Aubrey Fanning was full of life when Pamela Mitchell took three of her children to visit her grandfather at a Long Beach convalescent hospital one evening last December. Fanning, 74, teased his great-grandchildren by tugging on their fingers and he sipped a strawberry milkshake Mitchell had brought along.
Just hours after the visitors left, Fanning slipped into a coma and was rushed to Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach. Mitchell said officials at the convalescent home told her the man had broken a blood vessel in his brain.
But when Mitchell saw her grandfather, she suspected something was amiss. Fanning had a moon-shaped bruise next to his right eye, a bruise the size of a grapefruit on his chest and other bruises on his hands and legs.
Aubrey Fanning looked like he had been beaten, she said.
After lingering in a coma for another nine days, Fanning died Dec. 21. The coroner's office listed the death as accidental, but Mitchell was sure there was a more sinister explanation.
Called for Inquest
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lee Harris agreed the case had a "certain odor to it" and called for a coroner's inquest, only the second in Los Angeles County this year. A coroner's inquest is an investigation into the cause of a suspicious death.
On Monday, the seven-member coroner's jury--a lay panel convened for the inquest--agreed with Mitchell and Harris. After listening to testimony, the jury ruled that Fanning had died at the hands of another.
"His death was devastating and untimely," said Mitchell, a San Pedro resident. "As far as I'm concerned, he should still be here."
The ruling also added a twist to a medical and legal whodunit that has troubled investigators and hospital officials since the elderly man's death.
In February, Long Beach police homicide detectives arrested Lito Aqui, 25, a certified nursing assistant at Hillcrest Convalescent Hospital, and booked him on suspicion of murder in the Fanning case. Three days later, Aqui was released from jail when the district attorney's office decided not to charge him with the crime because of insufficient evidence.
During the coroner's inquest, however, Aqui again became the focus of attention. Prosecutors put the naturalized U.S. citizen on the stand to question him about his involvement with Fanning, but Aqui refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
Although authorities say the case remains under investigation, they admit they lack sufficient evidence to file murder charges against Aqui or anyone else. Nonetheless, officials maintain that the inquest was an important step.
'Should Not Have Died'
"Even without a criminal prosecution, we want to air these types of incidents," said Harris, who heads the district attorney's nursing home and dependent care section. "We don't want these types of deaths to be swept under the rug. Mr. Fanning should not have died at that time and at that place."
But a lawyer representing Aqui said the inquest had been a waste of time.
Joseph Shemaria, a Beverly Hills lawyer, called the coroner's inquest "a mockery" and charged that the hearing was orchestrated by police investigators "in a vain attempt to get Lito Aqui to incriminate himself in their eyes."
"It's a kangaroo advisory board, sitting there to give a kangaroo's opinion," Shemaria said. "They're making much ado about nothing. And they're driving this poor kid insane. He's frightened out of his mind."
Friends of Aqui, who is married to a registered nurse at Hillcrest and has a 6-month-old daughter, said the young man was devastated by the inquest, has refused to eat in recent days and often breaks into fits of crying.
The inquest was painful for Fanning's family as well. After the hearing, Mitchell stood in the courtroom with her mother, Dorothy Morrissette, and wept. Mitchell was raised by Fanning and his wife, Hilda, after her mother--Fanning's daughter--and father were divorced.
Took Family West
Fanning left the coal fields in which he had worked in West Virginia in 1949, gathered up his family and headed west, looking for a better life. He worked in a San Pedro lumberyard until he slipped a disk in the mid-1960s and had back surgery.
By 1977 Parkinson's disease--a degenerative disorder that causes muscle tremors--had grown so bad that the family placed Fanning in Hillcrest, a 154-bed facility. His wife died in 1981.
Despite a sometimes crusty nature, the wheelchair-bound Fanning was "as sharp as a tack" and got along well with the nurses and aides at Hillcrest, Mitchell said.
"Through all his years there, I could tell the whole staff liked him," Mitchell said. "He was an ornery old guy, but he was fun-loving."
Hillcrest spokesmen agreed that Fanning was a generally likeable patient, although he could sometimes be cranky.