part of. And so she would love to go to maybe a book club and hear a speaker. She just wanted to keep learning and growing, even at 9–, even at 91.

[00:07:13] Bob: Mom always wanted to be a part of everything, but one weekend in 2016, when Loren plans a family vacation to the beach, she fears it will be her last trip with her husband. Well Mom, her busy social schedule just can’t fit it in.

[00:07:29] Loren Adair: We were going to the beach, we were going to Gulf Shores, and we said, “Come, come with us.” And she said, “I’m already committed to host bridge club at Edgemere, and I’ve made that commitment, and I really don’t think I should break that,” and, “Ya’ll go and, and have fun and we’ll talk, and we’ll see you when we get back.” So my husband and I drove, and we had stopped along the way to spend the night on Friday and called her that evening. And she had, you know, had her, she had had the bridge club that day, and so we had a great conversation, and she fussed and said, “Well, they didn’t have the tables set up right, and I had to go chase someone down to set the tables up, but my cards were really good and the food was good and everybody had a, had a fun time,” and so we just had this great talk.

[00:08:17] Bob: For Phyllis, Saturday, May 14th, 2016, begins like any other day. She wakes up, probably makes breakfast, reads the paper, thinks about last night’s bridge game when a knock comes at the door. It’s a man who says he’s there for maintenance. He wasn’t to check on the medical alert button in her bathroom. Phyllis lets him in. Meanwhile, Loren and her family have arrived at their vacation and they’re busy getting settled in and so it’s unusual, but Mom and daughter don’t talk that Saturday. Sunday morning begins the beach with laughter and sunshine, then the phone rings. It’s Loren’s brother. Something has happened to Mom.

[00:08:59] Loren Adair: Edgemere had gotten a hold of him. He said that she had passed away. And I just dropped to my knees and in the sand and said, “What do you mean? We just talked to her. She just, you know, she just, she just hosted bridge club. She was great.” I had been to the doctor with her a week before for her checkup and the doctor had said she was fine. And she, she only took one pill, one blood pressure pill, she was still so vibrant and alive and active. And so we were, we were devastated and shocked and so, yeah, it was pretty horrific.

[00:09:39] Bob: The family throws everything into the car and races back to Dallas. It’s all so sudden. During the drive, they called the facility.

[00:09:48] Loren Adair: We got a hold of Edgemere to say, what, you know, what happened? And they said that she had not shown up for Sunday, for Sunday breakfast with some people that were expecting her, and so they went and checked on her and found her in her apartment. Just looked like she had, you know, she was still in her gown and robe, and it just looked like she had maybe laid down to take a nap or just hadn’t, and that she had died in her sleep.

[00:10:16] Bob: It’s a comforting thought that Mom died in her sleep, but it doesn’t make things feel much better. Now there’s that long drive ahead and then the awful task of cleaning up all the usual loose ends when the get to Dallas. That begins with going through Mom’s things in her room.

[00:10:34] Loren Adair: When we were cleaning out the refrigerator to throw away food, that’s when it dawned on us. Oh, the coffee can. Where is it?

[00:10:42] Bob: Where is the coffee can? It was a secret, that coffee can, but it was precious. Mom would never have misplaced it.

[00:10:51] Bob: She had kept her best jewelry in a, in a coffee can?

[00:10:54] Loren Adair: In a coffee can…in her refrigerator, yes.

[00:10:56] Bob: … in her refrigerator. That’s really, first of all that’s rather ingenious, I think.

[00:11:00] Loren Adair: Yes, I think so too.

[00:11:01] Bob: You, you knew about the coffee can? Or was that…

[00:11:03] Loren Adair: Oh yes, yeah, yeah, we knew about the coffee can,. She had; she had done that for years. She’d done that, she did that in their, in their home that they lived in, ’cause she thought that was, you know, a very good way to store it and not have it be found.

[00:11:17] Bob: They looked everywhere. The coffee can with Mom’s finest jewelry isn’t anywhere. And there are a few other mysterious things out of place.

[00:11:27] Loren Adair: Part of her sterling silver flatware was missing, and so at that point, we just thought maybe someone had, had pilfered it.

[00:11:35] Bob: In the midst of all the sadness and grief and loose ends, now there’s another one. A possible theft. Loren files a police report but missing jewelry is far from her mind. Her mom, her rock isn’t there to talk with every day anymore. She won’t be there to help her deal with her dying husband. One day Mom is hosting bridge, the next day she’s gone. So Loren mostly forgets about the missing jewelry and focuses on her husband’s few remaining days. She has no way of knowing that one month earlier, on April 7th, Catherine Sinclair had also died, unattended at Edgemere. Or the few weeks after Phyllis dies on June 5th, Phoebe Perry is also found dead. Another unattended death at Edgemere. And as Loren begins the healing process, she doesn’t hear but only a few days after Phoebe Perry dies, on June 18th a man is arrested for trespassing on the floors of Edgemere.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:12:43] My name is Diana Tannery, and I’m in Nacogdoches, Texas.

[00:12:47] Bob: And where is that?

[00:12:48] Diana Tannery: That is East Texas.

[00:12:50] Bob: East Texas. How far from Dallas are you?

[00:12:53] Diana Tannery: I’m a three-hour drive from Dallas. My mother, her full name was Juanita Purdy is they, how they know her.

[00:13:00] Bob: Juanita Purdy was a bit of a legend at Tradition Prestonwood Independent Living Facility. A complex that’s about a 15-minute drive north of Edgemere in Dallas, nestled next to the White Rock Creek, it’s much more like a college campus retirement community. Juanita and her husband are among the first to move into the facility when it opens in 2015. She even boasts a founder’s tag. When her husband dies of cancer, she moves to a smaller unit on the same floor, the legendary, 4th Floor where Juanita and her friends often make mischief.

[00:13:34] Diana Tannery: Oh yeah, she, she, they were known as the party girls on the 4th floor, because if it was any kind, you know, Mardi Gras, they had Mardi Gras parties, they had Christmas parties, and everybody knew the 4th floor was where to go. And so she was known as one of the party girls. And she always liked her red wine, because you know, red wine is good for your heart. So she always had a red wine at night, so we, every time we went down to the dining room, she had her carafe of red wine with her, and I would even, on Tuesdays and Fridays they always had happy hour there, so those are the days that I would come and visit and spend the night with her on, it was on a Tuesday or a Friday.

[00:14:12] Bob: Oh my God. So you would you, you would crash there because you were all drinking.

[00:14:14] Diana Tannery: Exactly.

[00:14:16] Bob: Juanita knows how to have fun, but her life had been touched by tragedy many times. Two previous husbands had also died of cancer, but that means she has a big, very big, blended family.

[00:14:31] Bob: And the Christmas card list must be enormous is what I’m thinking.

[00:14:33] Diana Tannery: Oh yeah. And my mother, she never forgot a birthday. One of the grandkids said, that’s one thing we’re going to miss is always having a birthday card from my mom.

[00:14:42] Bob: Juanita is thriving at Tradition Prestonwood.

[00:14:47] Diana Tannery: Well she always woke up, she opens the door and gets the newspaper, and then she always has her hot tea. She reads the newspaper for a while, and then she’ll have her cereal. She likes to go down and exercise, they do exercise classes for any of the continuing education. So they had classes and stuff like that, for them, and so she did that, and she liked to go shopping and so every time we came in, we went shopping. She never liked to just stay, you know, inside for very long. She always like to go out and do stuff, have fun.

[00:15:17] Bob: July 30, 2016, is a Friday night, and Juanita is out to dinner with friends, but she doesn’t want to be out too late. She’s really excited about an amazing 7-course dinner planned for Saturday.

[00:15:30] Diana Tannery: So Traditions, ’cause they always have stuff like that, and so she was really looking forward to that, ’cause she really likes being able to dine and wine and that kind of fun stuff.

[00:15:40] Bob: But when dinner starts, Juanita isn’t in her seat. As they move through the seven courses, her friends start to worry. Someone tells the front desk, and sometime in the next few hours an employee conducts a wellness check. …. Juanita is found dead in her room, an unattended death. Soon after, Diana gets a call from an employee at Tradition Prestonwood.

[00:16:07] Diana Tannery: He says, “You need to come here.” And I was asking him why, and he goes, “You just, you just need to come to The Tradition.” And then my husband took the phone, and he goes, “Can you please tell me what’s going on?” And he said that they had found my mother, and she must have died peacefully in her sleep.

[00:16:21] Bob: Peacefully in her sleep? But she was out on Friday night. She was ready for that 7-course meal. Diana and her husband race to Dallas, but it’s going to several hours before they get there. By the time they arrive, Mom has been moved and well, something just doesn’t look right. She tells an employee.

[00:16:43] Diana Tannery: We were walking around, and I always remembered my mom always took her rings off and laid them on a really pretty glass crystal heart that was next to the sink. Now I noticed there was no rings there. I asked, I said, “Did you see the rings?” And he goes, “No.” He goes, “There wasn’t any rings that we saw of,” And he goes, “But it might have been on her. You need to call, you know, the EMT and see if they…”, and I said “Okay.” And he said that it was probably one of the EMTs, but probably not because, they’ll probably lose their job if they took it. And I kind of said, “Well what about people from Tradition.” And he said that, that they will do their own investigation.

[00:17:20] Bob: And there’s something else that’s wrong. Very wrong.

[00:17:25] Diana Tannery: We’re sitting there, and I started looking, and I go, she woke up this morning. She didn’t die in her sleep. And Phillip goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “Cause the Sunday’s paper is here out on the table, and her tea is sitting right there.” I said, “She was up this morning.”

[00:17:41] Bob: “And perhaps she died during a nap,” she remembers the employee saying.

[00:17:45] Diana Tannery: “Well she must have started not feeling good and then went back to bed and that’s when she died.” And I was like, well, that just doesn’t make sense, because she just had a physical and everything was fine. But I was like, you know, she was, I was like everybody else, “She was 83,” you know, there was nothing wrong with her, but I just, there was just this weird, why was the paper out and why did she, you know, and why were they telling me she died in her sleep? I just knew that she didn’t die peacefully in her sleep. I knew that she had woken up. “Then well she probably started feeling bad and went back to sleep.” I go, “Okay, well maybe that to be plausible,” you know, feasible things like that. But then, then the jewelry was gone.

[00:18:26] Bob: By the time they add it all up, Diana figures about $27,000 worth of jewelry is gone. She doesn’t know what to think of it. And she doesn’t know that on July 18th, just two weeks earlier, Joyce Abramowitz had died an unattended death at Tradition Prestonwood. But Leah Corken who lives near Juanita on the 4th Floor has definitely taken notice of these deaths. She mentions it to her daughter, MJ Jennings, just a couple of days after Juanita’s passing.

[00:18:58] MJ Jennings: She had said to me, “They’re dropping like flies around her. I don’t know what’s going on.”

[00:19:02] Bob: It’s the kind of dark humor MJ was used to from her mom. They’d become very close after her father died several years earlier.

[00:19:10] MJ Jennings: I lost Dad, I, I thought I hadn’t felt pain before Dad died, but he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. And it was just the worst thing ever imaginable. It was three months after he was diagnosed, because you know, here he is this rock star of a, of a, you know, dad, like a CIA agent and, and James Bond-ish who just whittled away in three months, and it was excruciatingly painful.

[00:19:39] Bob: About two years later, Mom moves from Tampa to Dallas to be near her youngest child.

[00:19:44] MJ Jennings: It was a lot of fun. Actually, I got to know Mom more in the, I guess it was just six years, five years that she lived here than I ever really did my whole life because we were just always moving and going. So I really got to have a close bond with my mom when she moved here. Well it was kind of like the closest we had ever been, so I got to dev–, I, I kind of thought I was the luckiest because I got to spend all this time with Mom.

[00:20:12] Bob: At first, Leah lives in her own place in Dallas, but when Tradition Prestonwood starts advertising about this brand new state-of-the-art facility…

[00:20:21] MJ: About a year after she moved there, I was like, “Mom, there’s this new place called Tradition-Prestonwood moving in around, literally around the corner.” It’s like a mile and a half away from me, and brand new building. So I was really excited about it, and we went and toured it, and you know, she’d be the first person in her apartment, and one of the first people in the building. So we were really excited when we found out that was being built.

[00:20:49] Bob: Moving to Tradition Prestonwood doesn’t slow Leah Corken’s social life at all. After all, she lives on the 4th Floor, the party floor. Still, she loves going out. Mom is a football fan, a really big football fan.

[00:21:04] MJ Jennings: She’s the kind that would belly up to the bar at a restaurant. You know, and a cold beer at a Packer’s bar to watch her Green Bay Packers. Oh my God, she was the best fan in the world. And get on the phone with my brother and talk play-by-play, and she just, she was just a fun one. She had a lot of fun.

[00:21:26] Bob: Did she have a cheesehead?

[00:21:28] MJ Jennings: Of course! I got one in my bar right now. A bottle of vodka with a cheesehead.

(chuckles)

[00:21:34] Bob: Mom’s days are filled with activity that includes plenty of phone calls with her children.

[00:21:40] Bob: You guys talked on the phone at least every day, right?

[00:21:43] MJ Jennings: Every day. So we have a routine. She we would, I would wake up, get my coffee, call Mom, say, “Whatcha doing today?” You know there were lots of activities. She was still doing things like playing Wii or Wii Bowling or whatever it was, or she was going in the gym and, and trying to stay fit and just I’d call her every morning between 9 and 9:30 a.m. And then, if I didn’t see her that day, my sister would get off work around 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock our time, and she would make sure to call Mom every night to see how she was. So we had a routine to check on her on a regular basis. And then I was there at least four times a week either taking her to dinner, picking her up.

[00:22:29] Bob: On August 18th, 2016, MJ and her mom going on a big date.

[00:22:35] MJ Jennings: I’d taken her shopping, and she was standing there with her hand on her hip, and I took a picture of it looking all sassy. We just went to have dinner and then we were off to a movie.

[00:22:46] Bob: What movie did you see?

[00:22:48] MJ Jennings: I knew you were going to ask me that. The movie with Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep. She was, it was, it was just the most charming movie ever. She wanted to be a singer, but she was a terrible singer, but Hugh Grant helped her, and it was, we just laughed, and it was one of those, you know dinner theaters where you get dinner served and, and just these comfortable chairs and it was right next door to Tradition-Prestonwood. So it was so convenient, she was just, you know, a mile away, like I said. Well yeah, we just had a great time.

[00:23:23] Bob: The next day they talk in the morning as they do every day. But by lunchtime … the routine is broken.

[00:23:31] MJ Jennings: I had my normal call in the morning, and asked her what she was doing that day, and she told me she was getting her hair done around noon, and so, you know, I had my chance to say, “I love you. Have a great day, Mom.” And then that afternoon my sister called, and there was no answer.

[00:23:49] Bob: MJ’s sister leaves a voicemail on one of those old style answering machines, the kind where you can screen calls. So anyone in the room could have heard the message. “Mom, where are you? Mom, pick up.” But no one answers. Did anyone hear the calls? We’ll never know, but when repeated efforts to raise Mom fail, MJ becomes very concerned and calls the front desk.

[00:24:14] MJ Jennings: I asked them to just knock on her door and make sure she was okay. And at the same time, I said, “I’m going to be on my way.” So as I’m on my way, I get a phone call that says, “You need to get here.” And as I’m turning the corner, I see the reflection of a fire truck, the EMTs, and I, I just lost it. My heart just sank knowing it was Mom. I knew it was Mom. And then just parked the car and ran up there as fast as I could.

[00:24:41] Bob: She races upstairs to Mom’s apartment.

[00:24:44] MJ Jennings: I walk in and, and it’s just the two young EMT guys and my mom laying down on the floor with a, a sheet over her. And they wouldn’t let me see her, so I, obviously, just started screaming and crying, and shocked because I just lost her, and I just didn’t expect it, I was just with her and talked to her. So I just didn’t expect this happening. And so I, I was pretty hysterical. I’m sure I was just bawling and in shock.

[00:25:15] Bob: The death is so fresh; the scene is still pretty chaotic. But in the midst of the shock and chaos, MJ notices something is wrong.

[00:25:24] MJ Jennings: They made me wait until the police officer came before they took the sheet off of her. In the meantime, staff at Tradition Prestonwood had, had come in. I was angry that there wasn’t anybody there except the EMT, and I, I can’t remember if it was before they took the sheet off or after, I, I looked, it must have been after. I had looked at her finger, and I’m like, where the hell’s her ring, and I believe I, I was yelling it, “Who took her ring?” Mom never took her ring off. She never took it off. So, and when they took the sheet off, I just, I’d never seen a person die before, but, but I look at it and I said, so, “No, this, this, it’s not how people die.” It just looked. the way she laying looked odd, her walker was on the other side of the kitchen. And I thought, well why is, you know, just little snapshots I took that everything looked really odd. But I don’t know how people die, so the staff there was hugging me and saying, “Yes, this is how people, if they have a stroke, this is how they fall. This is how they might look like.” And I’m like, eh, you know, I’m kind of arguing saying, eh, I don’t know about that, but the…

[00:26:46] Bob: Still trying to process everything that’s happened, she starts to cling to the idea that Mom died a peaceful death at 83. But, things were nagging at her.

[00:26:56] MJ Jennings: That was comforting. I just hoped that it, you know, she, she was hit with a stroke or whatever and died instantly and didn’t even know what happened to her. That, that was my, a comforting thought. But at the same time, I’m looking around and I’m like, this doesn’t look right. This doesn’t look right. You know, ow, my poor mom, poor mom. And just, just, I was heartbroken. And um, I felt, it was just heartbreaking.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:27:31] Bob: A few weeks later, Ellen French House would feel that same heartbreak.

[00:27:36] Bob: Tell me about your mom.

[00:27:37] Ellen French House: So my mom was Norma French, and she was born in Galveston, Texas, on August 14th, 1931. I was the baby of four, and I was most similar to my mom of all the kids, and there was five years difference between myself and my next sibling. So I got to spend a lot of time with my parents in their older years. That being said, we had so much fun together, and she was fun, and she was funny and witty and um, understanding and compassionate. We were so close that she could finish my sentences. She spent a lot of time with my family after my dad had passed away, and we would travel together and take her on, on our trips with us, and we have a place in Florida, so she would come to Florida with us and she would cook and help with the kids, and then when we’d, she’d come visit me in Indiana, we would do gardening. She loved to garden. And we would spend hours planting our flowers in May, and teaching my kids to do the, to learn how to plant with us. My mom also was a really wonderful seamstress, and so we spent a lot of time, she’d make a lot of my dresses and a lot of my clothes.

[00:29:02] Bob: Oh wow.

[00:29:02] Ellen French House: Yeah, yeah, I didn’t apprec–, that appreciate that as well as I should now, but it’s fun.

[00:29:08] Bob: So like your, your high school prom or something, did she make a dress for something like that?

[00:29:11] Ellen French House: Yeah. Yeah, oh yeah, she would make those. And even in college.

[00:29:15] Bob: After her husband dies of melanoma in 2006, Norma lives in their home for almost a decade, but by 2014, it’s time to try a simpler life. She moves to Tradition Prestonwood.

[00:29:29] Ellen French House: She wanted to downsize, and she wanted to be in a safe environment. We wanted her to be in a safe environment. She had one of those flagstone backyards, and you know, you get worried as they get older that they’re going to fall, and they’re by themselves. My brother and sister live in Dallas, so she saw them frequently. And we all talked to her every day, so we weren’t too worried, but you know, it was getting roof problems, it had big trees, and a tree would fall on the house, and we’re like, let’s get her out of here. So it was actually really fun. I flew into Dallas, and we went and looked at a couple of different places, and she ended up choosing where she was living, and I thought it was awesome and safe and very, very nice. And that she’d be happy there. And safe.

[00:30:19] Bob: It turns out to be an easy adjustment. Norma loves living at Tradition Prestonwood.

[00:30:26] Ellen French House: She really did travel a lot, and she drove, and so she would get up, depending on what day, you know, she’d have her cleaning girl come in. She would go to Bible study probably twice a week, so she did a lot of cooking for them, and she did cooking for the church that she’d take meals for funerals or whatever they had needed. She was active and with her church friends, and her older friends that were, most of her high school and college friends were out of town, but they would come in town, and they would go to lunch or, you know, shopping or whatever every so often, so they could all get together.

[00:31:06] Bob: It’s now nearly two months since Juanita and Leah were found dead in their rooms at Tradition Prestonwood. It’s early October 2016, and Norma isn’t in Dallas. She’s in Indianapolis visiting Ellen. It’s a nice long visit, about a month. A few days before she’s meant to go back to Dallas, Norma says something unusual for the 85-year-old mom and grandmother.

[00:31:32] Ellen French House: And she’d go to bed earlier than I would, and we would go put my kids, and we’d read them Bible stories and say their prayers, and then I’d go down and lay with her in bed. And we were just talking, and she said, “Ellen,” she said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do without me.” And she was genuinely worried. And I said, “Mother, you’re not to worry about that.” And she said, “I just, I worry that you’re just, if something happens…” I said, “Mother, first of all, nothing’s going to happen, and second of all, you know what, you’ve raised me in a Christian home, I know you’re in heaven. I know I will see you again.” And you know, of course, it made me cry. And I just said, “Don’t even think about that or worry about it.” It’s just strange she said that to me and then she went home two days later.

[00:32:19] Bob: Ellen always hates it when Mom leaves.

[00:32:23] Ellen French House: She wanted to go back, and of course I always beg her, “Just stay a little bit longer.” But Texas/OU weekend was approaching, and she has friends that come in from Austin and they go to dinner Friday night.

[00:32:36] Bob: Can’t miss the Texas/OU festivities. So, they pack Mom up for an early morning flight.

[00:32:42] Ellen French House: My husband woke up, it’s like 5 in the morning, and we went to the front door to say good-bye to her, and she gave just a big old hug to me, and she said, “Let not cry today.” She said, “I’m going to see you in a couple of weeks for Thanksgiving,” and just, “We’ll be together soon.:” And I said, “Okay, okay.” I was so tired I didn’t cry; it was like the only time I’ve not ever, ever cried. And then my husband, husband gave her a kiss on her forehead, and then when she got to Dallas, she’d always called me to say I’m home, you know, whatever; she goes, she said, “That was so sweet. Did you notice your husband kissed me on the forehead?” And I said, “No.” And she goes, “Well, I don’t think he’s ever done that.” And she’s like, “It was so sweet.”

[00:33:29] Bob: So Norma gets back in time to see friends on Friday night, but decides she doesn’t want to deal with big game crowd on Saturday, and instead, plans to watch the game at home. That morning she wakes up, gets ready, and then goes down to the cafeteria to get a big salad to eat during the first half. The salad stays untouched on her kitchen counter.

[00:33:50] Ellen French House: My sister had called me that evening, and said, “I can’t get a hold of Mother.” And I said, “Okay, well I mean I’m sure she’s, maybe she’s gone to sleep already,” or, you know, I don’t know. So she said, “Well you try her.” And I said, “Okay.” So I called her twice on her cellphone, went into voicemail, and then I called her on her landline where she had one of those older machines that she can hear the person leaving a message. And I was like, “Mother! Hello! Answer your phone or I’m going to ping you,” because I also had her iPad Apple ID, and I could put it in and ping her if I really needed her. She did not like it when I did that, because it would scare her.

[00:34:34] Bob: Ellen pings her. Mom doesn’t respond to anything. So the family asks for a wellness check. Ellen’s sister gets a call back right away. “Come to Tradition Prestonwood.”

[00:34:47] Ellen French House: And my sister said, “Yes, I’ll call my brother.” So they drove over there and met the Community Relation Director. And he met them outside and there was an ambulance, and my sister was, you know, just taken back, and he told her out there that, you know, she had passed away. And then they walked upstairs and as they were walking upstairs, the paramedics were walking out, and you know just confirmed whatever, then when they got in the room, the Community Director stayed with them the whole time. And the police came, and they had to, you know, have a cause of death.

[00:35:39] Bob: Heart attack or stroke they suggest to the family. Still on the phone from Indiana, Ellen feels completely helpless. She acts on instinct.

[00:35:47] Ellen French House: So my Mom had donated her body to UT Southwestern, and so they had to wait a couple hours for them to get there to get her body. And when they were coming I said, I was hysterical, pretty much. I was, you know, my family was with me, and no one could believe it, you know, and I said, “She has to take a picture of her.” And my sister’s like, “What?” I go, “You have to take a picture of her. I can’t never see her body again, I need it for closure, and I just need it to believe, you know, the whole thing that’s happened.” I, my brother had died a while back, and none of us ever saw his body, and that was something that I didn’t realize was going to be hard, because you always wonder, hey, was it really him? I don’t know. So anyway, they took a picture and it’s a good thing they did.

[00:36:41] Bob: Because when they come to take the body, there is an awful discovery.

[00:36:45] Ellen French House: When the UT Southwestern came, I said, “Oh, check her jewelry.” My sister said, “She doesn’t have her ring on.” And I said, “She has to have her ring on because she couldn’t get it off.” And I said when she was here, we made chicken marsala one night and we both had flour in our rings, and I said, “Take off your ring. Let’s wash our rings,” and she said, “I don’t even take it off anymore.” I said, “Oh, come on here, here’s some Dawn soap,” (chuckles) like, “Pull them off.” And could, could not get it over her knuckle. And so we just washed there and that was that. But it was interesting that that happened that, that instant that I knew she couldn’t get her ring off. I just started thinking, who in the world steals a ring off a dead person’s body?

[00:37:33] Bob: It takes a couple of days for Ellen to get to Dallas,

[00:37:36] Ellen French House: My sister picked me up at the airport, and took me straight there, and there was the salad on the counter, and a bloodstain on the carpet.

[00:37:47] Bob: So she starts looking around the room trying to figure out if anything else looks wrong.

[00:37:52] Ellen French House: So we went through everything. And I mean clothes, pockets. When she was visiting me, she had a cro–, big cross necklace that she had gotten, gold chain and a cross that she had gotten in Italy. And it’s just another thing, you know, I said, “Oh, you’re wearing that cross that’s so pretty,” and she said, “Yeah, I took it out of the safety deposit box. I decided to, that I should start wearing it.” She had it in this little mesh case or bag, and she, I saw that mesh bag on her countertop, and it was empty. And I said, “Did you,” I just asked my sister, “Did you do anything with that necklace?” And she said, “No.” And I said, “Okay, well she had a necklace in there.” And she had cash in her wallet, or she should have. She only had a couple dollars in there, but she had been to the bank the day before and had gotten out $600 in cash, and that was gone. And over time, we realized a couple other items that were missing.

[00:38:47] Bob: When the opportunity arises, she reports her concerns, and she hears what sounds like a terrible theory about what’s going on with these unattended deaths.

[00:38:59] Ellen French House: So, when we started making plans to do a service for her, we decided to do it at the building that she loved, and we had to talk to the staff and the management. And so we met down in their office, and I just said to them, “My mother’s ring was stolen off of her finger by someone.” And I was just trying to be nice. I said, “You know, for you guys,” I say, “You shouldn’t be sending your concierge up there by herself to find a deceased person. That’s bad for them. You should always be sending in twos.” And I said, “And you, you should never let the paramedics alone with my mom. She should have never been alone until my brother and sister got there.” And so they just kind of looked at me and said, “Oh, oh, okay, we’ll…” And then the next day, the director called me on the phone, she said, “Can I come up to your room?” And I said, “Yes.” And so she came up and she said, “I just wanted to let you know that we have had two prior deaths with thefts.” And I said, “Wedding rings?” And she said, “Hmm-hmm.” And I said, “Okay. That is really bad.” And she said, “Well the other families are suspecting of the paramedics or the fire department.”

[00:40:28] Bob: The other families suspect the paramedics? It’s horrible, too much to think about at the moment really. She reports the thefts to police, but she’s got so many other things to think about. On October 15th, nine days after Norma French’s unattended death, a big memorial service is held at Tradition Prestonwood. All Norma’s friends are there, Ellen is overcome with grief, but still, on that sad day, she notices flashing lights outside the building. EMTs are outside again. She doesn’t know it yet, but they’re there because there’s yet another unattended death that day at Tradition Prestonwood. Who is it and who in the world steals a ring off a dead person’s body? That’s next week on The Perfect Scam.

 

 

 

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About Bob Sullivan 1605 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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