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A tragic end to 70 years of marriage

Police say Roy Charles Laird, 88, fatally shot his 86-year-old wife at a nursing home. Their daughter says it was a 'mercy killing.'

November 22, 2010|By Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times
  • Roy Laird would visit his wife three times a day.
Roy Laird would visit his wife three times a day.

Through seven decades of marriage, Roy Charles Laird was by his wife's side.

After Clara got sick and started showing signs of dementia, he refused to hire nursing aides to help care for her. He insisted on doing everything himself — from washing her laundry to cooking her meals.

He was there nearly every day, a pained witness to her steady decline over the last five years.

He was also there at the end, according to Seal Beach police, who say that on Sunday around noon, 88-year-old Roy killed 86-year-old Clara with a single gunshot to the head at her nursing home.

He was arrested on suspicion of murder for what some who know them see as an act of love.

"It was a mercy killing," said their daughter, Kathy Palmateer, 68.

About three months ago, he reluctantly agreed to put his wife in the Country Villa Health Care Center a nursing facility less than a mile from their home. By then, she was unable to feed herself, walk, sit up in a wheelchair or even recognize many of the people close to her, Palmateer said.

"Her mind was gone," Palmateer said.

Still, Roy would visit her three times a day, spoon-feeding her at each meal.

"He'd always kiss her goodbye and hold her hand," said Nancy Grijalva, a family friend. "He would never get mad at her and lose his patience.

"Whatever she asked of him, that's what he did," she said.

They married while both were in their teens and Roy was a student at UC Santa Barbara. He worked as an engineer for General Electric, and she stayed home with their two children. He was a devoted Little League supporter.

They lived in Palmdale until about 20 years ago, when they moved to Leisure World, a retirement community in Seal Beach. By several accounts, he was a generous neighbor, doing plumbing repairs for free. He and Clara were also devoted to their granddaughters, rarely missing their volleyball games.

Constance Moore, a neighbor at Leisure World, described Roy as "a very sweet man" who "was upset about his wife."

On Saturday, Roy was sick with a cold and let his daughter do the visiting. Palmateer said she noted a change in her mother: Normally talkative and fidgety, grouchy even, she had become quiet and calm.

The next morning, Roy was back to his duties.

He called his daughter to report that Clara had finished her entire breakfast of eggs, pancakes and fruit — a rare occurrence of late.

But he also said she still wasn't talking. He sounded matter-of-fact and mentioned nothing else out of the ordinary.

Around noon, a single gunshot echoed through the halls of the 198-bed nursing home. Police arrived a few minutes later and surrounded the building, calling in backup from the California Highway Patrol, the Orange County Sheriff's Department and two neighboring police departments.

"We didn't know if we had a shooter or not," said Sgt. Steve Bowles of the Seal Beach Police Department.

Inside, police found Clara dead in her bed.

Roy was in the hallway. When he saw the police, he followed them into Clara's room, Bowles said.

He took his gun, a .38-caliber revolver, out of his pocket and set it on a table.

Bowles described him as "calm" and "very somber."

He said it would be up to prosecutors this week to decide what charges to file. "It's just a tragedy all the way around," he said.

Palmateer said she was unaware that her father even owned a gun.

Palmateer recalled a few occasions in which her father had mentioned other men at Leisure World who had killed their sick wives and then themselves. But her father never left the impression that he planned to do something similar, she said.

"It's not real to me," she said, smoking a cigarette outside the Seal Beach Police Station Sunday night as she waited to see her father.

In a room inside the station, she met with him for half an hour or so.

"I just gave him a big hug and we talked," she said.

They discussed getting him a lawyer and figuring out how to get him his medications.

Roy's health has also been in decline. He had a quintuple bypass several years ago, and skin cancer.

Next month would have been the couple's 70th wedding anniversary.

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

Times staff writers Garrett Therolf and Times researcher Kent Coloma contributed to this report.

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