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In nursing home slaying, only questions

Victim, 100, had roommate trouble

Elizabeth Barrow celebrated her 100th birthday last month. She enjoyed living at Brandon Woods Nursing Home, her son said. Elizabeth Barrow celebrated her 100th birthday last month. She enjoyed living at Brandon Woods Nursing Home, her son said. (Scott Barrow/Associated Press)
By David Abel and John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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Elizabeth Barrow, 100, went to bed at the nursing home where she lived in Dartmouth, savoring a meal shared with her son at her favorite restaurant.

About 7 the next morning, staff doing routine checks at the Brandon Woods Nursing Home found the previously healthy woman dead, with a plastic bag over her head.

Investigators initially thought she had committed suicide, but the results of an autopsy released Wednesday by the medical examiner found that Barrow was the victim of “asphyxia due to strangulation and suffocation."

At a press conference outside Fall River’s downtown courthouse, Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter called the Sept. 24 killing shocking and inhumane.

“It’s a terrible tragedy, as are all homicides,’’ Sutter said yesterday. “Is there some acuteness because of her age? I would say yes. This is an extremely unusual case.’’

Sutter declined to say whether investigators had identified a suspect.

But a person briefed by investigators said police were looking into reports that Barrow’s 96-year-old roommate at the nursing home had repeatedly complained that Barrow had more visitors than she did and had threatened to kill Barrow if she and her guests continued to disturb her. Neither the roommate’s name nor her whereabouts could be confirmed yesterday.

Lisa Rowell, a spokeswoman for Sutter, declined to confirm or deny that Barrow’s roommate was a suspect in the homicide. “It’s an open and active investigation,’’ she said. “No suspect has been arrested.’’

In a telephone interview at his home in Dartmouth, Scott Barrow described his mother as hale, jovial, and full of life, a proud 5-foot-2 grandmother of three who was fit enough to walk on her own and read two books a week. Ironically, he said, her favorite books were murder mysteries.

“My mother was a peacemaker,’’ he said. “Nobody could have imagined anything like this would happen. She was a wonderful, outgoing person, who was very happy with life. She loved to be with other people, and she loved to be at the nursing home.’’

He said she never told him that she had been directly threatened by her roommate, but he knew of the tension. His mother had apparently complained on multiple occasions to staff at the nursing home, he said.

“She didn’t want to upset me with any of these details,’’ he said.

Nursing home officials declined to comment on the allegations.

“All we can say is that we’re all grieving for the loss for the family and for the facility,’’ said Scott Picone, chief of operations of the Essex Group Management Co., which manages Brandon Woods.

He said Barrow had lived at the nursing home for 4 1/2 years. She was one of 118 residents at the facility, which has received average ratings for the quality of its services and above-average ratings for the ratio of staff to residents, according to a Medicare survey updated last month.

In a statement to the press, Picone said: “We prepare for these eventualities as persons caring for the elderly, who die of natural causes. This situation is especially tragic because the exact chain of events may never be fully known.’’

Barrow said his mother had only praise for the nursing home staff.

“The staff was wonderful,’’ he said. “They took excellent care of her. She loved them, and they loved her. Certainly, it wasn’t the staff’s fault.’’

Asked at yesterday’s press conference whether other nursing home residents are safe, Sutter said, “I’m quite certain the nursing home is going to take precautions.’’

Susan Pierce, administrative clerk at the Dartmouth Council on Aging, said the people in her community described Barrow as “very well loved.’’

“What I have heard about her is that she was a happy person, that everybody who knew her loved her,’’ Pierce said.

Pierce described the staff at Brandon Woods as “very professional,’’ based on her limited contact with the organization. “I have never heard a negative thing about them,’’ she said.

Scott Barrow, an only child, said his mother had lived at Brandon Woods with her husband of 65 years, A. Raymond Barrow, before he died in 2007.

He said her exuberance was sustained by her grandchildren and the meals they cooked for her, specifically her late husband’s recipe for baked stuffed shrimp, which they feasted on during her 100th birthday celebration in August.

He said her family traced its roots to relatives who sailed to Massachusetts from England on the second trip of the Mayflower in the 1630s. He said she graduated in the early 1930s from the New Bedford Textile Institute, where she taught briefly before becoming Miss Rayon. After serving as spokeswoman for the rayon textile industry, she went to work for the Dartmouth public schools cafeteria system, as “the dessert lady.’’

“When she made apple crisp, they always sold out,’’ he said. “She was a wonderful cook.’’

But more than anything, Barrow loved books. Her son said she used to read at least one a day, mainly murder mysteries, before she cut back to two a week in recent years.

“Her main worry was that she wouldn’t be able to read,’’ he said.

She also loved to shop, and her son often took her to Kmart and Wal-Mart, where she liked to try on clothes.

The day before she died, Scott Barrow took his mother to lunch at the Willow Tree in New Bedford, her favorite restaurant.

“She was in excellent spirits,’’ he said. “She loved to be out.’’

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.