They say “questions” are raised – I don’t even want to get into the questions I have, except maybe this one:
Who the hell was feeding her?
Couch-bound woman’s death raises questions
By Jose Lambiet
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
At 478 pounds, Gayle Grinds had become the invisible woman.
Her neighbors never knew Grinds was among them, even though she lived in her small, fading, green row house in the Golden Gate community south of Stuart for 10 years.
Social services agencies hadn’t heard of her; Grinds got by on Social Security checks while suffering from life-threatening obesity. Visitors rarely came. Grinds lived in a squalid home with a man unable to care for her, stuck too far from the stove to cook, too far from the bathroom to take a shower.
Strangely, there is no trace of Grinds in the 1981 Martin County High School yearbook, even though she attended that school for four years. Her name isn’t there. Her picture is missing.
It is as if she never existed.
“My mom didn’t like anyone taking pictures of her,” said Grinds’ 14-year-old adopted daughter, Deanna. “She was a proud woman.”
Grinds would have turned 40 on Aug. 27. She died early Aug. 11 at Martin Memorial Hospital South. Her case was so disturbing that some members of the ER crew that night sought counseling, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Grinds had been lying on a dirty burgundy-and-gray fabric couch in her living room for most of the past six years when family members called 911 late on Aug. 10 to report that Grinds was having difficulty breathing. Unwashed for months, lying in her own excrement, couch fabric intertwined with the skin of her back, Grinds screamed in pain when the rescuers, clad in protective gear, tried to lift her.
They had to fabricate a makeshift stretcher big enough to accommodate Grinds, a 4-foot-10 woman who weighed 140 pounds more than the 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal, but they couldn’t fit her into an ambulance. With Grinds still fused to the couch, they laid her on a borrowed trailer pulled by a pickup. Surgeons never had time to separate her from the couch. She died less than two hours after being hospitalized.
While her death certificate lists “morbid obesity” as the cause of her passing, police said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Grinds’ care. Criminal neglect charges, they said, are possible.
Humiliation began with a fall
Earlier in her life, things were different for Grinds.
In her 20s, she was visible in the community where she lived at the time, a blighted, high-crime complex of $100-a-month rental units in East Stuart. Gregarious, already 300 pounds but mobile, Grinds was known as a great cook who loved to pass around her fried chicken and fish. She had a giant appetite, but she told friends a thyroid problem made her obese.
Former neighbors said she already lived with Herman Thomas, a roofer who was with her until the end. At the time, Thomas was bringing home enough of a paycheck to buy a small Japanese car that Grinds used to drive residents to the supermarket or church.
“Gayle Grinds?” repeated Alice Robertson, a longtime resident of the Tarpon Commons complex. “Everybody knew her. She was a nice lady. You couldn’t help liking her. She was well-adjusted. You could hear her laugh all over the complex. She stood out because she was so big.”
Although she didn’t have any children of her own, Grinds asked a local judge to award her custody of a 9-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl orphaned when Grinds’ younger sister, Jessie, died at 25. She also was known to watch other residents’ children.
“She was a good mother to us,” said Deanna, the girl whose custody Grinds was awarded in 1992. “She was buying us stuff all the time. She taught me to cook.”
About the same time, however, Grinds’ life changed in the few seconds it takes to lose one’s footing.
Years of humiliation started with a fall.
“She was just walking in the complex, and she fell in mud,” Robertson said. “I remember waiting for the ambulance with her. She was in pain. She was lying in mud, and no one could lift her up until the ambulance came. She broke her leg pretty bad.”
According to Robertson and another neighbor at the complex, John Harris, it took Grinds almost a year to recover. While she was laid up with pins in her left leg, she gained another 100 pounds. For a time, she got around in a wheelchair, then with the help of a walker. Eventually, she became mobile again, and in 1994 moved a few miles south to Golden Gate, into her last home.
Couch an island of no return
In 1998, said Vivian Kendricks, Grinds’ older sister, she fell again and broke the same leg. She sought treatment and recovered, Kendricks said, but never left her couch again.
“There is one thing that kept my sister on that couch ? fear,” Kendricks said. “She had been in such pain when she broke her leg that she was too afraid it would happen again.”
Thomas, Grinds’ longtime boyfriend, could not be located after Grinds’ death. But several of Grinds’ acquaintances said he couldn’t take care of her ? except to get her basic groceries.
Basically jobless, Thomas looks 20 years older than his 54 years. Criminal records show he has been arrested on drug- and alcohol-related charges, including a DUI on his bicycle in 2002. He was described by one Golden Gate neighbor as someone who did little more than sit alone in the yard for most of the day, drinking bottles of Budweiser while Grinds lay on the couch.
Then, just as Grinds needed help the most, relatives also were in trouble. Her younger brother, Clifford Grinds, was arrested 14 times in Martin County in the past 20 years on charges ranging from cocaine possession to assault and robbery. He was sentenced to a total of 14 years in prison. And Marcus, the son that Grinds adopted from her sister, last year was arrested for allegedly trying to shoplift a camera from a Stuart Wal-Mart.
One cousin in an ideal position to help said she didn’t know about Grinds’ problems. When Grinds adopted her niece and nephew, court documents show, she listed her cousin Evelyn Harris as the person who would take care of them if she died. That cousin is a family support worker for the state’s Department of Children and Families in Stuart, which has a unit charged with taking care of adults who can’t take care of themselves. By law, DCF workers must report cases of children or adults in need of services.
Harris, a 23-year DCF veteran, hung up on a reporter when asked about Grinds. Later, she put out a statement through the department’s public relations office.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my cousin,” she wrote. “I had no knowledge of the condition of my cousin or the home, as I had not been inside the home for more than five years. Had I known about the condition of my cousin and the home, I would of course have done something.”
All of Harris’ work evaluations at DCF showed performance ranging from “exceeding expectations” to “outstanding.”
DCF later issued this statement by Christine Demetriades, a DCF public information officer: “After looking into this matter, the Department of Children and Families has no reason to believe there was any misconduct on the part of our employee Ms. Harris. Ms. Harris has always been a very capable and caring employee.”
Deplorable living conditions
On her couch ? mostly watching television, Kendricks said ? Grinds sank into depression, according to an acquaintance who visited her three years ago. The home became so squalid that some of Grinds’ friends who used her to watch their kids stopped taking them there.
The stench of stale urine and feces still emanated from the home two days after Grinds died, reaching the street 90 feet away, and at least two adjacent properties. Scrawny cats jumped in and out of the house through a broken floor-level window.
When the fire-rescue crew arrived at the house, they found a sparsely furnished home with no air conditioning and letters piled on a table with cockroaches eating their way through the envelopes. Around the space where Grinds’ couch had been, they saw dozens of empty Publix soda cans strewn on the floor. Empty bags of Doritos, Ruffles chips, an ice-cream cone wrapper and rotting, maggot-infested oranges had been thrown on the floor among unwashed pants, T-shirts and underwear.
A television and stereo equipment were on the floor ? bare concrete in some parts. In the kitchen, the fridge wasn’t working and contained several plates of decomposing food. Two bedrooms had mattresses on the floor, including one partly burned, among clothes, paperwork and more food wrappers.
Two of Grinds’ three surviving siblings couldn’t explain why rescuers found her in such a shape. Brother Clifford Grinds, now out of jail and living 5 miles away, said he loved his sister.
“She was the sweetest person I knew,” he said. “If we knew things were so bad, we would have done something.” He declined to comment further.
And sister Vivian Kendricks said she did visit Grinds once in a while, washing her on her couch and cooking for her. She didn’t remember the last time she saw Grinds and said nothing seemed to be wrong with her lifestyle.
“I know she started feeling real bad two weeks ago,” Kendricks said. “But she had asthma. My sister was hard-headed. She just wouldn’t get off that couch.”
Kendricks said people in her neighborhood of East Stuart have been looking at her differently since the news spread.
“Some say we should go to jail for letting her deteriorate,” the 44-year-old Kendricks said. “Why should we go to jail? Gayle was a grown woman. She could make her own decisions.”