SCHENECTADY -- The death of a 26-year-old man in a group home has his family in mourning, but also looking for answers.
Wally Lassiter was found unresponsive on July 4 in his room at one of the homes operated by the Wildwood Programs in Schenectady. The cause of his death, though, is still unknown.
The results of a toxicology test are pending.
Two agencies, the Schenectady Police Department and the state Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, are investigating the death.
Lassiter had intellectual disabilities, according to family members. While he could do things without assistance, he did need supervision.
Katarina Lassiter, Wally’s sister, said that because a younger brother, Tony, was in high school, she was in college and her mom was working, there was nobody available to give Wally the constant supervision he required.
She also said because their mom, Sarah Larkin, immigrated to the United States from West Africa, there was no extended family to help.
“After he graduated, he went into assisted living,” Larkin said of her son. “Because he can do everything for himself, but he needs to be supervised.”
Katarina said that, while Wally had high blood pressure, he was in relatively good health.
He was also in good spirits the day before he died, according to what Larkin said she heard from Wildwood staff. She said he had just gotten back from his girlfriend’s home -- his first serious girlfriend, according to family members -- and was excited about the Fourth of July.
Larkin said Wildwood staff told her Wally was looking forward to a barbecue, he was excited about going swimming and that he planned to buy her a birthday gift, as well.
“They said Wally would like you to come, but I said I’m working tomorrow,” Larkin said. “I said have him call me. That was it. They said they’ll tell him to call you first thing. The next day I got a call he was in the hospital and that he’s not going to make it.”
Wally’s death has his family questioning a few of the circumstances surrounding it, the first being that he was found wearing four layers of clothing, something his family said shouldn’t have happened.
Larkin said her son and his roommate at Wildwood would get into arguments over clothing. Sometimes it involved Lassiter's roommate taking some of his clothing.
Wildwood staff eventually locked up Wally’s clothes in the basemen, after he began wearing multiple layers.
“Wally would horde his clothes when they were not locked up to ensure no one would take them from him,” Katarina said.
Katarina said her brother was also found with two comforters on his bed. He already had one, but Katarina said staff members told her he asked for a second one.
The family also had concerns there wasn’t an air conditioner in his room, which they described as similar to an attic. They said there was one in the stairwell, but it wasn’t close enough to cool down Wally’s room, especially during a week with daily temperatures above 90 degrees.
The family has partnered with Michael Carey, who has advocated for the disabled since his 13-year-old son was killed in 2007 when a caregiver improperly restrained him during an outing from a facility in Niskayuna.
Carey said it doesn’t appear the Wildwood facility provided the proper care for Wally, and that they didn’t do the necessary bed checks the night he died.
“The facility should have had air conditioning in his room all along,” Carey said, “Then, they’re responsible to make sure he doesn’t have access to that clothing and are monitoring or watching him. He would not have put that clothing on if they followed the plan correctly.”
The Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, on its website, states that all deaths at facilities under its jurisdiction must be reported to its Vulnerable Persons Central Register Death Reporting Line. They are then screened by agency investigators to see whether the circumstances require an investigation.
There are four criteria the agency lists as grounds to open an investigation:
- If a person takes their own life at a hospital or at a residential facility after they are discharged.
- If there is an allegation of abuse.
- The death appears to come as a result of the person being restrained or secluded.
- The death appears to be the result of inadequate supervision or medical care from the facility.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said his office is aware of Lassiter’s death and has been in contact with the police and the state Justice Center. He said the county medical examiner is also looking into the death.
Lassiter’s family, meanwhile, isn’t sure the police are doing a fair investigation -- they said they haven’t been interviewed by them yet.
Sgt. Matt Dearing, spokesman for the Schenectady Police Department, said police have been interviewing staff at the Wildwood facility because that’s where Wally died.
“Just because we have not spoken to them so far doesn’t mean we won’t,” Dearing said.
The family also had concerns that Wally's room and bed were being cleaned up by the facility’s supervisor and director within an hour of his death. They said that decision didn’t leave enough time for evidence to be collected.
Dearing said police followed the normal protocols.
“Our evidence technician processed the scene and was called to the scene immediately after it happened,” Dearing said. “That’s how all unattended deaths are dealt with.”
Wildwood has said it would also like to know what happened, as they called the death tragic.
“Right now, our thoughts, our prayers are with the family,” said Wildwood spokesman Tom Schreck.
Schreck said the facility handed over the investigation to the Justice Center and would not comment on claims by Lassiter's family, citing the ongoing investigation.
“At Wildwood, our job, No. 1, is the health, safety and fulfillment of the people we support,” Schreck said. “Life is precious, and this is very tough on the people who work at Wildwood as well, and obviously the family. It’s such a tragedy.”
Lassiter had several goals that will go unfulfilled, according to his sister. Those were to get married, have kids and continue building things, like the many tables he built that currently furnish the family’s home.
Now, she said, she has her own goal: find justice for Wally.
She said her father died from a heart attack in his bed, and that an older brother, one she never met, died when he was an infant in his own bed. After hearing her brother died in his bed, too, she knows she needs to do something for him.
“I just feel like I have to fight for Wally,” Katarina said. “Because I don’t feel comfortable resting.”