Investigators defend lengthy probe
BRATTLEBORO -- Investigators looking into Nita Lowery's death sought federal help -- including FBI photo analysis and Homeland Security "fusion reports" -- in what one official dubbed the most complicated elder-abuse probe he had seen.
The result, after years of questioning witnesses and poring over records and photos, was a murder and financial-exploitation case against Jodi LaClaire.
As prosecutors began to wrap up their case against LaClaire Tuesday in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, they called the case's principal investigators to testify about work that began just days after Lowery was found unconscious at Brattleboro's Thompson House care home.
"It was a lengthy investigation," said Jefferson Krauss, an investigator in the Vermont attorney general's Medicaid Fraud and Residential Abuse Unit.
But Dan Sedon, LaClaire's lead defense attorney, questioned Krauss at length about what he did not do. And Sedon sees the case's length as a symbol of inertia due to a lack of evidence against his client.
"You were paralyzed for three years," Sedon said told Krauss.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H, is accused of injecting Lowery, who was 83, with what would prove to be a fatal dose of insulin on March 23, 2009. LaClaire was the nursing assistant working Lowery's floor the night before the elderly woman -- who was not diabetic -- fell ill with critically low blood sugar.
LaClaire faces charges of second-degree murder, abuse of a vulnerable adult and seven counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. The latter charges stem from alleged thefts of more than $3,000 from Lowery's bank account after she fell into a coma.
The financial-exploitation charges were filed against LaClaire in April 2011. The murder charge came even later, in January 2012.
But Krauss testified that he became involved in the case March 27, 2009, five days before Lowery died. The primary concern at the time, he testified, was that Lowery "was a nondiabetic person who had suffered, evidently, a hypoglycemic event."
Under questioning from Vermont Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle, Krauss detailed how LaClaire became a "person of interest" in that incident as investigators sought opinions from several medical experts.
A few months later, the attorney general's office learned about the alleged thefts from Lowery's account via ATMs in Brattleboro and Keene, N.H. They compared bank-surveillance photos with LaClaire's driver's license, which had been issued in Massachusetts.
"The photographs contained evidence that she had committed fraud transactions using Mrs. Lowery's card," Krauss said.
Prosecutors have spent hours attempting to lay an evidentiary foundation for those photos. On Monday, they won a battle to have them admitted into evidence.
On Tuesday, the jury viewed those photos for the first time. The courtroom was silent for more than 10 minutes as jurors passed around the images and, when finished, handed them to a waiting Windham County Sheriff's Department deputy.
The pictures have been a point of contention, as defense attorneys claim they are unclear and may show multiple people. Sedon on Tuesday referenced a photo obtained by investigators for a Keene bank transaction with which LaClaire is not charged.
Krauss acknowledged that the image "appeared to be a different individual" but said he "never ascribed an identification to the person in these other photographs."
Sedon also wondered why LaClaire wasn't arrested much earlier if the bank photos, which investigators obtained in 2009, were so "compelling."
Krauss claimed the delay had nothing to do with the quality of the images.
"I felt they were very compelling images of Ms. LaClaire," Krauss said. "I believe we could have had probable cause to make an arrest at that time. We chose not to."
Nonetheless, when Krauss left the attorney general's office for another job in summer 2010, he recalled believing at that time that there still was "a great deal of investigation required."
Krauss later returned to the attorney general's office. But in the meantime, the Lowery case had been taken over by Virginia Merriam, the other detective in the office's Medicaid Fraud and Residential Abuse Unit.
Under Sedon's questioning, Merriam acknowledged that she once had characterized the bank photos' quality as poor.
She also testified that she had sent the images for a second time to the FBI for analysis. Krauss had done that previously, saying he was looking for "any assistance they could provide."
It wasn't the only such instance of federal assistance in the Lowery probe. Krauss said he used "fusion reports," which he characterized as detailed personal histories generated by regional Homeland Security centers.
Those reports piqued Sedon's interest, but Krauss said such documents are "not rarely used" in criminal investigations.
He also listed other agencies that assisted in the Lowery case including federal postal inspectors; state police in Vermont and Massachusetts; and police in Keene and Burlington.
"We've had serious abuse investigations that were complicated," Krauss said. "This was perhaps the most-complicated one that I can recall."
Part of the reason for that complexity was the fact that officials were not looking only at LaClaire. Among the others who were investigated were John Lowery IV, Nita Lowery's grandson, and his girlfriend at the time, Lynn Corson.
Krauss said both had "close association with Nita Lowery" and both "visited her often."
John Lowery IV also has acknowledged using his grandmother's computer, at times to access pornographic websites. And Sedon has made several references to drug abuse by Corson, who died in 2010, and allegations of theft against her.
However, Krauss said officials determined that neither Corson nor John Lowery IV had any connection to LaClaire or could have acted independently of her.
As trial testimony has at times taken a detour into the lives of Corson and John Lowery IV, it also has meandered into a jewelry theft from Nita Lowery's Thompson House room in October 2008.
Sedon has said the missing jewelry may have been valued at $20,000.
Brattleboro Police Detective Erik Johnson testified that LaClaire was working at Thompson House the day the jewelry went missing.
Prosecutors also called to the stand Mike Sintros, an employee of a pawn shop on Main Street in Keene, to establish that LaClaire had sold that shop nine rings -- along with one acoustic guitar -- during five visits from Dec. 4, 2008 to Jan. 27, 2009.
She received a total of $318.
However, the bottom line -- as several witnesses acknowledged under Sedon's questioning -- is that no one ever was charged with stealing that jewelry.
And Johnson, who investigated both the jewelry theft and Nita Lowery's death, said he never was able to establish that the rings sold to the Keene pawn shop were connected to Lowery.
There were a number of other things investigators never accomplished, which Sedon established in rapid-fire order while questioning Krauss. Among the things that didn't happen in the Lowery probe:
-- There were no live witnesses to any of the alleged bank transactions and no witnesses who placed LaClaire's car in the area of those transactions.
-- Neither the phone from Nita Lowery's room nor her credit card ever was located by investigators.
-- There was no search warrant executed on LaClaire's home, and no one determined whether she had conducted any research on insulin.
-- Investigators did not speak to everyone Nita Lowery had contact with in the last 24 hours of her life, nor did they speak to both nursing assistants who had been working on the first floor of Thompson House on the night in question.
-- They also did not examine the chart entries of every Thompson House resident that night.
Thursday's testimony, which also included a Fletcher Allen Hospital neurologist who concluded that Nita Lowery suffered a hypoglycemic incident, was heard by one fewer juror.
Judge David Suntag announced that a female juror had been excused due to illness. There are 14 remaining members, including two alternates, on the panel.
Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case today.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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