Should court free caregiver who killed wife with dementia?

By MARC FREEMAN | Sun Sentinel | Published: July 12, 2019

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Everyone wanted a marriage as special as the one between Stephen and Pamela Kruspe.

One of Steve’s old friends from the Marines observed: “They adored each other; it was truly a marriage to envy.”

A woman who sang with them in church shared: “I have been married for 25 years. I still want a marriage like Steve and Pam’s because it was loving, tender, wholesome, faithful and loyal.”

And yet another longtime friend explained, “I think of their love and devotion often, as an almost unreachable goal for most partners — one that I still hope to attain.”

No one dreamed the Kruspes’ enduring love story would end so tragically and violently on March 27, 2017, at an assisted living facility for dementia patients in Boynton Beach.

It would be just as unthinkable that Steve would fatally shoot his wife of 42 years, face a first-degree murder charge — and more than two years later be seeking his release from Palm Beach County Jail.

But prosecutors want to keep him behind bars before his trial. They’re pursuing a conviction and a life in prison sentence for what they see as a well-planned, deliberate killing.

Was this an evil act worthy of a such punishment? Or was it what some people call a mercy killing? At the police station that night, Steve even questioned himself, “What the f--- have I done?”

According to Steve, he carried out Pam’s final wishes. He said as her mental health deteriorated, she repeatedly begged him to put her at peace: “I want you to kill me.”

An ‘exceptionally tight bond’

Long before that terrible moment arrived, before Alzheimer’s took hold, and before he bought a .45-caliber handgun from a sporting goods store, they built a life together and raised a family.

Steve was a career military man, serving decades in the U.S. Marines and reserves that included multiple tours of combat duty. He rose to the rank of master sergeant.

Pam, one of four siblings from Great Lakes, Ill., raised the couple’s own three children by herself while he was away.

Douglas Todd, of Lorton, Va., served with Steve beginning in the late 1980s. He says military marriages usually end in divorce or become stronger despite the strain of “long and continual deployments.”

“This exceptionally tight bond is exactly what Steve and Pam had, coupled with an incredible level of love and happiness,” Todd wrote, in a letter filed in Kruspe’s court case.

In 1990, the Kruspes moved to South Florida when he took a job as operations chief for a 248-member reserve unit. Three years later, he won a contest to create a new slogan for his adopted hometown of Lake Worth, according to published reports.

The winning entry: “Worth Preserving — Worth Developing.”

Pam, a long-distance runner, competed in the New York City Marathon and in events closer to home.

After retiring from the Marines, Steve accepted a job teaching leadership for Deerfield Beach High School’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program. In 1996, his peers nominated him for a teacher-of-the-year award.

After his teaching career ended, Steve took a senior position with the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum in 2010.

He had volunteered there for many years before going on the payroll as manager of operations and maintenance.

In a 2014 interview with The Palm Beach Post, Kruspe explained his affection for the lighthouse, where Pam also worked as a volunteer.

“I love historic structures,” Kruspe told the newspaper. “I got a lot of time at sea as a result of 23 years in the Marine Corps. I was constantly deployed one way or the other and have always been fascinated by the art of navigation.”

Stricken by Alzheimer’s

By this time though, Pam’s mental and physical health had already started failing.

She had depression and anxiety along with memory loss, and on two occasions she had to be hospitalized for expressing suicidal and homicidal intentions.

It took an increasing toll on her and Steve, who got caregiver support counseling due to his stress.

“They had many plans for the upcoming years that were abruptly curtailed by the insidious disease of Alzheimer’s,” wrote Marine Capt. Michael L. Seale, adding that Steve lamented “the daily degeneration of the woman he adored.”

In the summer of 2016, deputies responded to the Kruspe home for a report of a woman expressing fears “people were going to kill her.”

By early 2017, the once-inseparable couple reached a point where she moved to the Parkside Inn Assisted Living facility. He visited her every day.

But Steve later told a detective that his wife hated being locked up and became increasingly angry.

He said Pam, who had recently turned 61 and was taking eight medications, lost her will to live.

Steve mulled it over for days and decided he was “willing to sacrifice everything to get her where she wanted to be.”

Gunshot, then surrender

Records show that on her last day alive, Steve checked her out at 4:50 p.m. and they went to dinner. They signed back in upon their return, close to 7 p.m.

Steve then exited a side door, and went to his car to retrieve a pistol. He walked with Pam to a back patio. He says she saw the gun and there wasn’t a struggle, but there is no surveillance video from that side of the building.

At 7:34 p.m., Steve aimed the weapon at his lifelong companion and fired. Pam slumped to the ground after the bullet hit her chest. He said at that moment she smiled.

He then emptied the gun, placed it on a railing, and called 911 to report the shooting. He said he hugged and kissed Pam until officers arrived within minutes and placed him under arrest. He quickly confessed, records show.

The next morning a judge ordered Steve to be held without bond and have no contact with Pam’s family — his family. Her obituary notice shows that a funeral service was held on April 4, 2017, at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Lake Worth. He was indicted by a grand jury two days later, and has pleaded not guilty.

Steve is now permitted to speak with the couple’s children, as long as they initiate it.

One son, Matthew Kruspe, now wants to bring him home, court records show.

Chris Haddad, Steve’s privately-retained attorney, says the son, with his wife and children, want Steve to be with them, on house arrest, ahead of a trial likely to be held next year.

“Although this terrible tragedy has caused the entire Kruspe family great turmoil, Mr. Kruspe’s son, Matthew, and daughter-in-law are supportive of his plight,” Haddad said in the request to Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath.

Court fight over bond

Prosecutors Reid Scott and Adrienne Ellis object to this plan. The State Attorney’s Office declined to comment outside of court, citing office policy.

It’s also unclear whether Steve’s other son, Andrew, and daughter, Stephanie, support the proposal to release him. All three adult children could not be reached for comment despite recent attempts by phone.

Neither could Pam’s three siblings be reached. Her parents have passed away.

“The circumstances here warrant strong consideration for allowing him to be on bond pending trial,” Haddad told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “We think it’s a reasonable request.”

A hearing has not yet been scheduled, but the defense already lined up witnesses on his behalf. A psychologist will testify Kruspe, now 65, was under severe stress before the shooting and now poses no danger to the community.

Other reasons cited for his release include a lack of any criminal history, cooperation with law enforcement, military service to the United States, and an “exorbitant amount of community support.”

It’s extremely rare, but not unprecedented, for bond to be granted for someone charged with an intentional murder.

The defense cites the 2014 case of a 71-year-old retired police officer who shot a man to death in a Pasco County movie theater.

A state appeals court ruled that the ex-cop was entitled to a $150,000 pretrial bond in that second-degree murder case.

In a more recent example, from December 2017, a 33-year-old man charged in a Boynton Beach shooting was allowed to go on house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor. Bond was set at $100,000.

The shooter in that case claimed it was self-defense and six months later the judge agreed and dismissed the first-degree murder charge.

Caregivers who kill

Steve Kruspe can’t make the same arguments, and his own lawyer concedes the “evidence against [Kruspe] appears strong on its face.”

Haddad says his client didn’t have evil intentions.

“The circumstances in this case are heart-wrenching and do not appear to have been committed in a malicious or spiteful manner,” he said.

Experts say that’s typical in cases of caregivers who kill, which are relatively uncommon.

Criminal prosecutions are unusual too. A University of South Florida study — examining 116 cases of family-caregiver homicides in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015 — found about two-thirds of caregivers who kill their spouses turn the gun on themselves.

Perhaps the most notable case to go to trial in South Florida involved Roswell Gilbert’s shooting of his wife of 51 years in 1985. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease and a painful bone condition.

Then 76, Gilbert placed his 9 mm gun to his wife’s head and fired. When he realized she was alive, he reloaded and shot her again. He insisted he loved her dearly and killing her was the most merciful way to deal with her anguish.

A Broward jury convicted Gilbert of first-degree murder and he got a life sentence. But after serving more than five years in prison, then-Gov. Bob Martinez granted clemency in 1990.

The case was featured in a television movie titled, “Mercy or Murder?”

Kruspe’s friends, in letters to Judge Colbath, say they are not making excuses for the killing they believe was done out of love.

“I don’t minimize what Steve did, but I hope that the reason for his actions can be taken into account,” wrote his Marine buddy, Bruce E. Lamb of Stafford, Va.

Retired Marine Col. Paul Loschiavo, Steve’s former commanding officer, said, “I cannot condone what Kruspe did, but I can understand it.”

John Weisman, of Pensacola, wrote that he got to know Steve Kruspe several years ago when he helped to fix the antique lens of the lighthouse at the Naval Air Station there. Weisman got the impression that Steve was guided by “a moral compass that points true north.”

“I truly believe,” Weisman concluded, “that what he did was an act of mercy, not violence.”

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