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A grim mystery

A grieving widow is shocked by an anonymous call saying her husband was beaten in a nursing home. A spokesman says there was no wrongdoing.

December 19, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

The day Rita Kittower buried her husband last month, the 83-year-old widow from Tarzana thought she had endured the worst life had to offer.

She had bade a tearful goodbye to her mate of 49 years, who had passed away in an exclusive assisted living facility in Calabasas. "He just stopped breathing," Kittower said she was told by a staff member.

With such a peaceful death, she thought, at least her husband Elmore would be free of the torment he had been feeling since losing much of his memory and independence to a severe stroke a year earlier.

"I thought it was meant to be," she said.

Then came the anonymous phone call the day after the funeral.

A woman claiming to be an employee of the nursing home told Rita that her 80-year-old husband's death had been anything but peaceful. She said Elmore Kittower had been beaten to death by someone on the staff.

Days later, detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department would pose a question that was almost inconceivable to the elderly widow.

Would it be OK, they asked, if they exhumed her husband's body?

On a warm fall day in 1957 a young legal secretary by the name of Rita Druckman was washing her red Ford convertible outside her apartment in West Hollywood. As she sprayed the car with a hose, the son of the building's owner -- a young man named Elmore Kittower -- walked by on the way to visit his parents.

"I hosed him by mistake and that's how we met," Rita recalled. The two were married six months later.

Elmore went on to have a successful career as an engineer and inventor, earning four patents along the way, two of them unpublished because they were classified by the U.S. Navy. The couple raised two children, a boy and a girl.

When Elmore retired in 1994, he and Rita settled into a life of going out for lunches and dinners with friends and walking their Belgian shepherd Bruin through their hillside neighborhood. Elmore tended to problems at the 10-unit rental property the couple owned in West Hollywood. He also volunteered as a math tutor at nearby Taft High School and read aloud to make recordings of books for the blind.

Such was the pace of life when Rita handed her husband the newspaper one day in August 2006 and then went about her morning routine.

Moments later, Elmore put the paper down.

"I can't read this," he told his wife. "It's all blurry. The whole thing is blurry."

Elmore was taken to Tarzana Hospital, where doctors determined he had a blood clot on the brain and had suffered a severe stroke.

He was in the hospital for about a month, followed by another month in rehab. At that point, Rita Kittower said, "they said we had to take him home or put him in a nursing home."

Rita opted for home.

She hired a live-in male nurse, installed safety bars in the bathrooms and erected a railing along the sidewalk leading to the front door. But when she and a neighbor arrived to pick her husband up at the hospital, he was no longer the man she had known for so many years. She said her husband was angry that his memory -- and movement -- had been sapped by the stroke. He violently pushed a walker toward a nurse who was trying to help him. "He was out of control," she said.

Back home, the once quiet and patient man she had known was combative and easily frustrated. He refused to take his medication. After just five days, Elmore ended up back in the hospital, this time in the psychiatric ward of another facility. Six weeks later, when Rita faced the same question of whether to take her husband home or put him in nursing home, she felt there was only one answer: a nursing home. She perused literature and toured dozens of facilities, "none of them to my liking."

Then, through a recommendation, she found a place called Silverado Senior Living in Calabasas. The place, an assisted living facility, specialized in taking care of memory-impaired patients such as her husband. She said she warned the staff that her husband could be combative and refuse to take his medication, but was told that wouldn't be a problem.

The price for such service wasn't cheap. Rita said she paid nearly $75,000 a year for her husband to share a room with another patient.

"It was a hardship," she said. "But it was a beautiful place, like a five-star hotel."

Despite the pleasant surroundings, Rita's visits with Elmore were difficult. He recognized his wife and grown daughter, Elise, when they arrived. But he would sit slumped in his wheelchair and barely spoke.

"What he did do, though, he would take my hand in his and he'd kiss my hand," Rita said, breaking into tears at the memory. "And that killed me altogether. I felt so bad for him."

On Sunday, Oct. 28, the Kittower family gathered at Silverado to celebrate Elmore's80th birthday. The following Sunday, Rita and Elise came back for their weekly visit.

It was the last time they would see Elmore alive.

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