LaClaire murder trial: More than $3,000 stolen from comatose victim
BRATTLEBORO -- In September 1987, Nita Lowery obtained an account with USAA.
But it was not until 6:26 a.m. on March 23, 2009, that Lowery's USAA card was issued a personal identification number for accessing cash at ATMs.
That was less than an hour before Lowery was discovered unconscious at Thompson House in Brattleboro. And authorities say it was not Lowery, but rather nursing assistant Jodi LaClaire, who created that PIN number after making account inquiries online and via phone.
LaClaire, on trial for murder in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, is accused of giving Lowery what would turn out to be a fatal dose of insulin and then using the 83-year-old's USAA card to withdraw more than $3,000.
Lowery never used an ATM, officials say. And LaClaire had no business near her USAA card, prosecutors allege.
"Is there anyone other than Ms. Lowery authorized to use this card?" Judge David Suntag asked on behalf of a juror.
"There is not," answered Eric Garcia, a USAA fraud investigator.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., is charged with one count of second-degree murder, one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult and seven counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.
Previous testimony in her trial -- with witnesses including four doctors, three members of the Thompson House nursing staff and one Rescue Inc. medic -- had been weighted heavily toward medical evidence.
But Wednesday's testimony focused exclusively on attempts -- most of which were successful -- to access information about Lowery's USAA account and to withdraw money from that account.
The day began with Hector Castillo, a information-technology technician with San Antonio, Texas-based USAA, detailing three phone calls made from Lowery's room at Thompson House to the financial-services company's toll-free number.
Records from the USAA automated phone system show those calls happening at 5:31 a.m., 5:50 a.m. and 6:24 a.m. on March 23, 2009. Each time, the caller eventually was transferred to a different system that handles the company's personal identification number services.
On the first two attempts, the caller accessed the USAA system using Lowery's social security number, Castillo testified. On the third attempt, the caller used Lowery's USAA member number.
Garcia, the second USAA witness, said there never had been an attempt to establish a PIN for Lowery's card before that morning. But at 6:26 a.m., 43 minutes before medics were called to Lowery's bedside, a PIN was issued for her card, according to testimony on Wednesday.
LaClaire's shift at Thompson House ended at 7 a.m., just before Lowery was discovered unconscious by day-shift staff.
And USAA records detailed on Wednesday show that ATM withdrawals began soon after: There was a $503 withdrawal at 8:09 a.m. at a Chittenden Bank, 100 Main St. in Brattleboro.
That was followed by an attempted withdrawal of $803 at 8:24 a.m. at Chittenden Bank, 479 Canal St. That failed, Garcia said, because the card's limit -- which he could not specify -- had been exceeded for that transaction or for the day.
Several other transactions happened in the following days as Lowery lay comatose with severe brain damage:
-- 3:35 p.m. March 28, 2009 at TD Bank, 194 West St. in Keene, N.H.
-- 8:44 a.m. March 31 at the same TD Bank.
-- 8:48 a.m. March 31 at Ocean Bank, 122 West St. in Keene.
-- 8:17 a.m. April 1 at TD Bank, 100 Main St. in Keene.
-- 8:29 a.m. April 1 at the Ocean Bank in Keene.
All successful transactions were for $503, with that amount explained as a $500 request and a $3 bank fee. Fraudulent withdrawals for which LaClaire faces criminal charges total $3,018.
Lowery died April 1, the same day the transactions charged by prosecutors ended. Wednesday's testimony established the details of those withdrawals without any attempt to specifically tie them to LaClaire.
There also has not yet been any testimony pinpointing when LaClaire allegedly injected Lowery with insulin. But on Wednesday, a Vermont State Police investigator said there was a search on Lowery's computer for the words "credit card" at 4:16 a.m. that morning.
Brian Penders, a detective lieutenant who commands the State Police computer-crimes unit, said he examined Lowery's hard drive after retrieving it from her grandson, John Lowery IV, in Burlington in July 2009.
In addition to that initial search for "credit card," Penders said he found evidence of someone accessing the USAA website on Lowery's computer several times between 4:21 a.m. and 5:42 a.m. on March 23, 2009.
Penders said he also found a potentially false record of 42 websites -- 19 of which were unique, including Google searches and pornography -- being open at the same exact time that morning.
He said his investigation led him to conclude that such results may have been the result of a computer glitch, though he could not fully explain the phenomenon.
"I'd never seen that before, and I don't know of any way to actually create those results by browsing the Internet," Penders said.
He also testified that there did not appear to have been any attempts to "wipe or remove data" from the hard drive after Lowery's death.
Defense questioning of the USAA witnesses was limited, and defense attorney Dan Sedon had just begun his cross-examination of Penders when testimony ended on Wednesday.
The trial is scheduled through Sept. 27.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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