Astoria murder by abuse case suspects remain behind barsTheresa Beverage and Nicole Harris used an invalid woman as their "meal ticket" to money and drugs even after the woman's dead body was pushed into a garbage-strewn ravine, according to the Clatsop County District Attorney's office.
At a release hearing Thursday in Clatsop County Circuit Court, the prosecution laid out much of its case against the two defendants, who are both charged with murder by abuse in the death of Sharon Wilkes.
The hearing will continue June 30, after which Judge Phil Nelson will decide whether Beverage and Harris will continue to be held behind bars without bail. No date for the trial has been set.
Wilkes' body, strapped into her electric wheelchair, was found Feb. 28 at the bottom of an embankment below the Hilltop Apartments on Niagara Avenue, where she lived with Beverage, 30, and Harris, 33.
Beverage admitted to police on the day of the body's discovery that Wilkes had died two weeks earlier, and that she drove the woman's wheelchair out of the apartment and over the edge of the ravine to conceal her death.
The two defendants are charged with murder by abuse, abuse of a corpse, criminal mistreatment and hindering prosecution. Beverage is also charged with identity theft. Murder by abuse, which involves causing the death of a child or dependent person through neglect "under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to the value of human life," is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.
According to the prosecution, the two neglected Wilkes to the point that the smell from her festering bed sores was noticeable in the next-door apartment. The pair also continued to receive money from Wilkes' mother, who paid them $400 a month to cover Wilkes' rent and living expenses, after Wilkes' death. Beverage also used an assumed name to collect the checks.
'No link'But defense attorneys painted Wilkes as a bitter, abrasive woman, estranged from family and friends and suffering from a variety of serious ailments, who failed to take responsibility for her own well-being.
"This is the first case in Oregon of homicide by heart attack," said Randall Vogt, who is representing Beverage. The prosecution, he said, has failed to make a definite link between the two defendants' alleged neglect and Wilkes' death, which he said was caused by heart disease and Wilkes' "unwholesome lifestyle" that included years of illegal drug use.
An autopsy determined that Wilkes likely died of a heart attack, and had been dead two or three weeks by the time her body was found.
Attorneys for Harris contended that it was Beverage, not their client, who handled almost all of the care-giving duties for Wilkes.
"They were not acting as a team," attorney Glenn Faber said.
Brown said Wilkes had been confined to a wheelchair for about a year before her death after an abscess on her spine left her a paraplegic. She was undergoing care at Columbia Memorial Hospital last December when she met up with Beverage, who was there for treatment of a broken toe. Wilkes, who had no place to live at the time, accepted Beverage's offer to move in with her and Harris at their apartment.
Emily Arthur, an AmeriCorps volunteer who lived in the adjoining apartment, testified to hearing moans and groans coming from next door and, later, smelling a foul odor in the room next to Harris and Beverage's residence not long after moving into the complex in late January. The smell was bad enough that she stuffed blankets under the door of the room to keep it out of the rest of the apartment, she said.
At one point Beverage told her that she and Harris were caring for an Alzheimer's patient. "She said if I heard someone, it was her talking to the walls," Arthur said. "That made me feel better about the moaning." The sounds stopped around the middle of February, she said.
Eric Halverson, Astoria Police Department detective, said Beverage and Harris initially refused to come to the door when police came to their apartment after the discovery of the body. When Beverage eventually phoned the police, she first told them she was in Washington, when she in fact was in the apartment the entire time, he said.
When he interviewed them, the two women first said that Wilkes had left the apartment in her wheelchair on her own, and only later Beverage admitted to finding Wilkes dead in her bed the morning of Feb. 13. She said she placed Wilkes in her wheelchair and drove it out of the apartment, and even drew a map to show how she guided the chair around the back of the complex and over the edge of the embankment. She and Harris discussed the plan, but Harris said she was unaware where Beverage had taken the body, he said.
'It was time for her to go'The two said they agreed not to contact authorities because of some outstanding warrants for Beverage's arrest, Halverson said. Harris denied the two had any role in Wilkes' death, he said.
"She said 'I think she died because it was time for her to go, she was so miserable. I didn't help her along - I don't want you to get that impression,'" he said.
The next day police searched Wilkes' bedroom, and Halverson said the "horrific odor" was so strong that he and the other investigators had to wear filters over their faces.
Wilkes' physician, Kevin Baxter, testified that he was appalled by the results of the autopsy report on his patient, saying that it showed a shocking decline in Wilkes' health in the month between the last time he saw her alive, during an examination in mid-January, and her death. Her body was covered with ulcerated bed sores so advanced that bone was exposed, and she had lost as much as 50 pounds, he said.
If he had seen Wilkes alive in the condition she was in just before her death, he would have called the police, he said. "This was obviously abuse of a patient."
The ulcers on her body would have given off a strong odor as they festered, Baxter testified. Their location showed that Wilkes likely lay on her back for a lengthy period without being moved, he said.
Wilkes was taking several medications, including heart medicine, pain-killers and anti-constipation pills, but toxicology reports detected no drugs of any kind in Wilkes' body. Baxter said valium can linger in the body's system for up to four weeks, meaning Wilkes most likely was not given any of the drug for a lengthy period before she died. That would have left her in extreme discomfort, he said, and possibly caused her severe withdrawal.
Baxter said he had prescribed more than 500 tablets of the pain-killers percodan and valium to Wilkes during January, and said there should have been plenty of the pills left over after her death. Police found none in the apartment.
Baxter acknowledged that Wilkes was a difficult patient, "one of the worst I have ever seen," but that she appeared to be improving physically and showing a better attitude when he last saw her in January. She never showed signs of refusing to eat, he said.
Under cross-examination, Vogt challenged Baxter's contention that it was dehydration and sepsis - blood poisoning - that likely killed Wilkes, not the heart attack listed in the official autopsy.