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Painkillers, Not Cancer, Killed Man, Probe Finds : Medicine: Autopsy on exhumed body is performed after a hospice nurse is accused by co-worker of giving fatal overdoses of opiates to up to 17 patients. Four more bodies will be examined.

June 03, 1993|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN BERNARDINO — A 94-year-old cancer victim, whose body was exhumed after a hospice nurse was accused by a co-worker of killing him and as many as 16 other people under her care, died of an overdose of codeine and morphine administered just hours earlier, authorities said Wednesday.

The nurse under investigation saw the man only once--the day he died last December, said her attorney and the owner of the board and care facility where the patient was living.

The conclusion that Homer Schreiber died of an overdose of opiates was announced by San Bernardino County Coroner Brian McCormick, who said his office now will exhume the bodies of four more people to determine if they, too, died of opiate toxicity.

McCormick said that homicide detectives will have to determine whether Schreiber's death was accidental or a homicide, but that at least one thing is certain: Schreiber did not die of natural causes, as the death certificate stated. Because Schreiber was terminally ill, his death was presumed natural at the time and not investigated by the coroner's office.

Schreiber's body was exhumed May 10 for a toxicology examination after a co-worker of hospice nurse Darlene Leon told police that Leon had killed as many as 17 of her terminally ill patients with lethal injections.

Deputy Laurie Savage, a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, said the next step is "to determine how the opiates came into Mr. Schreiber's body" through interviews and record checks.

But she said that after the investigation began, it was "hampered" because the tipster went on television news to accuse Leon "and we can't recover from that." Savage said there is no evidence to show Leon has committed any type of crime.

Leon, who the unnamed informant said was known as the "Angel of Death," denied the allegations in the same news report on KNBC Channel 4, and is now declining comment. At the time, Leon attributed her nickname to the fact that, as a hospice nurse, she cared for dying patients.

Her attorney, Michael Wolf, said Wednesday he did not know what to make of the coroner's conclusion. "She had absolutely nothing to do with this. We think the test is fairly inconclusive. Beyond that, we're very confused."

He said Leon was startled by the findings and was continuing to cooperate with homicide investigators. He said his client still has her nursing license but is "at a desk job until this blows over."

The county coroner said that his medical examiner found "a combination of codeine and morphine in Mr. Schreiber's system at sufficient levels to be lethal" and that the drugs were administered within hours of his death.

"He didn't die of the cancer he was being treated for. He would have, but this was not the immediate cause of death," McCormick said. "Opiates were. We will now disinter four others to see if a pattern of opiates is present in them, too."

He said his office's findings were confirmed by an independent consulting laboratory.

Wolf said his client saw Schreiber when she was assigned by a doctor to evaluate his condition and set up a hospice-care regimen.

"She was with him in the presence of two or three other people, for an initial evaluation," Wolf said. "Their first contact was on the day he died. She took the evaluation, went home and got a call late that night that he had passed away."

Schreiber died at Whispering Palms Assisted Care, a board-and-care facility in Yucaipa, owned by Al and Olivia Andreis. Leon, who worked for a visiting nurses association, assisted patients at a variety of facilities and private homes.

Olivia Andreis, a registered nurse, said she had given Schreiber only prescription pills of Tylenol with codeine.

Leon arrived on the afternoon of Dec. 21. Schreiber by then could no longer walk or talk and his body was badly swollen. She spent about four hours there, assessing his condition and filling out paperwork, Andreis said.

"During her visit, I was with her, but I was in and out of the room, getting gloves and preparing meals," Andreis said. "She said his blood pressure was very low, like 100 over 40 or 60, and she said, 'I don't think he's going to make it.'

"She said she'd get him a hospital bed and an IV and get the doctor to give him a prescription for morphine infusion to reduce the pain."

Leon left about 5 p.m. that day, Andreis said, and she herself left about 8:45 p.m. to go to her other board-and-care facility in Palm Springs. Schreiber died before midnight.

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