BRATTLEBORO -- When a Thompson House resident who had been under Jodi LaClaire's supervision fell into a coma and eventually died, LaClaire was suspended pending an internal investigation.
LaClaire never returned to her job as nursing assistant at the Brattleboro care home.
"Before she came back to work, she quit," Lisa Kemp, Thompson House nursing director, testified Friday in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
However, while LaClaire later was charged with murdering that resident -- 83-year-old Nita Lowery -- Kemp revealed that Thompson House administrators could point no finger at LaClaire after they conducted a weeks-long probe of the circumstances surrounding Lowery's sudden illness.
"As far as Thompson House was concerned, there was no finding of wrongdoing?" LaClaire defense attorney Dan Sedon asked.
"Correct," Kemp replied.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., is accused of giving Lowery what would prove to be a fatal dose of insulin on March 23, 2009.
Prosecutors say Lowery, who was not a diabetic, plunged into a hypoglycemic coma and suffered brain damage. She died nine days later after family members decided to withdraw life support.
LaClaire is standing trial on charges of second-degree murder, abuse of a vulnerable adult and seven counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. The latter counts stem from allegations that LaClaire used Lowery's USAA credit card to withdraw more than $3,000 from her account as she lay comatose.
Kemp was the prosecution's 20th witness in a trial that's scheduled through Sept. 27. She said Thompson House hired LaClaire as a licensed nursing assistant in January 2008.
Nursing assistants "provide hands-on personal care," Kemp said. "They don't administer medication or do treatments."
Under questioning by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine, Kemp did not say much about LaClaire's job performance. But she noted that LaClaire asked for and received a $500 loan from Thompson House.
"She asked if she could get an emergency loan to get her car back ... her car was being repossessed," Kemp said.
Repayments were deducted from LaClaire's paychecks. She worked per diem, meaning on an as-needed basis.
Kemp testified that on the overnight shift that began 11 p.m. March 22, 2009, LaClaire was the sole nursing assistant assigned to Thompson House's second floor, where Lowery lived.
There were two nursing assistants on the first floor and one nurse on duty for the entire facility, Kemp said. That nurse worked principally from the first floor but went upstairs "if she had to do any assessments or pass medications or cover for a break," Kemp said.
LaClaire's shift ended at 7 a.m. the next morning. Incoming day-shift staff quickly found Lowery unresponsive and summoned medics at 7:09 a.m.
By mid-morning, Kemp was looking into the matter.
"I called (LaClaire) to ask her if there had been anything unusual during the night with Nita," Kemp said. "She said that nothing unusual happened."
LaClaire reported that Lowery had woken from a nightmare in the early morning hours, adding that she had brought Lowery her first cup of coffee around 6 a.m.
"She said (Lowery) had a headache and was tired," Kemp recalled.
Lowery suffered frequent headaches and relied on caffeine to treat them, multiple witnesses have testified.
In a follow-up interview April 1 -- the day Lowery died -- LaClaire "told me basically the same thing," Kemp said. This time, however, LaClaire added that Lowery's headache had been "the worst headache she'd ever had."
LaClaire was relieved by the Thompson House nurse for a break between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., Kemp testified. The nurse stayed on the second floor until approximately 3:30 a.m.
Otherwise, there is no record of anyone visiting Lowery's floor that night.
"She didn't claim to have seen any mysterious characters?" Sedon asked.
"Right," Kemp answered.
How Lowery had fallen ill, however, was a mystery. Contacted after Friday's testimony, Thompson House Administrator Dane Rank said he and his staff acted quickly to address the situation.
"At the first hint of concern, we started the investigation, and that included suspending quite a few individuals who had contact with the patient prior to the event," Rank said.
"We worked with the police in interviewing all of the suspended employees prior to their returning to work," Rank said. "Ms. LaClaire did not return."
When a lengthy investigation by police and the attorney general's office concluded later, "we were very surprised at the extent of what Ms. LaClaire is alleged to have done," Rank said.
But the internal Thompson House probe apparently provided few answers. Kemp testified that administrators found no missing insulin, no residents who did not get their medication and no record that Lowery had been mistakenly injected.
Kemp confirmed Sedon's assertion that, throughout the probe, LaClaire had been "responsive to your inquiries."
However, testimony also showed that LaClaire -- perhaps believing she had been terminated by Thompson House -- later sought unemployment benefits.
There was some uncertainty during Friday's testimony about the extent of the Thompson House investigation. Levine asked whether Kemp had looked for "intentional misconduct" rather than unintentional medical errors, and she said she had not.
But Sedon noted that there had been rumors about intentional misconduct in the Lowery incident, and Kemp acknowledged that she had been aware of and considered those.
Such ambiguity often has surfaced during eight days of testimony in the LaClaire case. Another example was the testimony of John Lowery IV, Nita Lowery's grandson.
When prosecutors initially called Lowery to the stand Thursday afternoon, he testified about his military service and his devotion to his grandmother.
But as cross-examination of Lowery continued Friday morning, Sedon continued to explore the conduct of his then-girlfriend, Lynn Corson.
Sedon has sought to establish that Corson, who died in Burlington in December 2010, was suspected of drug addiction and thefts from the Lowery family -- including a theft of jewelry from Nita Lowery's room at Thompson House.
But John Lowery IV wasn't buying it.
"My grandmother hated all of my girlfriends," he said.
The questions of who had access to Nita Lowery's room, computer and credit card all are important in the LaClaire case. But John Lowery IV's testimony on Friday showed that there were plenty of opportunities for others to gain that access, at least in some instances.
Lowery said Thompson House visitors could "more or less" enter and leave unrestricted by visiting schedules.
Asked about that, Rank said he could not comment on this case but said that, in general, it is "Thompson House policy to lock the doors on the night shift."
John Lowery IV, who has acknowledged visiting pornographic websites on his grandmother's computer, also testified Friday that "every one of my friends" used Nita Lowery's computer periodically.
Furthermore, when pressed by Sedon, Lowery said he could not be 100-percent sure that his grandmother had maintained possession of her credit card after a shopping trip the day before she fell ill.
Asked whether he specifically recalled seeing the card and whether Nita Lowery could have dropped it, a frustrated John Lowery IV testified that "anything could have happened. A tornado could have taken it."
"I am 99-percent sure she had it," he quickly added.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.