Closing arguments Thursday in malpractice case
The uncle of Christopher Lambeth said “knives and throwing stars” were confiscated from Lambeth’s room in the last few months before he murdered his grandparents with a knife.
Their bodies were so disfigured that their coffins were closed to mourners, according to testimony Wednesday in a medical malpractice-wrongful death case under way in Pima County Superior Court.
The civil lawsuit, filed by Lisa Lambeth, who is Christopher Lambeth’s mother, and her sister Karen McCollum, blames COPE and the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona for allegedly failing to provide proper mental health care for Lambeth.
On April 10, 2005, Lambeth attacked his grandparents Carl and Patricia Gremmler with a knife. He is serving two concurrent life sentences at the Arizona State Hospital for the murders.
COPE was Lambeth’s mental health provider for two years prior to the stabbings.
The partnership is the nonprofit agency that oversees publicly funded mental health providers in southern Arizona, including COPE. Lambeth received subsidized care from COPE because he was found to be disabled by serious mental illness.
The uncle, Mark McCollum, told a jury that Lambeth “locked horns” with his grandfather, Carl Gremmler, 76, in the weeks before the murders and exhibited “very bizarre and violent behavior” but McCollum didn’t tell his wife, or alert authorities or Lambeth’s mother.
Lambeth was 20 when sheriff’s deputies found him in bed at his grandparents’ Rillito home and discovered their bodies. They had been dead for two days.
McCollum, who said he spent most weekdays at the Gremmlers helping to restore cars and do chores for his in-laws, said Gremmler was “the head of the family” and it was not McCollum’s place to call authorities about his concerns about Lambeth.
“That was his (Gremmler’s) call,” he said.
He also said he didn’t tell his wife, Karen, about Lambeth’s “increasingly bizarre behavior” because “I didn’t want to upset her any further than she needed to be.”
The suit named Lambeth’s psychiatrist, Dr. Virgil Hancock III, as a defendant.
He was a contract provider for COPE but not an employee and he settled with the Gremmlers’ two daughters in October 2008, according to court records.
Details of the settlement were not publicly disclosed.
Hancock testified as a witness in the civil damage case Wednesday.
He said that if he had been told “of possible danger or a safety issue” by Lisa Lambeth or other family members, “I would have needed to address that.”
“Any information that showed the Gremmlers were at risk would have caused me to do something,” he said.
He said he was never told they might be in danger.
Lambeth had been treated for mental illness with medication for at least two years before the killings. Based on his monthly visits with a psychiatrist and a COPE case manager, he appeared not to need 24-hour care, according to court documents.
Lisa Lambeth said in testimony earlier this week she blames COPE and CPSA for not finding a residential placement for her son, who took multiple psychiatric medications for “schizoaffective and bipolar disorders,” court records show.
Lisa Lambeth’s two children, Christopher and his sister, lived with the McCollums for four years at their mother’s request, following their father’s accidental death, according to testimony in the case.
His mother took her own apartment during that time, according to Mark McCollum’s testimony.
McCollum said Lambeth never displayed any symptoms of mental illness or violent tendencies during the period Lambeth lived with his aunt and uncle.
But in the months before the stabbings, McCollum said he saw Lambeth repeatedly strike a tree trunk with a hockey stick while speaking incoherently.
He also said he saw a bruise on Carl Gremmler’s face that Gremmler said was the result of Lambeth hitting him, but he did not call authorities to report the alleged assault.
He said Gremmler was deeply religious and “feared no evil and no man,” and felt that “God would take care of things.”
But he said Patricia Gremmler, 72, was so fearful of her grandson that she carried pepper spray in a bathrobe pocket at all times and hid pepper spray on a bookshelf in her home to defend herself from him.
McCollum said the couple never slept at the same time so one of them could observe Lambeth.
McCollum said Lambeth usually spent weekdays at his grandparents and weekends with his mother.
But on the weekend the Gremmlers were killed, his mother traveled to Mesa, leaving him with her parents on a Friday, and never spoke to them again.
Lambeth had complained that he did not like staying in the rural community, according to court documents.
McCollum said the Gremmlers required Lambeth to stay in his room whenever Carl Gremmler left the house.
He said Lambeth would knock holes in the walls of the room and kick them while he was confined.
Closing arguments in the case are set for Thursday.