Effie's Ending

Police investigate the death of a troubled Alzheimer's probate ward

When Eufemia "Effie" Van Rysseghem was placed in hospitals and nursing homes, the man who called himself her common-law husband began using a Catholic church calendar to make cursory notes of her deteriorating condition.

George Salazar jotted down if she "ate good" and how she slept. He also noted when he found bruises or blood on her and contacted authorities. Salazar called the police five times in three months with reports that nursing home staff abused the Alzheimer's patient (see "Warded Off," by Melissa Hung, April 20). But his accusations were not taken seriously because Salazar called officers so much, and because he himself had been investigated by Adult Protective Services for allegedly abusing Van Rysseghem. Police are now looking into Salazar's allegations -- after Van Rysseghem died on April 24.

According to preliminary autopsy findings, Van Rysseghem died of pneumonia. Homicide officer Phil Waters, who requested the autopsy after reviewing Salazar's police reports, says she had no broken bones, internal injuries, bruising on the skull or on the brain, or any other physical evidence of abuse. The 77-year-old woman did have bruises on her arms, but they were probably the result of shots and IVs, Waters says.

Salazar says nursing homes mistreated Effie.
Deron Neblett
Salazar says nursing homes mistreated Effie.

"She was in three or four different facilities," the officer says. "I mean, come on, Mr. Salazar has been hollering at each one of those, that there's a plot of some kind to kill this woman and that kind of stuff. It gets to a point where you cry wolf so much, you may have hollered it too many times."

A stranger, Wayne Bruce, also called HPD after seeing a nurse's aide shove Van Rysseghem in the chest, knocking her to the floor. The D.A.'s office did not file charges.

"I don't have any doubt that he saw what he saw," Waters says. "But I think what he saw was the tail end. I don't think he saw what precipitated the contact. If you only see half of the event, you may come to a conclusion that's not accurate."

Van Rysseghem became a ward of the state last fall after APS intervened to investigate claims that Salazar had mistreated her. Doctors at Ben Taub hospital determined she could no longer care for herself. A Harris County probate court appointed attorney Ann Ellis as guardian to oversee Van Rysseghem's affairs. Although the guardianship was established to protect Van Rysseghem from Salazar's alleged abuse, Ellis moved her to a nursing home with a record of neglect and abuse. (The Department of Human Services has accused Heritage Sam Houston Gardens nursing home of jeopardizing resident safety, a case that has been referred to the state attorney general's office.)

At the end of March, Van Rysseghem fell at the nursing home and was taken to the emergency room at Spring Branch Medical Center. In a court hearing, probate Judge Mike Wood barred Salazar and his family from seeing Van Rysseghem after hospital staff alleged Salazar had fondled Van Rysseghem during a visit. Wood also chastised Salazar for calling the police, which he said interfered with her medical care.

Van Rysseghem remained at the hospital until her death. Her savings of more than $24,000 had been exhausted by attorneys' bills during Ellis's tenure as guardian. One attorney billed $20 to the estate each time she checked messages from a Press reporter.

Her death came on the eve of another scheduled hearing on putting her in the care of the Harris County Guardianship Program, designed for indigents. The court also was due to hear evidence from Spring Branch Medical Center nursing staff and Salazar's ex-wife for a restraining order against Salazar.

Salazar says that regardless of the autopsy findings, he believes Van Rysseghem was abused. "I saw the evidence with my own eyes," he says.

Waters says he will wrap up the investigation after reviewing reports and investigative records and interviewing witnesses.

"It's going to come to a close officially one way or another," Waters says. "Now for Mr. Salazar, it may never come to a close. He's certainly involved in it in every aspect, emotionally and all that other stuffŠ.I'm not a fan of trying to tap-dance around stuff; I'll be direct with him. Whatever conclusion we'll come to, I'll explain it to him as thoroughly as needs to be explained."

E-mail Melissa Hung at melissa.hung@houstonpress.com.

 
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