Outside the dining hall of the Alpine Manor nursing home, there is a sign that reads, “This is Grand Rapids, Michigan,” a reminder for those who can no longer trust their own minds. For months, Cathy Wood has fed these residents, bathed them, and even moistened their eyes with artificial tears. To her, they live in a state worse than death—and she has decided to relieve them of their pain. Wood and her lover, Gwen Graham, make a pact to kill those whom they were hired to care for. No one notices when an elderly person dies a quiet death, but as these two slip deeper into their plan, the terrible secret becomes unbearable.
Lowell Cauffiel’s account of the Alpine Manor murders is a chilling saga of true crime and the twisted lengths to which some will go in pursuit of justice.
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About the Author
Lowell Cauffiel is an American novelist, screenwriter, and producer. He began his career as a journalist, contributing to publications including Rolling Stone and the Detroit News. In 1988, he entered the world of true-crime writing, publishing his first book, Masquerade. He later went on to write the New York Times bestseller House of Secrets. More recently, he has begun writing and producing crime documentaries and made his directorial debut in 2012 with the film Men in a Box.
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Forever and Five Days
The Chilling True Story of Love, Betrayal, and Serial Murder in Grand Rapids, Michigan
By Lowell Cauffiel
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1992 Lowell Cauffiel
All rights reserved.
"I enjoyed taking care of those old people."
—Cathy Wood, December 29, 1989.
For five days she inhaled pure oxygen, as antibiotics fought the infection that tried to steal away her breath. They wanted her comfortable; that was their overwhelming concern. She should have oxygen. She should have antibiotics, if those helped. They didn't want any elaborate life-support systems. Ma would not have wanted her life perpetuated by a mechanical device, they all agreed. That's where the Chambers family would draw the line.
None would be drawn today.
"She's strong as an ox, that Hollander," Ed Chambers said.
Pop's right, Jan thought. Her age, and her constitution—her stalwart Dutch blood, "damned Hollanders," Pop always said—had pulled her through again.
"You know, I'm feeling like she can conquer anything," Jan said.
This she really wished.
Jan searched her mother's face. Her cheeks were narrow without her dentures, but not gaunt. Her forehead was square and high, her nose upturned and well-proportioned. Her hair was the color of faded straw. That and her blue eyes affirmed her ancestral claim to the family names of De Boer and Van Der Sac. Jan spoke quietly.
"Soon you'll be leaving. Soon you'll be outta the hospital, Mom."
Jan looked again, not for color, but brightness, the gleam of recognition. Sometimes Jan could see that in her eyes.
For months, charts like the one hanging at the foot of the hospital bed had differed only in the handwriting and perception of the nurses making the notes. Jan could recite the entries: "Marguerite Chambers. Age, 60. Alzheimer's Disease. Incontinent of bowel and bladder. Involuntary movement of arms. Does not communicate."
Or, sometimes it read, "Unaware of her surroundings."
Or, "Does not communicate except for added activity and facial expressions."
The shape of her mother's body was a constant. Jan usually found her bent forward and inward on her back, or fetal, on her side. Her clenched hands were positioned just below her chin. Together both limbs moved rhythmically as if she were suspended forever in some kind of earnest prayer.
It was the seventh day of April. Tomorrow, Marguerite Chambers would be leaving the hospital. Her daughter Jan Hunderman, however, knew she would not be going home.
Outside St. Mary's Medical Center, balmy winds from the southwest blew across the city of Grand Rapids. Abnormally high temperatures in the seventies provided a peculiar contrast with the urban landscape. Trees everywhere were still leafless from the Michigan winter. Survivors of the Dutch elm disease in the nearby Heritage Hill historic district swayed like stranded stick figures, trying to signal someone in the cloudless sky. Life swelled in new buds, but their old age and their stature, placed this evidence well above the perception of most everyone on the street.
A few blocks north, on the concrete terrain around Grand Rapids Junior College, street life was different. The blast of warm air from the south had brought out young people in force. Bicyclists dodged traffic down the Ransom Avenue hill. Coats littered steps and retaining walls. Students perched anywhere they could find a spot. Some skipped classes. Others read texts, but did so in the sun.
Jan Hunderman had seen Michigan's perennial struggle between winter and spring play out fourteen times since her mother's decline began. She would never forget the first hint. Those monogrammed dinner napkins, in 1972. They announced "Jan & Gary," her wedding.
"Mom forgot to bring them," she told a friend. "But when she raced back to the house to get them, she forgot why she'd gone there in the first place."
"Dumb Hollander," Pop had said.
Everyone laughed. The early symptoms were easy to overlook, easy to fix to some other cause.
Marguerite Chambers might have been able to hide them longer if it had not been for her job. She repaired and calibrated flight instruments, working thirty years at Lear Siegler. Ed Chambers had been arguing the causes of workers since he became president of his UAW local. When it came to his wife's forgetfulness, however, he had to side with management.
"They told me that perhaps it's best they put her on sick leave until you find out what's wrong with her," Pop said.
After a series of examinations in Grand Rapids, the family took her to the Mayo Clinic, then were told about the progressive dementia called Alzheimer's Disease. At the time, Marguerite was only forty-eight. Ed was fifty-one. Jan was turning twenty-one, and her two younger brothers were still in high school. Together, they all watched their mother go back. It was like watching someone's mind age in reverse.
Marguerite had always been active, leading 4-H groups, water-skiing up at the family cottage. She had been a dancer, with an energetic set of dancer's legs.
This was different. The polka and waltz gave way to the jerk and the monkey. She wore loud clothes and tight pants. She became pouty, self-absorbed, then defiant.
"Holy smokes, my mom's turned into a teenager again," Jan told her friends.
In time, as her memory loss became more severe, Ed Chambers took away the car keys. She was parking the family car right in the middle of Alpine Avenue, then locking it up before heading into the stores to shop.
In time, she began asking for help with basic tasks. She asked permission. Scrabble, her longtime favorite game, became difficult, then impossible. Her verbal vocabulary deteriorated as well. She would point at the Scrabble board up at the cottage.
"You wanna play?" Jan asked.
She nodded. They started, then she would simply forget what to do with the letters. Jan usually ended up playing both hands. Her mother got frustrated with that.
"Oh darn," she said.
Often she looked bemused, as though she didn't understand why it was all happening. That was the worse part, Jan thought.
Eight years into the disease, Jan's mother was speaking in fragments: "I wanna." "Come." "This way," and the like. Eventually there were only syllables, repeated as though she had developed a stutter.
The family could sense her frustration and anger.
"If you don't keep a good eye on her," he said, "that Hollander will sneak up on you and beat the hell out of you."
Pop tried to put a humorous spin on things. But Jan could see these kind of things hurt him as well.
Marguerite stayed close in her last months at home. She'd lived on the same parcel of land all her life. So had her ancestors, back when that part of the suburb of Walker was laced with Dutch farms. Ed and Marguerite Chambers' first home was the old farmhouse where Jan's grandmother was raised. Later, they split off a lot from the old De Boer family farm to build their own home and sold the rest off.
During her mother's last summer in Walker, Jan remembered, she had often beckoned Pop outside. He sat on the porch while she waded through wild grass bleached by the late summer sun. There was a field, and across it, a nursery. She always headed for the greenhouses. She gazed through the smears of paint on the windows at the baby plants. She wandered among the saplings lashed to sticks in the nursery yard.
Pop always let her linger for a while, then cupped his hands and called:
In the last days of August, the screaming began. She screamed spontaneously, cued by no apparent person or event. She sounded as if she were scared, or hurt maybe. Three times neighbors called the police.
Jan's father had retired early to care for her. He was feeding her, leading her like a toddler to the bathroom. Jan visited her mom after work, giving her baths, putting her on the toilet.
The doctor prescribed a sedative for her outbursts. Jan's father called soon after the first dose. His voice was shaking.
"Jan, Ma can't walk!"
Jan sped over to the house. They had to come up with a plan. Her father couldn't carry her to the bathroom. Everyone was doing what they could, but everyone also had to work. She needed twenty-four-hour nursing care in her own home. No one could afford that.
Jan and her father took her to the Kent Oaks Psychiatric Unit, part of the state system. The facility agreed to admit her while the Chambers found a private nursing home.
The memory of their last moments in the admitting room could still send Jan into tears.
Her mother was frightened, confused. Her eyes darted around the room.
"No, Janie," she kept repeating. "No, no, Janie."
When Jan and her father returned to visit the next day, hospital officials said Marguerite Chambers had been transferred to Kalmazoo State Hospital, another mental facility. She was taken there in the back of a police car on the return leg of a transfer of the criminally insane. A month later, the family was advised to commit her.
Jan shuddered when she thought of the hour trips to Kalamazoo, south on U.S. 131 through open flatlands of soy and corn. The asylum sat on top of a hill. Its architectural focus was a twelve-story water tower with a solid brick parapet topped by merlons and crenels. It looked like a chess rook. It looked like the setting for a horror film.
Marguerite was kept on the third floor, behind a series of locked doors. The ward was large and open, full of windows with security screens and bars. Walkways were defined only by a pair of yellow lines on the linoleum floor.
"It smells like peanut butter in here," Ed Junior, Jan's brother, sometimes said.
"To me, it smelled like something died," Jan said later.
One side of the ward had twenty beds, partitioned by curtains. Patients shared dressers. They shuffled about, or sat in wheelchairs. Some mumbled ongoing commentaries of their own particular delirium. Others just glared and shouted angrily at Jan and others when they passed.
Jan usually found her mother sitting among them. She was dressed in pajamas, her hair pulled back in two pigtails. Her vocabulary, by that juncture, had been reduced to one repetitive utterance.
"Hi Mom," Jan would say.
"Nt. Nt. Nt."
Jan knew what she was trying to say: "Shit, shit, shit." It was one of her last words.
It could have been worse, Jan told herself. There was the other half of the ward, the side where she never went. There were ten beds there. They were caged. In fact, they looked like giant baby cribs of steel.
Please God, Jan prayed, I don't ever want to see my mother on the other side.
For two years the Chambers name had sat on waiting lists at several nursing homes. When Ed's eye doctor became involved in the hunt, a bed was made available within days. The facility was called Alpine Manor, a nursing home in Walker, only three blocks from Ed Chambers' home. Two nurse's aides there were former high school classmates of Jan's. She felt even more reassured after talking with the nursing director.
"We'll take good care of your mother," she said. "We don't want you to worry anymore."
The contrast between the state hospital and Alpine Manor was stunning. Rooms were carpeted and clean. Some patients talked nonsense, but few screamed. They sought conversation. There was a reassuring order to the place. Nurse's aides wore pastel colors. Nurses dressed impeccably in white.
Marguerite's room was neat, orderly. There was an intercom and call button. There was a big picture window overlooking a courtyard. There were curtains, not bars.
"Make sure you visit a lot, because the patients who get visitors never get ignored," a friend who worked there advised.
And they did. Ed came every day. Jan and other relatives came at night. Some days she would have up to three visits.
That's the way it had been for three years now, until the most recent complication. When her mother's condition worsened, the whole family prepared for her death. They gathered at her bedside for the death watch. Twice now they had gathered, but Jan's mother had other plans.
"Tomorrow, Mom, you'll be heading back to Alpine Manor."
Her mother's body remained kinetic in the hospital bed. It's been a long time since she's mumbled even a syllable, Jan thought. If she could sit, then walk, what then? Where would she go? And what would she think when she got there?
They knew so little. Jan wondered if she was like a patient with a head injury, the kind that recovered to report people, places and conversations back when everyone thought they were unconscious.
Jan never doubted her mother still knew her, but with Pop, her reaction was profound. Her clenched hand would pop up like a jack in a box when his voice sounded as he strolled through the door. Her eyes wide, she shook her hand repeatedly. When he grabbed it, and squeezed, she calmed.
He often held her that way, slowly positioning her arm back near her breast.
"Dumb Hollander," Pop sometimes said.
Their eyes did all the rest.
The next day, the ambulance left the circular driveway and merged into traffic on Jefferson Street, its engine churning to pull the hundreds of pounds of mobile medical technology that surrounded its cargo.
Inside, Marguerite Chambers was wrapped in a white blanket and strapped onto a portable stretcher. A clear plastic tube like those found in an aquarium snaked up her chest and entered her right nostril. It penetrated her nasal cavity, straddled her pharynx and descended downward into the darkness of her esophagus.
It was another kind of bodily intruder that had put her in the hospital five days earlier. Most likely, she inhaled it with a droplet of liquid supper. Bacteria required only an opportunity. The mode of entry could vary. The strain's ancient resolve to invade and multiply was constant. The result was a fever, a cough and a form of internal suffocation antique medical texts called "the old man's friend"—a condition known as bacterial pneumonia.
As the ambulance left St. Mary's Medical Center, Marguerite Chambers was playing out a medical scenario all too common among the aged. Pneumonia afflicts two million Americans yearly, but kills less than one in ten. Many contract it in nursing homes, but it's no longer treated as a welcome companion. The old nickname was applied before the age of antibiotics. Then, the illness was a quick and relatively easy exit for the elderly, often preventing a longer ravaging by other, slower-acting diseases.
For Marguerite, a drug called Keflex had taken all that was amiable out of the old man's friend. It was her second successful bout with the illness in three years. Now she was headed back to Alpine Manor, discharged from the hospital at 10:00 A.M.
Once on U.S. 131, the ambulance headed north on the freeway that followed the Grand River. The unit passed bridges at West Fulton and Pearl Streets, then elevated with the freeway to reveal a postcard view of the downtown skyline on the Grand's east bank. It cruised by the sparkling tower of the Amway Grand Plaza and the triangular architecture of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
Beyond the old ironworks, the Grand River hit the white water for which the city was named. Nearly a hundred years ago, it was the site of the nation's largest logjam. There were too many big trees, and not enough water to handle the lure of profits in Grand Rapids sawmills, back when every old tree in Michigan fell to the saw and axe.
Marguerite could not see these sights, and it was impossible to know if she retained any memory of them. Her brain weighed no more than eight hundered grams, three-fourths the weight of a normal person of sixty. Alzheimer's had wasted the rest.
Four miles north of downtown the ambulance left the freeway, headed north on Alpine Avenue and turned onto Four Mile Road. The patient's rib cage pressed against the stretcher straps as cervical collars hanging from the ceiling swayed with the turns.
The ambulance stopped at the front door of Alpine Manor. Attendants carried the stretcher inside, then transferred Marguerite Chambers into a freshly made bed. She was back in her old room on a nurse's station called Abbey Lane. But as she lay there, everything was not the same.
The variation was the plastic tube in her nose. It carried a tan liquid called Enrich. The solution resembled baby formula, though Marguerite never would get a taste. The nasogastric tube, or NG tube, delivered the solution directly to the stomach. Marguerite's physician had ordered her to be tube-fed.
Excerpted from Forever and Five Days by Lowell Cauffiel. Copyright © 1992 Lowell Cauffiel. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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