It was after Erma Prince fell and broke her hip in 2002 that doctors decided to perform routine surgery. They inserted pins to help the break recover, and afterward, the Bedford, Indiana grandmother stayed overnight in the hospital to rest. But she wouldn’t leave that hospital room alive.
“Her surgery had been successful and her doctors felt good about her situation," Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Callahan told "Exhumed," airing Sundays at 7/6c and 8/7c on Oxygen.
It was at around 4:45 a.m. on September 16, 2002, that a nurse checked on Prince and was seriously alarmed by what she saw.
"As soon as she entered the room, she noticed something was wrong with Erma. She was not breathing," her grandson, Scott Prince, told producers.
Doctors tried to revive her but were unsuccessful. At around 4:57 a.m., Prince was pronounced dead.
The medical staff was flummoxed by her sudden death, and an autopsy only confused matters further. Prince didn't appear to have had a stroke, or a heart attack, or die by any other natural cause. There was no sign of blood clots or any medical malpractice that may have arisen from the surgery. A toxicology report was ordered to try to shed light on why she had died for no apparent reason. What the report revealed was horrifying.
"It was a fatal level of the common drug called Darvon. It was enough to kill a person her size and another adult male,” Lawrence County Coroner John C. Sherrill told producers.
Investigators first suspected the culprit had to have been a hospital staff member, but they were soon able to clear all the workers. They also discovered something strange in her system: Darvon, a common pain medication. But the drug hadn't been used in the hospital for about six months, and none of the stock was missing. The lethal dose had to have come from outside.
One hospital worker did provide a possible lead when she claimed she saw a female in dark clothing sitting at the head of Prince’s bed the night of her death. However, she didn't interact with the mysterious woman, and there was no security footage inside the hospital, so detectives didn't have any way to learn this person’s identity.
Another clue emerged, though, when investigators were able to determine that the amount of Darvon in her system would have killed Prince within an hour. This gave them a rough time of when the crime occurred.
Since the killer wasn’t someone who worked in the hospital, investigators theorized it had to be someone close to her, so they interviewed Prince’s family and loved ones. It was then that her daughter-in-law, Caroline, revealed she was with Prince when she fell and had given her Darvon afterward.
Caroline, however, insisted she had only given one pill to her mother-in-law and then passed the bottle over to Prince's caretaker — her granddaughter, 32-year-old nurse Shay White.
“Grandma raised Shay as her own daughter. She raised her since she was a baby [...] where you saw Shay, you saw Grandma," Scott Prince said. The pair lived together.
When questioned by police, White insisted the bottle of Darvon had been empty when Caroline passed it to her. She denied having anything to do with her grandmother's death. But the police knew one of the women was lying. And they suspected White.
White had a flimsier alibi, having claimed she had been sleeping that night. But unlike Caroline, she had no one to back up this claim. White had also acted strangely at the news of an autopsy, yelling and threatening to sue when she found out one was happening. Plus, a search warrant of her house revealed it was stocked with medication, including Darvon.
Detectives decided they need more evidence to proceed with the case. The autopsy had been performed before they knew they were looking at a murder, so they exhumed Prince's body on March 23, 2003.
“How would this level of Darvon get ingested by Erma? I wanted to know about any puncture wounds, any track marks on the body. When the first autopsy was done, there was not suspicion at that point. You’re not looking between the fingers, between the toes, or anywhere else on the body for any marks," Callahan explained.
The good news for investigators was that Prince’s body was well-preserved. The bad news was the exhumation didn't reveal any marks. Police were now confident, however, that Darvon wasn't given to her by injection. They could also rule out Darvon being injected into Prince’s IV, because this would have caused crystallization inside her lungs, which wasn't present. Therefore, they know it had to have been given to her orally — therefore, the killer must have been someone she really trusted. All signs pointed to White.
After the exhumation, witnesses began to come forward. One was a pastor named Cathy Williams, who said she was present the day Prince fell and said that she watched Caroline hand over the practically full bottle of Darvon to White. Then, White's best friend, Donna, admitted White had said things like how she would see her grandmother die before she ended up in a nursing home.
Donna also said White had called her the morning of Prince’s death to tell her that she was dead. Detectives learned that the phone call was made before she was officially pronounced dead.
“I think Shay knew that Grandma was gonna have to have a lot of help [after the fall]. I think Shay knew it was gonna cost money and Shay didn't want to put any more money out on Grandma,” Scott Prince said.
He also told local NBC affiliate WTHR in 2004 that White had often lied about Prince’s health issues, even falsely claiming once the woman had stomach cancer.
When she was arrested for murder, White claimed she had serious medical issues that caused her to physically deteriorate. Police had to call a city bus to take her to be arrested, as she was using a wheelchair and an oxygen tank at the time.
Whatever was ailing her, she had recovered by the time her trial arrived in February 2005, where she was found guilty of killing Prince and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
“The kind of sentencing, I would have preferred would be the death penalty," Scott told producers.
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