Ashland bodies exhumed months ago

Test results are unknown to medical examiner, prosecuting attorney.
Wednesday, August 20, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 13, 2008

The bodies of former patients at Ashland Healthcare were exhumed in search of more evidence in the months before murder charges against former nurse Richard Williams were dismissed.

Eddie Adelstein, acting Boone County medical examiner, said that after attempting to get records of the Ashland investigation he was given only a half-page summary on a previous patient-care analysis done by the Missouri Board of Nursing.

“I was aware of the fact that bodies had been exhumed from the Ashland nursing home, and tests were conducted, the results of which I do not know,” Adelstein said.

Adelstein said he has seen neither autopsy nor toxicology reports from the Ashland exhumations.

At the time of the exhumations, Williams had been charged with the murders of 10 patients at Truman Veterans Hospital, where he worked in 1992. He later worked as a nurse at Ashland Healthcare, then as director of nursing at that facility from March 1993 to July 1994. Thirty patients died during Williams’ time at Ashland Healthcare; there were six deaths in the 10 months after his departure.

Former VA doctor Gordon Christensen, the whistle-blower in the VA case, said Williams was already the subject of an FBI investigation while he was at Ashland. “The question is,” Christensen said, “why wasn’t something done about this in ’93, ’94?”

Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane said he never saw the results of tests done on the bodies, though he said it was his understanding the tests were done by National Medical Services Laboratories, the private lab that conducted tests used in the Truman Veterans Hospital investigation.

“I never got any lab reports,” Crane said.

National Medical Services was most likely testing for succinylcholine, he said, adding that any evidence in the Ashland cases likely would have been undermined when flaws in the toxicology testing in the VA case were exposed. Crane dropped the charges against Williams on Aug. 6.

Crane said the VA Office of the Inspector General oversaw the exhumations. VA spokesman Jon Wooditch refused to answer any questions, citing a VA policy prohibiting comment on open investigations, and would not say whether the investigation into the Ashland Healthcare deaths is under the VA’s control.

Both Adelstein and Crane said that Michael Baden, a nationally renowned pathologist who testified in the O.J. Simpson trial and is featured in an HBO documentary series on criminal forensic science, conducted the autopsies. Baden, who lives in New York, could not be reached for comment.

Catherine Sappington said Monday that her family gave permission several months ago for the exhumation of her mother-in-law, Eva Means.

Means died May 5, 1994, at Ashland Healthcare. Her death was regarded as suspicious. Sappington said that Means’ body was not exhumed but others were. She was unsure how many bodies were exhumed in the investigation.

Sappington said Williams was her mother-in-law’s nurse.

Jerome Bretthorst, whose mother-in-law, Katie Bennett, died at Ashland Healthcare on April 17, 1994, told the Missourian in June 2002 that he had considered Bennett’s death suspicious the day she died. Contacted for this story, Bretthorst refused to talk about the exhumations or the larger investigation into the deaths.

Investigators also contacted James Allen about the death of his mother, Anna Allen, and asked for permission to exhume her body. Allen refused, and said he believed nothing would come of the investigation.

In the Ashland Healthcare investigation, as in the VA case, questions far outnumber answers. A decade after their relatives’ deaths and months after some of those relatives’ bodies were exhumed, families have never been told a definitive cause of death. Even Adelstein, working in an official capacity, has not been granted access to information from the Ashland investigation.

“We wanted closure more than anything,” Sappington said, “because there’s always this question hanging there, ‘How did this woman die?’”

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