Detective: Nursing home killers suffocated up to a dozen patients

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Newly released court documents in the fight to keep Alpine Manor Nursing Home killer Catherine Wood in prison reveal startling new details about the 1987 murders: that she and her accomplice tried to kill at least 10 elderly patients, not just the five they were charged with killing.

On Friday, the lead detective in the case also revealed for the first time that he believes they suffocated more patients than previously reported at the former nursing home in Walker.

“She (Wood) thought there were approximately a dozen or so victims at Alpine Manor. Actually killed,” retired Walker Detective Sgt. Tom Freeman told 24 Hour News 8.

He based that, he said, on months working with and interviewing Wood.

Initial reports had listed as many as eight possible victims.

Wood told investigators at the time that her accomplice, Gwendolyn Graham, “killed five female patients and tried at least five others, but was unsuccessful because some of the elderly men and women fought back,” according to Wood’s never-before-released presentence report.

“She and Graham talked of spelling MURDER with the victims’ initials but they abandoned that plan after some of the slayings failed,” the report states.

Freeman said details about other possible murders were never released because prosecutors could prove only five — the deaths of Mae Mason, 79, Edith Cole, 89; Marguerite Chambers, 60; Myrtle Luce, 95; and Belle Burkhard, 74.

Graham, now 55, was convicted in those deaths and is serving life in prison without parole.

Wood, now 57, got a deal and a 20- to 40-year sentence for second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder. She has served nearly 30 years of that sentence and must be released by June 2021.

“If it wasn’t for that deal, Gwen Graham would probably have been loose today,” Freeman said.

The Michigan Department of Corrections parole board ordered Wood’s release in September, saying she was no longer a menace to society. The board said that she accepts responsibility, has behaved well in prison and has support from family or community members.

That led to a lawsuit filed by victims’ families, who allege the parole board abused its discretion. They wonder what’s changed since 2016, when the board denied her release, fearing she’d be a menace to society.

The families argue she hasn’t taken responsibility, played a much bigger role in the deaths, and fear she’d kill again.

“Serial killers don’t quit,” said John Engman, the son-in-law of victim Mae Mason.

Wood claimed she was only a lookout and that Graham suffocated the patients with wash cloths. The killings, Wood said, were meant to cement the relationship between her and Graham.

The two were later dubbed the “Lethal Lovers” and the “Angels of Death.” The story has been told in books and in documentaries.

The retired detective said he believes Wood was more involved with the murders than she admitted.

Records show Wood, if released, plans to live with her sister in South Carolina, maybe work at an animal shelter. “Do not want to go back to Grand Rapids where it may scare the community, even though her daughter still lives there,” records quoted Wood as saying.

“She’s close to her sister,” Freeman said. “It probably would be best for her and best for the community.”

Freeman said he believes she’s served enough time and wouldn’t kill again.

But the families of the victims fear she’d kill again.

“Is it any more of a threat to people in our society to have a serial killer lose in another community and just say just not ours?” Engman said.

A hearing is set for June 3 before Kent County Circuit Court Judge J. Joseph Rossi, who will decide if the parole board abused its discretion, or if Wood should be set free.

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