CHARLESTON — A former employee and a former client of a Graywood Enterprises group home where a fatal attack on a client took place say Christopher P. Oliver had a role in it.
Now, though, they both claim they were only witnesses to the beating that killed Dustin T. Higgins. Both were convicted of crimes in connection with Higgins’ death but, while testifying during Oliver’s trial Wednesday, they said they were lying then but are telling the truth now.
Oliver, 29, is on trial on charges of first-degree murder and neglect offenses. He was a Graywood employee working at the company’s home on B Street in Charleston on Aug. 24, 2008, when Higgins was attacked. Higgins then died a week later at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.
Higgins’ death was followed by that of another Graywood client at different one of the company’s Charleston facilities in January 2011. Two employees were convicted of crimes in connection with that death and it led to the state revoking the Graywood’s license and forcing its facilities for the developmentally disabled to close.
Wednesday’s trial witnesses included Daniel J. Clark, another former Graywood employee who’s serving a prison sentence for an involuntary manslaughter conviction. He said he wants his case reopened because “the truth shows that I was not involved in the attack of Dustin Higgins.”
During prosecutor Ed Parkinson’s questioning, Clark said he first observed what he called “horse play” between Higgins and some of the home’s other residents. Then, Oliver put a trash can on Higgins’ head, which caused him to fall and after which Oliver kicked him in the head, though the kicks “weren’t hard,” Clark related.
However, Oliver later ordered Higgins to stand on the arm of a couch, and Oliver then pulled the couch out from under him, causing him to fall again, Clark said. Higgins then started crying and that led another employee, James R. Wynn, to say “you know I hate crying” and attack Higgins, he testified.
Wynn has not been charged directly with the attack on Higgins, though he did plead guilty to a charge alleging he lied to investigating police officers. That accused of him of claiming that he wasn’t at the home when the attack took place.
Clark said he soon told Oliver he was going to try to buy smelling salts to try to revive the unconscious Higgins, but he was unsuccessful. When he got back, Oliver met him at the door and told him another resident, Robert T. Gardner, was “going to take the fall” and that was to be part of the story they’d tell police.
The story was also to include that Oliver had left the home, Wynn was away with clients and Clark came out of the home’s bathroom to find Gardner attacking Higgins, Clark continued.
During defense attorney Len Goodman’s cross examination, Clark said Oliver did leave the home at one point. However, when Goodman asked if he called Oliver to ask him to return after Higgins was injured, he denied doing that, saying “he was already there.”
Meanwhile, Gardner also testified Wednesday and claimed not only Oliver but Clark and Wynn as well attacked Higgins as punishment for stealing food. The employees first made Higgins hold a “wet floor” sign over his head and “every time he brought it down they would take turns hitting him in the chest,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he then saw all three employees perform what he described as “body slam” wrestling moves on Higgins. After the attack, he continued, Oliver and Wynn took him aside and told him “someone has to take the rap for this” and Oliver said he’d give him a “kilo” of marijuana, about two pounds, if he said he attacked Higgins.
Gardner became combative with Goodman during cross examinations, admitting he changed his story. He said he lied during an interview with Goodman’s investigator, saying “he got what he wanted to hear.”
Gardner also testified that, after he was arrested, he told a Charleston police officer he took the blame for the attack because “I knew I’d be a victim” like Higgins if he didn’t.
Gardner was one of two of the home’s residents to plead guilty to aggravated battery charges in connection with the attack on Higgins. The other, Edward E. Flexter, is also on the list of potential witnesses for the trial.
Also testifying Wednesday was Jason Turner, who once lived at the Graywood home but was no longer a resident by the time of the attack. He said he did visit the home after he got off work that day, saw Oliver there and heard Higgins ask for help and say “they’re beating me.”
Still, at one point Turner testified that he saw Gardner hit Higgins but then later said he actually didn’t see anyone hit him.
Also, Scott Denton, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Higgins, said the cause of his death was pneumonia brought on from brain bleeding that resulted from the beating.
Denton said the injuries to Higgins’ brain eventually caused him to lose control of his ability to swallow and otherwise clear his airway, leading to fluid buildup in his lungs. Denton said the injuries included “severe brain swelling,” three broken ribs and bruises and abrasions at various places on Higgins’ body.
The prosecution indicated it could rest its case today (Jan. 31) but the trial is expected to continue until Friday.