Bank pictures questioned in murder trial of nurse’s aide
BRATTLEBORO -- Exactly one hour after medics were called to Thompson House to treat an unresponsive Nita Lowery on March 23, 2009, someone was using her credit card to withdraw cash at a Brattleboro bank on Main Street.
And as emergency-room personnel were working futilely to bring the 83-year-old woman around, the card was used again -- this time at a Canal Street ATM just a short walk from the care home.
The Vermont Attorney General’s office says Jodi LaClaire, at the time a nursing assistant at Thompson House, was the woman withdrawing that cash just after she had given Lowery what would prove to be a fatal dose of insulin. On the fifth day of LaClaire’s murder trial in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, prosecutors spent most of the afternoon painstakingly detailing surveillance photos from those two bank transactions, though they did not show jurors the pictures or specifically claim they depicted LaClaire. LaClaire defense attorney Richard Ammons nonetheless questioned the origins of the photos and asked Bill Northrup, a former Peoples United Bank senior fraud investigator, whether the images showed anything of significance.
Could Northrup accurately determine height, weight or age from the images? Repeatedly, he said no.
What, Ammons asked, about identifying the suspect’s sex? "I felt it was a female, but I can’t say 100 percent," Northrup said.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N. H. , faces seven counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult in connection with alleged withdrawals from Lowery’s account. She also faces one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult and one count of second-degree murder.
Investigators say LaClaire, who was the sole nursing assistant on duty on Lowery’s floor the night before she was found unresponsive, administered insulin to the elderly woman. Lowery fell into a coma, suffered brain damage and died nine days later after family members decided to withdraw life support. Lowery was not a diagnosed diabetic. LaClaire is, however, and she uses insulin. LaClaire’s medical condition played a role in Tuesday’s trial schedule, as she fell ill in the morning and was treated at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. When she returned to the courthouse just after lunch, LaClaire told Judge David Suntag she was "doing great" and was well enough to participate in the trial.
Jurors have not yet heard testimony that LaClaire is diabetic. So when the jury finally was ushered into the courtroom, Suntag gave no reason for the delay and simply thanked them for their patience.
Northrup, the prosecution’s 12th witness, took the stand for the afternoon session. He retired from Peoples United earlier this year. But before that, he had assisted investigators in the Lowery case by pulling still pictures from video at ATMs on Main Street and Canal Street.
From his office in Burlington, Northrup explained, he could tap into video surveillance at any of the bank’s ATMs.
Those cameras are motion-activated, and Northrup testified that he would examine footage for a full five minutes before and after the time requested by investigators "so I could see everybody at that ATM." He got into that habit because, when attempting to coordinate transaction times with video footage, the bank’s old tape-system cameras "weren’t accurate like the digital video cameras are." Digital cameras were in place at both Brattleboro branches on the morning of March 23, 2009. Under questioning from Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle, Northrup vouched for photos time-stamped 8:08 a. m. for the Main Street location and 8:23 a. m. and 8:24 a. m. for the Canal Street ATM.
LaClaire’s shift had ended around 7 a. m. that morning. Medics were called to Thompson House at 7:09 a. m. and arrived at Lowery’s bedside at 7:13 a. m.
So the ATM withdrawals began just an hour after Lowery was discovered, and they allegedly continued until the day she died.
Prosecutors have said each of the fraudulent withdrawals from Lowery’s account were for $503. Northrup made reference to that number in passing on Tuesday, but there were no details offered tying LaClaire to the ATM appearances. In fact, Doyle -- as he did during testimony by another Peoples United administrator on Friday -- reserved the right to admit the pictures into evidence "pending testimony of other witnesses." Doyle repeatedly asked Northrup whether the photos in the courtroom on Tuesday "fairly and accurately depict" the images the fraud investigator had culled from video in 2009. He said they did.
He also volunteered that the bank’s video surveillance was "a new system and a good system. It was pretty well-maintained." However, Northrup also acknowledged that, when Lowery investigators asked for the photos a second time last year, he needed some help.
"I had deleted pictures from 2009 from my hard drive, so the IT technicians had to restore all of my pictures," Northrup said.
That led to questions from Ammons about whether Northrup had been present for that photo recovery or knew how it had been conducted. He said he had not been and did not.
Ammons, as he did on Friday, also assailed the accuracy of the photos’ time stamps. There are small variances from actual transaction times in some instances.
And Northrup testified that, at one point, the bank’s cameras did not switch from daylight-savings time and were an hour off.
"It could be a matter of seconds, it could be a matter of 10 or 15 minutes, or it could be a matter of an hour," Ammons said.
In addition to questions about the Brattleboro ATM suspect’s body type, age and sex, Ammons also asked about race.
"It appeared to me they were Caucasian," Northrup said.
"Hopefully, somebody will get to determine that," Ammons replied.
The day’s only other witness was Marc Lussier, FairPoint Communications senior security manager.
He testified that there were six calls made from a phone number assigned to Lowery on the morning of March 23, 2009. Those calls were placed at 4:44, 5:29, 5:50, 6:21 and 6:24, and five were made to a 1-800 number.
Investigators have alleged that LaClaire was performing online searches and making phone calls from Lowery’s room regarding the elderly woman’s USAA credit card. But Lussier did not testify about the owner of the toll-free number listed on the FairPoint Records. And prosecutors on Tuesday did not allege that LaClaire made the calls in question.
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