Alpine Manor killer volunteers to stay in prison

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One of the women convicted decades ago of the Alpine Manor nursing home murders said Tuesday she would stay in prison until an appeal over her parole is settled.

“I can just stay right here until the appeal is done,” Catherine Wood told the judge, appearing in court via video feed. “That doesn’t need to be made a decision. I have no problem with that.”

“Oh, OK,” Kent County Circuit Court Judge J. Joseph Rossi said, and ruled she would stay incarcerated.

>>App users: Video from the hearing

Before that, family members of Wood’s victims who asked for the appeal were emotional as they told the court she is a cold-blooded serial killer and they’re sure she’ll kill again.

“The world’s a safer place with her behind bars, because she’s going to do something again,” Stephani Scruggs, victim Mae Mason’s granddaughter, testified. “Every year she’s behind bars, even if it’s only for a couple more years, is one more year that nobody has to worry about terror in the eyes of a helpless old person.”

She said she has had nightmares of her grandmother being suffocated.

John Engman, the attorney leading the fight to keep her locked up, had more at stake than just winning a case: Mason, one of the victims, was his mother-in-law.

As victims’ family members testified over the course of nearly two hours, Wood appeared to be towering over them, her live video image coming from a Florida prison shown on a wall of the courtroom. She’s in a federal prison in Florida to keep her separated from her accomplice Gwendolyn Graham, who is serving her time in a Michigan prison.

When given a chance to speak, Wood told the judge she was confused about the purpose of the hearing. When the judge explained it was decide whether she should be released or stay behind bars while the appeal goes forward, Wood said there was no need to set her free. If the appeal doesn’t go her way, she pointed out, she would have to go back to prison anyway.

>>App users: Video from the hearing

In 1987, a jury convicted Wood and Graham of killing patients at the former Alpine Manor nursing home in Walker. Graham and Wood suffocated five residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The nurse’s aides were reportedly trying to spell “murder” with the victims’ initials.

“Cathy Wood and Gwen Graham picked and chose who was going to die and followed through with the murders of my mother and the other ladies,” Jan Hunderman, the daughter of victim Marguerite Chambers, testified Tuesday.

Graham was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Wood has served 29 years of her 20- to 40-year sentence. Her release was ordered earlier this year when the parole board decided she would not be a menace to society. After two members interviewed her, the board said that she accepts responsibility for her role in the crime, has behaved well in prison and has support from family or community members.

The appeal will decide whether the parole board abused its discretion in deciding to release Wood. The Kent County prosecutor decided against helping in the appeal because he found no such abuse, but the state attorney general wrote a letter in support of the victims’ families.

VICTIMS’ FAMILIES: ‘SHE’S MANIPULATING AGAIN’

The victims’ families were pleased to know Wood will remain in prison as the appeals process plays out, but they believe her volunteering to stay there is part of an act.

“She’s manipulating again,” Denise Ceccon, whose grandmother Belle Burkhard was among the victims, said after the hearing. “She’s playing to the judge and that’s why she’s doing it. She’s going to stay there and do whatever he wants for her benefit.”

Tuesday marked the first time she and other victims’ family members had seen Wood since the trial 29 years ago. They did not hold back during testimony.

“When I was 17 years old and all this happened I was powerless, and I didn’t have a voice ’cause I was just a kid. I’m not powerless anymore,” Scruggs, the granddaughter of Mason, said after the hearing.

For most of the testimony, Wood sat staring and emotionless.

“I was furious with her that she could sit there and have that stone face while the victims’ families are trying to keep her prison,” Ceccon said.

Toward the end of the hearing, the killer attempted to explain herself and broke into tears. Scruggs said it was just an act:

“Always,” she said.

Her victims’ families are praying their appeal will succeed and Wood will have to stay in prison for the remainder of her sentence. They say they would fear for their lives if she’s freed.

“We’re putting alarms on the house, cameras everywhere. I have a gun,” Scruggs said.

“I want this woman, this manipulative monster, kept off the streets,” Ceccon said after the hearing.

The victims’ families also took aim at the attorney for the parole board. They said the state failed to properly notify them about Wood’s parole and want to see changes to the system.

Wood’s daughter was also in court for the hearing but declined to comment.

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