Records: Wife of man found in freezer feared doctors

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FILE – This undated file photo provided by the Joplin Police Department shows Barbara Watters. Records show that police and state workers responded repeatedly to concerns about the care of a terminally ill Missouri man before his body was found in a freezer in his wife’s bedroom, where it may have stored for nearly a year. Barbara Watters, of Joplin, has been charged with abandonment of a corpse. (Joplin Police Department via AP, File)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri woman whose husband’s body was found in a freezer denied him medical care as he battled terminal illness and blocked police and social workers from entering the home, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Barbara Watters, 67, of Joplin, told police her husband, Paul Barton, had Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive nervous system disease that also is known as ALS, said police Capt. Nick Jimenez said. She feared a doctor wanted to harvest his brain for research, according to police documents the AP obtained through a records request.

Jimenez said there is no evidence that there was a basis for her concerns, and police wrote in a probable cause affidavit filed in support of an abandonment of a corpse charge that she had unspecified “mental disorders.”

The abandonment charge, which is punishable by up to four years in prison, was filed last week after a witness told police that he had died on Dec. 30, 2018, and that his body had been in her freezer in his wife’s bedroom ever since, the affidavit said. Police, who contacted the witness while investigating an unrelated arson in the neighborhood, say an autopsy found no signs of foul play in his death. Neither the witness nor the witness’ relationship to the couple has been released.

Watters was freed Thursday on house arrest. Her attorney, Cobb Young, said that although she didn’t immediately report Barton’s death, the statute requires that the body be abandoned, and in this case, the body remained in the home. Young declined to comment on the reports that police and state officials had responded repeatedly to the home. “I have no knowledge of any of that,” he said.

Police documents show that two Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services employees went to the couple’s home in June 2018 after receiving a report that Watters was prohibiting Barton from receiving care. Although she didn’t allow the state workers or police to enter the home, she wheeled Barton to the door so they could see him. The officer said that Barton looked “frail and sickly” but appeared to be breathing on his own and had no major bruising to suggest an assault.

“Watters stated Barton was barely able to walk, could not speak, and could only answer yes and no questions with head nods,” the police report said.

State workers expressed concerns that Watters wouldn’t let them talk to Barton about his care outside her presence. The officer asked her to allow Barton to come outside to the front porch, but she declined, “stating that she did not want to get beat up,” and asked them to leave.

The officer said there weren’t grounds to enter the home because Barton didn’t appear to be in danger. An officer described the incident in a report as elder abuse and obstruction/resisting, although Jasper County prosecuting attorney Theresa Kenney said the charge that police submitted was interference with medical assistance. However, it wasn’t filed, Kenney said. It wasn’t entirely clear why.

Several well-being checks followed at the couple’s home. On Aug. 9, 2018, a woman who worked at a law firm told police that Watters had called the attorney’s office advising that someone had taken Barton for brain and spine harvesting and that Senior Services were involved. Two days later, Watters told police that she feared the department was helping a doctor who was taking care of her husband and wanted his brain for research, according to a report.

In October 2018, Watters called to report that a homeless woman had assaulted her. Arriving officers spoke to the woman, who said that no assault had occurred, but that Watters had forced her to leave the home, where she was being paid to care for Barton. The woman said that Watters had been abusing Barton verbally and physically, leaving him on the toilet for 12 hours at a time, taking away his only means of communications as a punishment and calling him a child molester. The officer said an elder abuse hotline was contacted. It wasn’t immediately clear what was done. No charges were submitted to prosecutors as a result, Kenney said.

“All I can tell you is the only charge that was submitted to me was interference with delivery of services in June of 2018 and I wasn’t aware of anything else until the abandonment of a corpse charge was submitted on Nov. 12 of 2019,” Kenney said.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is barred from confirming or discussing investigations, said Jessica Bax, the agency’s director of the division of senior and disability services. She added that adult protective services workers don’t have the same authority to intervene as child welfare workers.

“For the adult side of things we don’t have any sort of a placement where we would take custody and put someone in a state foster home, she said, noting that they are limited to collaborating with law enforcement, extended family, physicians and other public entities.

Brandon West, a neighbor, said the couple mainly kept to themselves, and that Barton was rarely outside, so he didn’t notice that he was missing.

“They weren’t crazy people,” he said. “She seemed normal when I talked to her. She seemed like an elderly lady living her life.”

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