A Garibaldi woman was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty to Negligent Homicide and Criminal Mistreatment I in her mother’s death.
Roxanne Joy Wagar was a caretaker to her elderly diabetic mother – who died of a heart condition aggravated by neglect, massive bedsores, stomach ulcers and infections.
Wagar’s mother, Joyce L. Steele, was 74 at the time of her death in August 2010. Police were notified of the deplorable conditions that Steele was kept in after her death. Sgt. Troy Jackson testified that the bed and floor in Steele’s room were covered in feces and filth.
A medical examiner found that Steele’s foot, which had become gangrenous because of her diabetes in the weeks before her death, was filled with maggots before she died.
At the time of Steele’s death, Wagar and her two children had been living with Steele for eight years, and Wagar had been Steele’s full-time caregiver for five years.
Jackson told the judge he was stunned by the conditions that Steele was kept in.
“Even at the end of my investigation I was shocked,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should be treated like that.”
Jackson told the court that during an interview with Wagar, she told him she knew she should have taken better care of her mother. At the time of her mother’s death, Wagar had no job and was her mother’s full time caretaker. Wagar had Steele’s Social Security check deposited directly into a joint bank account they shared.
Jackson read several letters from Steele’s doctor stating Steele had dementia and diabetes and needed 24-hour care.
Dr. William Brady, a medical examiner, testified that the massive bedsores and injury to Steele’s foot would have been evident for quite some time before Steele’s death. Brady was the State of Oregon Medical examiner for more than 20 years, and has conducted approximately 11,000 autopsies in his career.
Although he could not put a specific timeline on when the changes that caused Steele’s death would have been obvious, he said that they developed over a matter of weeks. “I believe with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that these would have been evident for a month, possibly six weeks.”
In addition to the visible injuries, Brady found that Steele was emaciated at the time of her death and that her stomach was filled with bloody fluid and stress ulcers. Brady said that neglect in the time leading to her death caused the ulcers.
When asked if the injuries would have caused her severe pain, Brady said “yes.”
Brady testified that if Steele had received proper care, she would not have developed the issues that caused her death. He said a caregiver could have prevented the bedsores by turning Steele regularly, and could have kept them from getting worse by trimming Steele’s nails so she could not scratch her sores.
Brady said loss of circulation and gangrene in her foot would have necessitated surgery.
“She was a sick lady,” said Brady. “She needed medical attention. She needed somebody to take care of her, and she did not get the care she needed.”
Wagar’s 20-year-old son Kevin Wagar was called by the defense, and told the court that his grandmother was difficult to care for and that she yelled and fought against being bathed or helped at all.
He also testified that while his grandmother had complained of pain in the month preceding her death, but that they had assumed it was her arthritis causing the pain.
He told the court his mother shuts down when stressed, and that she spent a lot of time on the computer in the time preceding his mother’s death.
Wagar herself told the court that her mother was hard to care for, and she did not want to be placed in a rest home, or have any other help sought out on her behalf. She said her mother was refusing to take her medication in the last month of her life.
“She wanted to go downhill,” she said. “My mom wanted to die.”
Deputy DA Joel Stevens argued that Steele was not in a position to make her own decisions because she had dementia. Stevens said if Wagar had sought help for her mother then she might not have died when she did. “All that the defendant had to do was ask for help,” said Stevens. “That’s the obligation of a caretaker and she did not do it.
“No one deserves to die like that,” said Stevens. “Ms. Steele was left to die alone in that isolated room in what, looking at these photos[of Steele’s injuries], could only have been incredible agony.”
Judge Mari Garric Trevino said the case was a difficult one to decide. The prosecution asked for the maximum sentence for negligent homicide, three years in prison, but Trevino only gave Wagar one year, which will be served in the Tillamook County Jail.
Trevino said she did not believe Wagar was likely to commit another crime, but there needed to be punishment for Steele dying the way she did. In addition to the jail time, Trevino put Wagar on probation for three years. One of the conditions of Wagar’s probation is that she is not to be a caretaker for anyone.