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Nursing Home Death Trial Opens

September 14, 1989

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ A nursing home aide smothered five patients ″because it relieved tension,″ and enjoyed cleaning the body of one victim, her alleged co- conspirator in a lovers’ death pact testified.

Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Gwendolyn Graham, who is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and one of conspiracy to murder in the 1987 deaths of female patients at Alpine Manor Nursing Home in subruban Walker.

Graham and her former lover, Catherine Wood, allegedly formed a pact to kill patients.

″We were supposed to take turns killing so we could never leave each other,″ said Wood, who also worked as an aide at the home.

Wood, 27, has pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to murder. In exchange for her plea and testimony against Graham, two counts of first-degree murder were dropped.

The Grand Rapids woman testified she lacked the nerve to kill any patients, though she acted as a lookout while Graham suffocated them with washcloths. She also said she and Graham would select patients by pinching their noses to see if they would struggle.

Wood said Graham told her she enjoyed killing patients ″because it relieved tension. ... She was always real happy afterwards and I wanted her to be happy.″ She said Graham seemed to enjoy bathing her first victim in preparation for the funeral home.

She said she never tried to stop Graham. ″I never told her ‘no.’ ... I never loved anybody the way I loved her.″

She said Graham took souvenirs - such as anklets and earrings - from each victim.

″I didn’t think it was right. A lot of those people had a lot of life left in them and we were there to care for them, not to abuse them,″ Wood said.

Wood said she witnessed Graham suffocating the first victim, Marguerite Chambers. ″She had a washcloth over her nose and mouth and (Chambers) was making noises ... she was jerking,″ Wood testified.

She said she and Graham told some other aides at the home about the slayings, but that no one took the confessions seriously.

Defense attorney James Piazza opened by calling Wood a ″spiteful, aggressive, vindictive manipulator″ who made up the story. He said Graham went along with it, ″thinking it was a mind game, ... a big joke.″

He said Wood concocted the story to get back at Graham, who had left town for her native Tyler, Texas, with another nurse’s aide.

After police began investigating Wood’s alleged confession to her ex- husband, Wood ″needed a sacrificial lamb,″ Piazza said. ″She offered up Gwen Graham because she feared of going to prison for the rest of her life.″ First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence without parole, while Wood has a chance of parole in 10 years on the lesser charges.

When the five patients died between Jan. 18 and April 7, 1987, their deaths were listed as natural and no autopsies were performed. Two bodies were exhumed but showed no definitive signs of suffocation.

The victims were Chambers, 60, Myrtle Luce, 95, Mae Mason, 79, Belle Burkhard, 74, and Edith Cook, 97.

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