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UPDATE: Suspect identified in Truman Veterans Hospital homicide

Monday, February 4, 2013 | 4:53 p.m. CST; updated 9:44 p.m. CST, Monday, February 4, 2013

COLUMBIA — A 33-year-old man is suspected of the beating death of a 78-year-old man Friday at the Truman Veterans Hospital.

Rudy Perez Jr. of Sedalia was released from jail two days earlier after Pettis County prosecutors declined to charge him with assaulting a neighbor who had been punched in the face.

A warrant against Perez for first-degree murder has been issued, according to a Columbia police news release. Bond has been set at $1 million, cash only.

Perez was not in police custody as of Monday afternoon, according to Sgt. Joe Bernhard, Columbia police spokesman. He said Perez was in a local, secure facility to be evaluated and that police would try to talk to him Monday. Police know where he is, and they are not worried about him fleeing, Bernhard said.

Bernhard identified the victim as Robert O. Hill of Warsaw. Hill was pronounced dead at approximately 10:30 p.m. There were no weapons involved, Bernhard said.

Bernhard said he didn’t know any details about the fight itself, including motive and whether it was a mutual fight or if there was an instigator.

The warrant said Perez attacked Hill on the hospital's second floor "by striking (him) on the head and face." After hospital workers separated the two men, Perez was allowed to return to a common area "after he had calmed down."

Hill was sent to the same common area after he was treated for those injuries. About three hours later, Perez again attacked Hill "for reasons that have not yet been determined," according to the warrant. Hill was punched "multiple times in the face and head" while lying on his back with Perez atop him, according to the warrant. A hospital police officer broke up the disturbance.

A Sedalia police report reviewed by The Associated Press shows that three days prior, on Jan. 29, Perez was arrested on suspicion of first-degree burglary and second-degree assault but released 24 hours later when no charges were filed.

One of Perez's neighbors told Sedalia police that Perez knocked on his front door before punching him in the face without explanation. Perez allegedly followed the neighbor inside and continued to attack.

"I don't even know the guy that well," William R. Rickey, 25, said in a telephone interview. "When I opened my screen door, he started punching me."

Rickey said he had met Perez briefly while previously working at Walmart and last saw his neighbor several weeks ago when he offered to help trim some overgrown tree limbs. Perez said he didn't have enough money and declined the offer, said Rickey, who suffered a broken nose in the recent altercation.

The arresting police officer asked that burglary and assault charges be filed against Perez, but it's not clear why that didn't happen. Pettis County Prosecutor Jeff Mittelhauser did not immediately respond to an interview request Monday.

In a 2003 court case on Missouri Case.net, Perez was listed as mentally incapacitated.

VA officials declined to disclose additional details about the two men, including information about their military service. The case is being investigated by Columbia police and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general.

Truman Hospital spokesman Stephen Gaither said the agency is reviewing its patient safety and security measures but declined to elaborate.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Simina Mistreanu.

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