DALLAS – In the years since Leah Corken’s death, one detail after another haunted her daughter.
Although MJ Jennings had come to accept that his mother probably died of a stroke, just the night before they went shopping and going to the movies, the 83-year-old had seemed his usual sassy. .
When Corken’s body was found in 2016 on the living room floor of her apartment at The Tradition-Prestonwood, an upscale independent living community in Dallas, her freshly styled hair was a mess. There were makeup stains on the pillow in her bedroom.
And his wedding ring was gone.
“I knew something was wrong, but I just didn’t know,” Jennings said. “I didn’t know it was murder.”
Across Dallas and its suburbs over a span of two years, family after family have had similar concerns, worried about the disappearance of jewelry and bewildered at the sudden death of their older but otherwise healthy and active loved one. .
Then, in March 2018, Mary Annis Bartel, 91, survived after a man forced his way into her apartment, telling her ‘don’t fight me’ as he tried to suffocate her with a pillow and left with jewelry. The next day, police arrested Billy Chemirmir. Authorities have said they will be examining hundreds of deaths, signaling the possibility that a serial killer has stalked elderly people.
In the following years, the number of people accused of killing Chemirmir increased. He will be tried on Monday for the death of Lu Thi Harris, 81, one of the 18 women he is accused of having killed. Chemirmir, 48, faces life imprisonment without parole if convicted, as prosecutors have decided not to seek the death penalty.
Most of the victims were killed in independent living communities for the elderly, where Chemirmir reportedly forced himself into apartments or posed as a handyman. He is also accused of killing women in private homes, including the widow of a man he had cared for in his home help job.
At a press conference days after Chemirmir’s arrest, Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin acknowledged the tendency to assume that the death of an elderly person is natural.
“There is no thorough investigation. … It would be very easy to disguise a crime, ”Rushin said.
When the police found Chemirmir in his apartment next door after Bartel’s attack, he was holding jewelry and money. A police jewelry box said he had just thrown them took them to a Dallas home, where Harris had died in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.
Chemirmir’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but previously characterized the evidence against Chemirmir as circumstantial. Chemirmir, who immigrated to the United States from Kenya, became a lawful permanent resident in 2007.
Eight of the people he is accused of killing lived at The Tradition-Prestonwood, and he has been linked with the death of a ninth resident in a lawsuit.
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Just days before Glenna Day, 87, was found dead there in October 2016, she told friends that something didn’t seem right.
“They asked how things were going. She said: ‘Well I think I should move because my friends are dying,’ said her daughter, Sherril Kerr, who added that the deaths had prompted her mother to see her doctor for a exam.
When Day was killed, the accomplished artist was working to restore a friend’s painting and had just danced at a senior citizen center.
Chemirmir was charged with two deaths earlier that year at another Dallas retirement community – The Edgemere – and linked via an autopsy report to a third.
In April 2016, police issued a criminal trespass warning in Edgemere to Benjamin Koitaba, an alias used by Chemirmir. When he was spotted there again in June, police discovered he had two pieces of identification: one for Chemirmir, one for Koitaba. He was charged with criminal trespassing and giving officers false names.
The deaths at The Tradition began after his release from prison in July. According to lawsuits against The Tradition, Chemirmir was escorted off the scene in late 2016 and asked not to return. A November 2016 police report says the suspect – who is not named but whose description matches Chemirmir – was seen there on several occasions, claiming he was looking for leaks in the pipes.
In the two weeks leading up to Bartel’s attack, Chemirmir is accused of killing three of her fellow citizens at Preston Place in Plano.
When the children of the victims began to reunite, they formed Secure Our Seniors’ Safety. The group has championed new Texas laws requiring forensic pathologists to notify families when a relative’s death certificate is changed and requiring spot checks by officials at silver-for-gold stores.
They say more work needs to be done, including more transparency in independent living communities. In the trials, families accused the facilities of not having the security advertised.
“We didn’t know evil was lurking in the halls,” said Shannon Dion, whose mother was killed at The Tradition and who is the group’s president.
Tradition said in a statement it was based on investigations by police and medical examiners. Preston Place said it has resolved the dispute but would not comment on the details. Edgemere did not respond to requests for comment.
As Scott MacPhee read an article about Chemirmir’s arrest, the death of his 82-year-old mother at his Plano home began to make sense. Carolyn MacPhee was found in her bedroom on New Years Eve in 2017, just over eight months after her husband died. There was blood on his glasses, a door and handkerchiefs in the bathroom. Two diamond rings were missing, which she still wore.
“I read the story saying, ‘Well, damn it, that connects all the dots,’” he said.
Robert MacPhee said police assumed their mother had a nosebleed and died of an aneurysm, so the family did not request an autopsy. It turned out that Chemirmir, using the pseudonym Koitaba, had been a home caregiver for their father, who had Parkinson’s disease.
About nine months after Chemirmir’s arrest, Jennings discovered that authorities believed her mother had been murdered.
“Suddenly all the things I saw in that room that day… it all made sense,” she said.
Jennings said Corken has lived all over the world and left Florida for The Tradition to be close to her.
“She was my best friend, she really was,” Jennings said.
By JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press