Caregiver covered tracks, court hears — (The Ottawa Citizen)

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The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Kelly Egan

Woman, 56, pleads guilty to pumping wrong medications into 84-year-old man

PEMBROKE — When John Tantas, 84, collapsed at home in Pembroke on June 3, 1997, his caregiver followed the ambulance to the hospital with detailed instructions.
Judy Howard, then 56, told medical staff there was a “do-not-resuscitate” order attached to Mr. Tantas, a retired butcher well-known to main-street shoppers. When Mr. Tantas finally died that day of a pulmonary embolism, she was adamant that no autopsy was necessary.
Ms. Howard was not merely trying to be helpful at a time of crisis. She was covering her tracks.
The former Pembroke resident pleaded guilty yesterday to criminal negligence causing death and was sentenced to nine years in prison for pumping Mr. Tantas full of medication he was never prescribed.
Originally charged with first-degree murder, it was clear from an agreed set of facts yesterday that Ms. Howard’s actions were part of a calculated plot.
According to a summary by assistant Crown attorney John Pepper, toxicology results found the presence of five drugs in Mr. Tantas’s system, including a pair of anti-depressants prescribed to Ms. Howard and an allergy medication.
There was no sign, meanwhile, of the medication that Mr. Tantas was supposed to be taking for his congestive heart condition.
It was unclear in court yesterday what quantities of the wrong medication were taken and what means of deception were used to convince him to ingest them.
After she met Mr. Tantas in a pub in December 1996, the two struck up a relationship which saw him spend substantial amounts of time at her rented home in Pembroke.
“She befriended him and she convinced him she would take care of him,” said OPP Det. Insp. Glen Bowmaster outside court.
Within months, Ms. Howard, a trained nursing assistant, had access to his bank account and had become the executor of his will and the largest beneficiary of his estate, which included a house.
In the six months before he died, she drained his bank account balance from $26,386 to $634.
Shortly before his death, Mr. Tantas was visited by friends who noticed the normally robust man had turned seriously ill.
His physician was summoned and noticed Mr. Tantas was demonstrating “considerable anxiety,” sharp weight loss, and expressed a desire “to get out of here.”
Within a couple of days, he was dead.
It took four years and some dogged police work to bring Ms. Howard to justice.
Court was told that Ms. Howard, the mother of five children, moved to the Hamilton area shortly after the death of Mr. Tantas, who survived two wives and had no family in Canada.
Det. Insp. Bowmaster said at least two undercover officers were used in the four-year investigation that led to charges in February 2001.
“She was befriended by a couple of undercover operators and, eventually, she made a confession to one of them that she had taken Mr. Tantas’s life,” he said outside court.
The defence team admitted Ms. Howard had both confessed on videotape and composed a handwritten note, dated Jan. 24, 2001, which read:
“I, Judith Howard, while having John Tantas in my care and home, changed his medication and gave him more than should have been given. Consequently, he died as a result of this in June, 1997.”
The Crown’s murder case, however, had a major weakness.
Defence lawyer Vince Clifford said it was discovered that the blood and urine samples taken from Mr. Tantas were contaminated at some point with the DNA of two or more people.
“As a result of that, no serious reliance could be placed on the toxicology findings,” he said outside court.
However, the Crown was armed with the confession and Ms. Howard decided to plea to the lesser offence, for which she has already been in custody for more than two years.
Mr. Clifford said his client was convinced to make the confession by undercover officers who tricked her into thinking they were recruiting her to be part of an unspecified “criminal organization.”
Ms. Howard, now 61, has a lengthy criminal record, including drinking and driving, obstructing police, assaulting a police officer, property offences and weapons offences.
She was supported in court by her daughter, an infant grandchild and an ex-husband, who declined comment as they left court.
“My client is very, very relieved to have this matter over with, very relieved to have the first-degree murder charge withdrawn. She was at peace today when she entered the guilty plea,” said Mr. Clifford.