Caregivers ask court to be released on bail until Astoria 'death by neglect' case is triedWitnesses offered conflicting accounts of Sharon Wilkes' likely state in her last days during a bail hearing Wednesday for the two women accused of killing her through neglect.
The hearing before Clatsop County Circuit Judge Phil Nelson, continued from June 3, is to determine if Theresa Beverage and Nichole Harris can be released on bail or will remain behind bars until their trial on charges of murder by abuse in Wilkes death last February. The hearing is scheduled to wrap up on July 8. No trial date has been set.
Wilkes' body was found Feb. 28 strapped into her electric wheelchair at the bottom of a ravine behind the Hilltop Apartments complex on Niagara Avenue. Beverage and Harris, her two caregivers, admitted to police that they got rid of the body after Wilkes died around Feb. 14 and concealed her death over fears that Beverage would be arrested for an outstanding warrant.
The prosecution claims that the two suspects left the woman without adequate food or medical care and stole her prescribed painkillers, and after her death continued collecting checks for rent and spending money from Wilkes' mother.
Defense attorneys argue that Wilkes' health was already ruined from a lifetime of illegal drug abuse, and that the prosecution is trying to convict Beverage and Harris of "homicide by heart attack" without proof that the alleged neglect contributed to Wilkes' death.
District Attorney Josh Marquis brought on two witnesses who seemed to offer contradictory testimony about Wilkes' last days.
The first was Tim Razillard, an acquaintance of Beverage and Harris, who visited their apartment a few times a week during the two months Wilkes lived there. He testified seeing Wilkes on a handful of occasions, including just two or three days before her death, and said she did not appear to be suffering. The final day he saw Wilkes, he said, Harris brought her a sandwich and glass of milk.
During some other visits he shared cocaine with the three women, and other people brought other drugs to the house, said Razillard, who testified that he suffers from a learning disability that affects his ability to remember things.
On a visit to the apartment after Wilkes' death, Beverage and Harris told him that Wilkes had left the residence and gone to see friends in Warrenton, he said.
Wilkes likely would have suffered considerably during her last days, according to Clatsop County Medical Examiner JoAnn Stefanelli, who also testified Wednesday.
Stefanelli inspected Wilkes' body where it was found in the ravine, and attended the autopsy conducted the next day by Oregon State Chief Medical Examiner Larry Lewman.
Wilkes' body showed such a "startling amount of emaciation," including a lack of subcutaneous fat and muscle between the ribs, that she originally thought the woman suffered from cancer, Stefanelli said. Her bowels were full of fecal matter, showing she was severely constipated, and there also were no traces of the many medications prescribed to Wilkes, including painkillers, in her system, she said.
Wilkes also had seven very severe ulcerated bed sores on her body, four of them bad enough that bone was exposed, she said. The ulcers would have formed while Wilkes was alive, and would not have been affected by the fact that the body lay outside for two weeks, she said. They also likely would have produced a strong odor noticeable to anyone who saw Wilkes in the last week or so before her death, she said.
Another witness who lived in the apartment next to Beverage and Harris testified earlier that the smell in the room adjacent to their unit was so strong she had to stuff blankets under the door of the room to keep the smell from the rest of her apartment.
Lewman's autopsy report stated that Wilkes likely died of a heart attack, but Stefanelli said "there's no doubt in my mind" that the lack of food, medicine and proper medical care she said the autopsy revealed helped cause that heart failure.
"She probably wouldn't have died on (Feb. 14)" with proper care, she said.
Illegal drugs, like the cocaine Razillard said he shared with Wilkes, could help cause a heart attack, but if it killed Wilkes it would have showed up in her blood at the autopsy, Stefanelli said.
The painkillers prescribed to Wilkes should also have been found in the toxicology tests on the body's blood and urine, even two weeks after her death.
But William Brady, former state medical examiner who was called to testify by the defense, said any drugs in Wilkes' body could have dissipated during the two weeks the corpse spent outdoors.
"Drugs break down, and disappear, and may not be detected," he said.
Brady said there was no way to distinguish between malnutrition caused by a person choosing not to eat or having food kept from them. But a person with Wilkes' medical problems would be "far less likely" to eat properly on her own, he said. But he doubted that malnutrition would have been a major contributing factor in Wilkes' death.