Milton woman charged with neglect in father-in-law’s death

Those days were far behind him. By the time of his death on February 13, the 78-year-old man had been confined to his bed for more than a week, unable to walk or stand or even speak, slurring the few words he managed to get out. He was, in a sense, stranded.

Despite his declining health, William had held firm over the years, at least according to his family, that when he dies, it will be at home, not the hospital.

But Milton police say William finally reached a breaking point. In the hours before his death, according to police, William had become so overwhelmed with pain from an undiagnosed stomach ulcer that he asked his daughter-in-law, Christina Darley, to call 911 on his behalf.

Her only call comes hours later. By that point, it was too late.

Detectives know this thanks to a series of more than 20 videos recorded by Christina, who, as William’s de-facto caretaker, is now being charged in connection to his death. She pleaded not guilty last month to a misdemeanor of neglect of a vulnerable adult. If convicted, she could face up to a $10,000 fine and 18 months in prison.

The videos provide a rare, first-hand account of the alleged crime and have allowed detectives to piece together William’s final hours and create a narrative now outlined in court documents.

Christina, 47, told police she took the videos to show William chose to stay home against her wishes, and a video from the night before his death indeed shows the elderly man repeatedly refuse her requests to go to the hospital.

But police say a different video, taken just hours before he died, tells a different story, one prosecutors believe is enough evidence to convince a jury Christina should be held criminally responsible.

Christina declined a formal interview request, as did her public defender, Bryan Dodge. But in text messages to the Independent, Christina called the case a “nightmare.”

“Yes, I loved and cared for him,” she wrote. “He was a great, strong man. I did all he did tell me to do everyday and I miss him.”

Officers pull up to the yellow house on Manley Road just after midnight and find Christina in the living room. William is laying in bed, not breathing.

Rescue workers arrive shortly after and begin chest compressions when police are unable to find a do not resuscitate order. Twenty minutes later, William is declared dead.

When asked why she never called 911, Christina says William confirmed he didn’t want to go to the hospital. She hands over her phone and says she took videos to prove it, fearing she would be found neglectful.

“We have done everything,” she tells police. “I know how the system works.”

Christina and her husband, William Jr., moved in to care for the elder William 11 years ago following the death of his wife; William Jr. worked shifts at Hannaford while Christina, unemployed, initially helped around the house.

Her caretaking duties increased a few years ago after a knee replacement procedure left William less mobile and prone to falls. Soon the elderly man stopped leaving the house entirely, waging a losing war against a litany of health issues –  emphysema, osteoporosis, dementia and crippling rheumatoid arthritis.

Eventually, Christina found herself taking care of him full-time, feeding him, bathing him, helping him use the bathroom, tasks that become even more difficult in the days leading up to his death.

That’s why she wanted to call 911, she told police, but William refused. She pointed to a video taken the day before he died, which she also sent the video to the Independent.

“It didn’t record. We have to do it again,” Christina says when the video begins. “Are you of sound mind?”

“Yup,” William replies. The camera shows a close up of his head against a black background. The skin on his face sinks inward — around his eyes, beneath his cheekbones.  

“Do you want me to call 911?” Christina asks.

“No.”

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“No.”

“Are you positive?”

“Yes.”

“OK, this is your wish.”

“Yeah. My wish.”

“OK. I just have to make sure. I don’t like it, but OK. I love you,” she says.

“I love you,” he responds. The video ends.

Christina tells the officers that she knew he wasn’t going to last through the night, says she could tell from the way he was breathing – short, shallow bursts – and the way he wouldn’t blink even when she clapped her hands in front of his face.

Officers ask for permission to search her phone. She agrees. They will later find more than 20 videos recorded within four hours of his death, including the video that will prove most important to the state’s case. The video’s audio is transcribed in court documents.

“Maybe time to go?” Christina asks William in the video. It’s 9:23 p.m., three hours before police arrive. William’s response is nearly unintelligible, but police believe he says a word that sounds like “ambulance.”

Then, according to police, he clearly says it: “911.”

“What? 911?” Christina responds.

“Yeah.”

“You want me to call 911?”

“Yes.”

“Are you serious?” Christina says. “There’s a snow storm out there, but I’ll call them. They’re going to come and get you. You want me to call 911?”

“I don’t know,” William replies.

“I’m going to sit here with you for a while, OK? OK? Just close your eyes and relax,” Christina says. She starts to sing him a song.

Ten minutes later, William is seen with his hand over his stomach. “God help me,” he says.

“God’s going to take care of you,” Christina says. When he appears to be struggling to breathe, Christina adds, “Don’t know why you’re fighting so hard. Go be with mom. No more pain.”

William is heard gurgling in another video. When Christina tries to wipe his face, she curses and puts the phone down.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” she says. “There’s blood in there, Dad. I don’t know why you’re fighting this. You just puked up some blood.”

Multiple times throughout the night, Christina tells William he should have let her take him to the hospital. Just before 10 p.m., she asks him if he wants to die. He nods his head.

“Stop fighting it,” she tells him.

Fifteen minutes later, William says his final words documented in the videos.

“I don’t know which way to go,” he says.

Even though Christina never received any funding to help William, police say her role in his life over the last few years qualifies her as a caretaker, which is defined under state law as anyone who assumes responsibility – whether contractual or voluntarily – for providing care to a vulnerable adult.

Police say the same reason applies to why they haven’t charged William Jr. who was also at the house in the hours leading up to William’s death.

Though caretakers can be protected from neglect charges if they’re acting on another person’s wishes, such as an advanced written directive, Christina is unaware of any formal documentation for her father-in-law.

But she says he had told his family for years that he wanted to die at home, and she claims the same was true that night – a stubbornness she believes stemmed from a fear that if he went to the hospital, he’d never come home.

Many elderly people choose to spend their last days in the comfort of their homes. The decision seemed well in line with William’s mentality toward healthcare, who, like many men of his generation, avoided medical professionals even as his condition worsened.

But without any formal plans, Milton Detective Cpl. Frank Scalise said, police “have no way of knowing what he really wanted.”

Besides, Scalise said, “At what point does it not become OK to die at home, when you’re in excruciating pain and you don’t want to be, but you can’t advocate for yourself?”

The question will likely take center stage if Christina’s case ends up going to trial.

“When somebody asks for help, particularly when you’ve chosen to take on that role of a caregiver, you’re really duty bound to get the help that that person is asking for,” said Kelton Olney, the deputy state’s attorney leading the case against Christina. “Not, as is alleged in this case, try to talk them out of it.”

There’s no telling whether William’s fate would have been different had Christina called 911 earlier.

His death certificate says a perforated stomach ulcer led to a condition called peritonitis, which causes abdominal inflammation that can lead to deadly infections throughout the body if untreated.

The state’s chief medical examiner reports that while hospitalization could have provided William medication to ease his pain, there’s no way to predict if intervention would have saved his life.

But Scalise argues it doesn’t matter. What’s clear to him is that William asked for help, and help never came.

Christina, meanwhile, maintains she did everything she could.

“I am being punished for following his wishes,” she wrote in a text message. “I will never do that again.”