An Astoria man accused of murder by abuse and aggravated murder will remain in jail without bail. 

According to a decision by Clatsop County Circuit Court Judge Phil Nelson released Monday, the state was able to present strong evidence that Christopher Fitzhugh “recklessly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of life, caused the death of (his fiancée) Evelyn Decker.”

Under Oregon Revised Statutes, the state needed to offer proof or a strong presumption of guilt to continue to hold Fitzhugh without bail. A bail hearing on Thursday addressed only the murder by abuse charge.

No one is saying Fitzhugh didn’t beat Decker: the 39-year-old man admitted to beating her “real bad” on July 25.

But a week later, on Aug.1, she was dead.

Judge Nelson heard testimony from Detective Andrew Randall and Sgt. Eric Halverson of the Astoria Police Department and County Medical Examiner Dr. Joann Stefanelli Thursday.

“Based upon Dr. Stefanelli’s testimony, if (Fitzhugh) had taken steps to obtain medical treatment for (Decker) sometime before Aug. 1, 2010, she would not have died,” Nelson wrote. “ … his failure or neglect to take any further steps to obtain medical attention resulted in her death or started the medical events that resulted in her death.”

The district attorney’s office maintains the 42-year-old woman was beaten a second time, perhaps the day before she died, and Fitzhugh refused to get medical help until it was too late.

When concerned neighbors asked about Decker in the week before her death, Fitzhugh lied to them and said he’d taken her to the hospital already, District Attorney Josh Marquis said.  

Fitzhugh’s lawyers argue that Decker was only beaten once the week she died and that she sustained a brain injury on July 25 which led to a slow decline and, eventually, her death on Aug. 1.

Decker’s autopsy revealed layers of new and old bruises and injuries, Stefanelli said: an old black eye, recent groin injuries, bruised hands, a nose that was broken in more than three places, new bruises spreading outward from the corners of her mouth and across her shins, puncture wounds on a leg. 

One bruise covered Decker’s back and was so new investigators didn’t even realize it was a bruise until the autopsy. Typically bruises start out pink in color and darken as time passes, turning shades of purple, blue, green and finally brown as they heal, Stefanelli said.

Decker also had 14 broken ribs (broken at different times, in various stages of healing), a collapsed lung and severe brain swelling, according to the autopsy report.

Stefanelli presented the autopsy report to the court as a member of the Clatsop County Major Crime Team. She witnessed, but did not perform, Decker’s autopsy.

Decker died in a Portland hospital Aug. 1, after being transported there from Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria. Her death is considered a Multnomah County death and Stefanelli is not acting as medical examiner for the case. State Medical Examiner Dr. Chris Young was in charge of the autopsy.

Stefanelli said she knew she would have to testify in the circuit court about the autopsy report so she pestered Young with detailed questions about the cause of death. 

Frustrated, he finally turned to her and said, “This woman was beaten to death.”

“She was in agony,” Marquis said in his opening statement Thursday. The only part of her body not bruised was the central part of her abdomen, he said, as if she’d been curled in the fetal position and had protected that area.

According to investigations led by Randall and Halverson, Fitzhugh left a history of abuse behind him in Alabama and Mississippi. Of the eight women the investigators found who had been Fitzhugh’s partners before Decker, five said he had been physically abusive to them, Sgt. Halverson said.  

They’re not sure when he met Decker, but do know they started dating when Decker lived in Nevada. According to Randall, the couple moved to Astoria in late 2009. They lived primarily off money Decker had inherited from her mother. Fitzhugh did not work. 

Investigations led by Randall revealed several emergency room and hospital visits since Decker and Fitzhugh had moved to Astoria.

“She was always hurt somehow,” said Lillie Kramer, who worked with Decker at Jo-Ann Fabrics in Astoria. “She’d tell us she tripped over something or run into something or was in an accident. We wondered if something was going on.”

Kramer did not testify, but was present at the bail hearing. She had heard about it by chance and decided to come and listen. 

“It’s very strange,” Kramer said afterward. “It’s hard to understand. … What should we have done?”

According to Randall, a neighbor, Leann Harris, went and visited Decker on July 26, after Fitzhugh admitted to beating his fiancée “real bad” on July 25. She told Randall she could hardly recognize her friend.  

Decker’s face was black and swollen. It was hard to tell where her hairline began. Her lips were cut and split. The one eye that wasn’t swollen shut was jumping all over and couldn’t seem to focus. Her nose was so swollen it almost came out to the edges of her eyes.

“Hi,” Decker said. Her voice was rough and raspy, Harris said. Sometimes she made a gurgling sound. “Everything’s OK.”

“Mr. Fitzhugh apologized for what (Harris) saw,” Randall said.

Judge Nelson based his decision to continue to hold Fitzhugh without bail, in part, because of Harris’s report to Randall and Fitzhugh’s own account of Decker’s condition from what he told neighbors and his interviews with police.

It was clear that Decker was dependent on Fitzhugh at that time, Nelson said.

“(Decker’s) physical condition according to Ms. Harris, and to some extent from statements made by (Fitzhugh), indicate she relied upon another for her physical needs,” Nelson wrote in his decision. “The evidence further indicates Evelyn Decker cared for herself, kept the apartment clean and orderly, worked a job, did all the driving, walked the dog and maintained good personal hygiene … sometime after defendant’s comments about ‘hurting her real bad,’ that changed.”

Trial has been set for February 2012.


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