Two years ago, Kathie Rozar sadly decided to place her husband, Larry, in assisted living, unable to handle his Alzheimer’s disease. He’d lost his job as a plumbing wholesaler, and he’d grown combative enough to shove their son. Without deadbolts and hidden keys, Larry would wander off.
She placed him in Franklin Manor after a long and frustrating search for housing, and around this time last year, the staff assigned Larry a roommate: 90-year-old Gene Hamm, who suffered from dementia.
In his earlier life, Hamm had enjoyed a long career as a golf pro, winning the N.C. Open in 1966. He’d designed more than 70 courses around the Southeast, enough of a mogul in the sport that this newspaper once nicknamed him “the Calvin Klein of golf in the Carolinas.”
He had no history of violence that anybody knew.
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But on Sept. 3 of last year, in the middle of the night, he attacked Larry in their shared room, clubbing him repeatedly with a bronze golf trophy, according to a Franklin County sheriff’s report. When Kathie saw her husband at WakeMed that night, his left eye was purple and collapsed. He had a drain in his ear. His face was covered in blood. Two weeks later, Larry died of his wounds – five days after his 63rd birthday. A medical examiner’s report labeled the death a homicide.
What follows is an attempt to sort through this calamity, which authorities in Franklin County have declined to do in a way that satisfies the widow.
In their report, sheriff’s deputies note that Gene Hamm was cooperative when they arrived at Franklin Manor, but they closed the case without filing any charges, noting his dementia. The district attorney’s office took no action in the case. Neither did the state Department of Health and Human Services, which, in a report filed by its Franklin County affiliate, found no fault and made no recommendations.
A year later, Kathie still has trouble getting phone calls returned or documents sent to her home in Knightdale. It took almost a year to get a death certificate. Franklin Manor and its corporate parents haven’t talked to her since the attack, she said, and no one has shown any interest in investigating further since Larry died of his wounds.
To her thinking, officialdom in Franklin County wrote off her husband’s death as one crazy person killing another. To this she says, “He was my crazy person.”
The case begs a pair of questions: Are we doing enough to care for people who can’t care for themselves, and who is responsible when they hurt each other? So far, I haven’t had much more luck finding an answer. I haven’t heard from any of these people I called or sent emails: Franklin County Sheriff Kent Winstead; sheriff’s Chief Terry Wright; District Attorney Mike Waters; Rae Robinson, adult home specialist with the Franklin County Department of Social Services, which falls under N.C. DHHS. I got a call from a vice president at Saber Healthcare, Franklin Manor’s owner, who promised a statement that hasn’t arrived.
What Rozar wants is some sense that someone is working to keep this from happening again. To her, the mistakes are clear. “I feel like either they didn’t do enough due diligence before Mr. Hamm came in or they just weren’t thinking that there shouldn’t be a heavy metal statue in the room.”
But if the system has wronged Kathie Rozar, it hasn’t been much kinder to the Hamm family. Gene’s son, Rodney, had no idea that his father had killed anyone until I called him on Tuesday, a year after the fact. He knew only that Gene had hurt another patient and needed to move. Officials cited privacy law – the acronym known as HIPAA – whenever Rodney asked questions.
When I told Rodney about Larry Rozar’s death, I could hear genuine grief in his voice.
“I’m just so sorry for Larry’s wife,” he said, on the phone from Haywood County. “My father had never hurt anybody. He’s just not who he was.”
Friendly and generous past
Gene started out as a caddy at the Raleigh Golf Association, according to his Wikipedia page, later qualifying for the U.S. Open as a player in 1960. Later, as an architect, he designed 10 courses in Myrtle Beach alone.
“I’m surprised myself at the number I’ve done,” he told the N&O in 1988. “I can’t remember them all unless I start listing them.”
According to Rodney, Hamm gave so generously to his church that the IRS mistakenly suspected him of cheating on his taxes – a friendly and generous soul without any violence in his life. Later in life, he’d tried to run away from a rehabilitation unit, where a doctor first diagnosed him with dementia.
When Kathie first met him at Franklin Manor, Gene asked if she had a screwdriver to help him escape. He later disassembled part of his closet, trying to pry open the windows with a rod inside. Larry, by this time, was much calmer and quieter, his disease more advanced.
I’ve never had a family member with Alzheimer’s, and I was surprised when Kathie told me her insurance wouldn’t cover Gene’s care because she didn’t have long-term coverage purchased in advance. Medicaid, she told me, required her to drain all her own funds first. Housing for male Alzheimer’s patients is harder to find, she told me, and care centers tend to place them with roommates. So her options were more limited.
‘I must have overreacted’
It isn’t certain what triggered the attack. For a long time, Larry had no roommate at Franklin Manor. Once he did, he might have gone wandering in the night and possibly woken Gene. Now that Gene has been moved to a VA Hospital in Black Mountain, his conversations with Rodney tend to be about escape. Not long ago, he asked Rodney to give him his money and identification so he can go to Florida and get out of everybody’s hair.
“I can’t do that Dad,” Rodney told him.
When Gene asks what he’s doing in Black Mountain, confined to the hospital, Rodney explains, “You hit somebody with a golf trophy. You crushed his eye socket.”
And Gene responds from inside his dementia, “I must have overreacted.”
I don’t know where to point a finger. I do know that a widow deserves more respect than the brush-off she’s gotten so far. And I think that the massive concern over privacy in this case is mostly about covering behinds.
I’ll leave this sad story with the last words Rodney Hamm said to me on the phone, one of the few honest or brave conversations I’ve come across from anybody involved in this case.
“At some point,” he said, “there has to be a place where people are safe. And evidently, that place is hard to find.”
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