When a handcuffed prisoner entered the courtroom under deputy escort, 72-year-old Ken Werts' eyes widened.
Then again, Ken's the guy who wasn't sure how to find the jail after his 71-year-old wife, Marilyn, was booked on four felony counts. No, criminal courts aren't familiar territory to this couple - but only Ken seemed bewildered yesterday. Marilyn was her usual uncomprehending self. Blame the unstoppable advance of Alzheimer's.
Marilyn's wandering explains how she came to stand blankly before a black-robed judge. Last month, after repeatedly entering a neighboring house, police accused Marilyn of trying to pull a 5-year-old boy from his home.
You or I might call that a sorry situation, but the legal system calls it two counts each of burglary and attempted abduction; Ken and Marilyn spent their 35th wedding anniversary in court.
Since writing Thursday about Ken's struggle as Marilyn's caregiver, I have been flooded with phone calls and e-mail from sympathetic readers.
“”My dad's mother had it for a lot of years before she died ... [She] used to escape from the nursing home, and they actually had to tie her down, which sounds cruel, but there was no choice ... My heart goes out to these people,” wrote Lissy Dunning.
Ellie Simon spoke of an aunt in the early stages of this disease. “I feel for Mr. Werts,” she said, “as he is in a no-win situation ... I can't begin to thank you enough for helping me face the realities of a disease that not only robs the person who has it, but ... [also their] loved ones.”
Sandy Hamilton, Ohio's long-term care ombudsman for a 10-county region of northwest Ohio, wrote: “This poor woman with Alzheimer's does not need a mental institution and should never have been charged with criminal activity. You really helped the public to understand her condition and the struggle that families face.”
“How difficult it must be,” e-mailed Karen Baumhower, “to see your spouse of many years get to this state. What a wonderful man Mr. Werts must be, and how heart-breaking his job as caretaker ... I hope the courts have the sense to be compassionate.”
Shirley Boyer wrote of three good friends who suffered from this insidious disease, including Mary. “By the time Mary was diagnosed, she was unable to finish a sentence ... Mary was the one who taught me how to speak Alzheimer's. Sounds like a foreign language - and it is ... In mid-sentence there would be a long hesitation. Since I knew her well I would finish the thought, and she would look so pleased.”
Jane Curry, whose gerontology background yielded her 17 years' experience with older people, couldn't believe the Werts' travails: “My initial reaction was disbelief that the legal system would even consider that Mrs. Werts was capable of kidnapping a child. She is a victim of a disease that steals her mind ... [and] might have been re-living a moment from her past ... I have felt such anger with the police and the legal system over this entire situation.”
Charlene Ohneck left a voice-mail saying: “I am the neighbor next door to Ken, and I just wanted to thank you for putting a compassionate face on the situation with Marilyn. Everybody here knows she's sick. It's really tough on Ken.”
It's going to be tough on the legal system, too, which now must see its way to respond sensibly against the “criminal” acts of Marilyn Werts.