When 86-year-old Mary McBride left home to walk the dog late in the afternoon on Sept. 7, she didn't come back right away. Not after an hour. Not even when darkness fell.
Her 84-year-old sister and nursemaid, Edna Lamont, became frantic. Lamont had reason to worry: She told the police that McBride had symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and did not know her own address or telephone number.
Two days later, McBride was found--confused and disoriented but safe--after straying into a doughnut shop in Culver City with the little black-and-white mongrel in tow. "Oh my God, it's wonderful!" a relieved Lamont exclaimed. "I'm going to get her a good, big dinner."
Six months later, on March 12, McBride's badly beaten body was found face-up in a puddle of blood on the dining room floor of the West Los Angeles house she shared with her sister. Soon after, Lamont was charged with bludgeoning her sister to death with a sponge mop amid allegations by neighbors that she had physically and mentally abused McBride for years.
Disoriented and Confused
Looking disoriented and confused "and almost like a victim herself," in the words of one prosecutor, the white-haired, bespectacled Lamont pleaded innocent March 16 in West Los Angeles Municipal Court. She was released into the care of her son, who immediately had her hospitalized for observation until a May 10 hearing.
While public attention quickly focused on the gruesome nature of the case--how a relationship between two elderly sisters could have deteriorated to the point where one would be charged with the other's murder--deeper, more disturbing questions have arisen since the slaying:
--Why hadn't an extensive social services system designed specifically to help disabled senior citizens and the people who care for them ever heard about the elderly sisters before?
"When this story broke, we of course were very concerned: Were we involved in this case?" said Carol Matsui, special assistant to the director of the county Department of Public Social Services, which runs a state-of-the-art elder abuse detection and prevention network. "The administrators extensively checked our records, and there is no file related to those sisters."
--Why hadn't the sisters' neighbors, who now say they had seen Lamont slap, push and intimidate her enfeebled sister, ever alerted family members or called the authorities?
"It wouldn't have occurred to me," explained one, Don Foltz. "But some of the other neighbors across the street said they (also) had seen her really abusing her. And if she abused her when they were out on the street, who knows what she did when they were in the house?"
--And why hadn't anyone recognized that the strain of nursing an 86-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer could be overwhelming even for someone half Lamont's age?
"There are a lot of elderly people out there in difficult situations, and nobody wants to take responsibility for identifying them--not family, not friends, not neighbors," said Cathy Bekian, coordinator of the UCLA Geriatric Psychiatry Clinic's out-patient program. "You don't want to get involved so you shut your eyes to what's happening."
Instead, prosecutors allege, Mary McBride became a victim of what experts say is an alarming rise in violence against some of the weakest members of American society--the 7% of Americans over age 65 who are thought to suffer from Alzheimer's. Robbed of their minds by the freakish cruelty of the disease, they too often also are robbed of their dignity.
"Assuming for a moment that we don't find this was a cold-blooded, calculated or tortured kind of murder which would tend toward an entirely different kind of result," noted Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Herman, "what we're dealing with is a human tragedy for everybody."
Neighbors and police paint a sketchy portrait of the two sisters. (Lamont's attorney and her family declined requests for interviews.) They were born at the turn of the century into an Irish family of three daughters and one son. Eventually, all of the children would emigrate from Ireland--one sister to Africa, the brother to Canada.
Edna Florence also would live in Canada before moving to Los Angeles. But Mary Violet would come directly to the United States and settle in Portland, Ore. She went to work for the Otis Elevator Co. as a clerk-stenographer and, according to Otis' files, stayed with the firm for 30 years until her retirement in 1963.
She never married. Lamont, meanwhile, was widowed with two children, both of whom live in the Los Angeles area.
The house at 11922 Tennessee Ave. where the sisters eventually settled belonged to Lamont's son, Herbert Barry Lamont, a humanities professor at West Los Angeles College. He and his wife inherited the well-kept wood home from her parents and rented it out. In the early 1960s, Lamont moved in.