A death in the family

The Baltimore Sun

Neighbors on the quiet, northern Baltimore County road said they worried about the elderly woman who occasionally tottered to the nearby grocery store.

Social workers were concerned for Bernadette Leiben, too. Checking on her after she abruptly left a nursing center and returned to the cottage she shared with her son and his wife, they found the home dirty and crowded with pets - and then the family moved abruptly to Pennsylvania and seemed to disappear.

A little more than a year later, Leiben was dead at the age of 87, her body covered in bedsores in a room buzzing with flies. And now her son and daughter-in-law are in a Pennsylvania jail, charged with murder.

William Donohue, 72, and his wife, Frances Donohue, 60, are due in court today. Prosecutors plan to detail the evidence they say shows that the couple conspired to kill Bernadette and argue that the case should go to trial.

The charges filed this year are the result of an investigation that began shortly after Leiben died May 20, 2004, in a small farmhouse in Fawn Township, just over the state line in York County. Her bedsores were so deep that bone and muscle were visible, according to police statement of probable cause. She had "chemical abrasions" on her back and other places, according to the police statement, which does not explain the source of the injuries.

She died from an acute bodily infection, a medical examiner found.

While a lawyer for Frances Donohue did not return calls seeking comment, a lawyer for William Donohue said his client maintains his innocence.

"At this point in time, we don't know much about the circumstances surrounding [Leiben's] death," attorney Richard Robinson said. "Categorically, my client denies any neglect."

York County Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker declined to discuss the evidence in detail, including the significance of the chemical burns.

The prosecutor said charges were brought only after investigators painstakingly reviewed evidence - much of it from Maryland.

Many of the family's former neighbors on Stansbury Mill Road in Jacksonville were unaware until recently that Leiben was dead, much less that her son and his wife had been charged with murder.

"Everybody was concerned about that old lady," said Anne Eddy, the family's former next-door neighbor.

Leiben and the Donohues had a complex relationship, said R. Martin Caskey, a Towson lawyer who said he had been called by the elderly woman for advice. She gave birth to her son when she was an unmarried teenager, and her parents raised him as her sibling, he said.

After she married, she was estranged from her son for decades, Caskey said. When her husband died, she reached out to Donohue, inviting him to live with her and introducing him to the woman who would become his wife, according to the lawyer.

Residents of Stansbury Mill Road said that the Donohues held yard sales nearly every week and did not bring the merchandise inside between sales. Residents complained to the county's code enforcement office about piles of trash and about the five horses and five dogs in the cottage's weed-choked yard.

Neighbors say that they avoided the house and the Donohues, but would speak with Leiben or offer her rides when they saw her at the Safeway grocery store on nearby Sweet Air Road.

Leiben's situation caught the attention of social workers when she experienced health problems in 2002. In February, she was discharged from Greater Baltimore Medical Center to Brightwood Center, an extended-care facility off Falls Road in Lutherville, for pain management and rehabilitation for spine compression fractures and an infection of the skin of the feet.

But a month later, she left Brightwood.

The Brightwood staff was also concerned by Leiben's departure, since the Donohues did not meet with workers to learn how to care for the woman's medical condition, according to Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. The agency sent a social worker to check on Leiben, Robinson said.

According to Robinson, the social worker found that the house was "very dirty" and contained many pets. Leiben, who was found to be mentally competent, said that she was not interested in leaving her home. Social workers drew up a home care plan with the family and visited the home for six hours each week, Robinson said.

In April 2003, about a year after social services had started following Leiben's case, Frances Donohue called the agency and said that the family was moving out of state but would not say where, Robinson said.

"She convinced us that [Leiben] was in a nursing home and she was being well cared for," Robinson said.

Baltimore County social workers said that they wanted to contact social services in Leiben's new jurisdiction, but the Donohues would not disclose the family's new location. County workers called the only phone number that they had for the couple, but in July 2003 that number was disconnected and there was no way to reach the family, Robinson said.

Neighbors said that they were surprised by the sudden move.

Caskey said he often wondered what had happened to Leiben. "I didn't even know that they had moved to Pennsylvania until the Pennsylvania State Police called me," he said.

Caskey told detectives investigating Leiben's death that he believed the Donohues were trying to take her money and that they would cause "serious injury or death to her," according to the police statement. He told police that he had come up with a plan for her to declare bankruptcy to divest her assets from the Donohues and then find a safe home for her with social services, a detective wrote in the police statement.

Leiben did not follow through with the plan, Caskey told investigators, because she "feared repercussions from the Donohues and did not want to lose her dog," according to the police statement.

The elderly woman never saw a doctor in Pennsylvania and her prescriptions were not maintained, according to the statement. A medical examiner found that the cause of death was sepsis, an acute bodily infection.

The Donohues were charged March 14 with first-degree and third-degree murder, as well as criminal conspiracy, in Leiben's death. They have not seen each other since they were arrested and taken to separate wings of the York County Prison in March, said Richard Robinson, William Donohue's lawyer.

For now, the family's Pennsylvania farmhouse remains empty.

On a recent morning, a jumble of objects - including a sundial, patio furniture, planters and an old doll - were strewn across the porch and the front yard. The rural road was quiet except for a few birds and a dog barking in the distance.julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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