Crime

Wake County woman died after a fall. Did her autistic son commit murder by neglect?

Eric Paul Brunner
Eric Paul Brunner

For the last year, Eric Brunner has been confined to the Wake County jail, charged with murder and elder abuse in the death of his 74-year-old mother.

He called 911 in February 2018, and when sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house outside Cary, they found Cynthia Brunner dead on the floor, where they estimated she had fallen and lain without help for more than a day.

They asked Brunner if he was responsible for his mother’s care, according to court files, and he paused and replied that he thought so. When deputies searched the house, they found mold, black water in the bathtub, a broken window, dirty dishes and newspapers stacked everywhere. A month later, they arrested the 40-year-old son for second-degree murder.

But a motion filed in Wake County this month argues that Brunner could never have killed his mother or even realized her plight. He suffers from autism disorder and “unspecified schizophrenia spectrum,” the motion said, noting that Brunner has been in psychiatric care for 25 years and lived with his mother for all but a few months of his life.

In her motion, attorney Mary Jude Darrow asks for the indictment to be dismissed.

“When Eric’s mother became ill, he was on his own and without guidance,” Darrow wrote. “There was no one to turn to — no guardian, trusted friend, or family member. Eric was left to his own devices when he was absolutely incapable of making life and death decisions. And despite all those facts, he has been sitting in jail for over 16 months.”

In their application for a search warrant in February 2018, deputies said Brunner admitted knowing that his inaction would lead to his mother’s death, and he told them that his mother had approximately $30,000 in a bank account that would come to him after she died.

But in her motion, Darrow noted that Brunner gave the deputies permission to search the house. But they sought a warrant because they were concerned about his mental condition.

Autopsy results

Autopsy results showed Brunner’s mother died of diabetic ketoacidosis and contributing heart disease. She had high blood pressure and hardened arteries, the motion said, and her body showed no signs of starvation, dehydration or abuse.

Still, Darrow wrote in her motion, Brunner had long depended on his mother for care — not the other way around.

“Why she failed to make plans for their later years will remain unknown,” the motion said. “However, they were her choices, as was her choice not to seek medical attention when she was ill. Her choices can not be the fault of her son: they were freely made, by an individual with no known mental health or functional disabilities.”

District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the homicide charges remain pending. “We continue to review the evidence, including information about the defendant’s mental capacity.”

Elder abuse

The National Council on Aging reports 1 in 10 Americans over 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse, whether physical, verbal or by neglect. In July, a jury in Georgia convicted the caregiver at an assisted living home of elder neglect in the case of a 91-year-old who died there, rejecting a charge of murder, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Another issue looms, Darrow said. Even if the charges are dismissed, Brunner has no place to live next and no one to care for him. No care facility will take on a patient or client with a murder charge, she said, and the lack of a clear path for Brunner outside jail may be complicating his ability to go free.

“There’s no place for him to go, really,” Darrow said in an interview this week. “In theory, he could go back to the house, but I think it would be condemned by an inspector. This is one of those stories where he and mom functioned to whatever degree they did, but now that she’s gone, there was nothing in place for him.”

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee says more resources should be devoted to stopping elderly abuse that occurs outside nursing homes.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
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