Medical Neglect

 

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Posted on Tue, Oct. 12, 2004

PRISONS

Family wants killer's death probed

             A woman convicted of murdering her husband a decade ago died in a Homestead prison as Hurricane Ivan approached. Now, family and inmates want answers.

BY LUISA YANEZ             lyanez@herald.com

             Convicted killer Myra Vaivada spent her final night in a Homestead prison cell, so ill she coughed up blood. Within hours, she would be dead.

             Few of the 670 women inmates knew that Vaivada was once a Florida Panhandle socialite wannabe, sentenced to life a decade earlier for pumping two bullets into her husband's head as he slept in their waterfront home near Fort Walton Beach.

             Still considered one of Okaloosa County's most notorious criminal cases, the sordid details surrounding the murder inspired a book, My, My, Myra.

             At her murder trial, prosecutors cast Vaivada as a bisexual vixen desperate to cash in on her husband's $750,000 life insurance policy so she could wine and dine her boyfriend.             Unlike her sensational trial, Vaivada's death Sept. 10 -- as Hurricane Ivan threatened the prison -- went largely unnoticed outside the Homestead Correctional Institution.

             But now, family and fellow inmates question the 55-year-old woman's death and the medical care she received as the hurricane approached.

NO INVESTIGATION

             According to corrections officials, there is nothing suspicious about Vaivada's death: She took ill, was taken to two area hospitals and died.

             ''Absolutely no investigation has been ordered into her death,'' said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee.

             State records indicate Vaivada died of respiratory failure. Due to privacy laws, her medical records are private. The Miami-Dade medical examiner's office performed an autopsy but has yet to rule on an exact cause of death pending toxicology results.

             Vaivada's relatives want answers. They have hired attorneys to investigate how and why she died, they said. They declined to comment further. An attorney representing the family did not return several telephone calls.

             Fueling their concern are statements from Vaivada's fellow inmates, who say the prison staff didn't take Vaivada's illness seriously. Vaivada told inmates the doctors refused to give her antibiotics because they were too expensive.

             In letters to the outside world, one unidentified inmate in Vaivada's cellblock wrote that Vaivada suffered for five days with a severe headache, a cough and a high fever. To make matters worse, the prison's air-conditioning system had been down for more than two weeks, inmates said.

             Complicating matters were the string of hurricanes. In the days Vaivada took ill, all of Florida was in hurricane hysteria. The day she died, Ivan, the third storm in a month, was threatening to brush the Florida Keys and far South Miami-Dade where the prison is located. Some inmates were temporarily evacuated and bused to northern Florida, though Vaivada was not among them.

JOURNAL ENTRIES

             The unidentified inmate kept a journal as Vaivada's health failed, between Sept. 5 and 10.

             Vaivada first complained of a severe headache on Sept. 5. The following day, Vaivada's condition worsened. ''She was up all night coughing and complaining she couldn't breathe,'' the inmate wrote.

             ``The next two days Myra spent in an out of the infirmary. She was tested for West Nile virus. She was very weak . . . She laid on the floor of her cell because of the heat.''

             From the Sept. 9 entry: ``She was told they would not give her antibiotics because if they did they would have to give them to everyone and it would be too expensive.''

             Later that day, Vaivada was taken to the infirmary again after passing out. She was released by dinner time. She was ''weak . . . having nausea and vomiting,'' the inmate wrote.

             By Sept. 10, Vaivada was coughing up blood. The staff called an ambulance, which took her to Homestead Hospital.

             ''She was helped down the stairs by inmates because staff did not want to touch her,'' the inmate wrote. ``That was the last time I saw her. I was told later she passed away. God bless her.''

             Vaivada's death sparked a medical scare at the prison, prompting officials to alert the county Health Department, Ivey said.

             Twenty-five other inmates developed flu-like symptoms. Doctors blamed the low pressure from the hurricanes for exacerbating the respiratory outbreak.

             ''For several days, the prison staff wore masks,'' Ivey said. By Sept. 29, the prison was deemed safe by the Health Department. ``She was the only fatality.''

             Inmates say Vaivada's death could have been prevented. ''I believe it was criminal medical neglect that caused her death,'' the inmate wrote.

             Montgomery Sibley, an attorney representing another woman in Vaivada's cellblock, said inmates have long complained of shoddy medical care.

             ''This is just the tip of the iceberg. It's terrible the lack of medical care being given inmates at that facility and the state knows about it,'' Sibley said.

             Ivey denied the charge and defended the medical care at the prison.

             In Vaivada's hometown, clobbered and distracted by Ivan, news of her death arrived slowly. Few knew until her mother's pastor offered condolences during a Sunday service.

             The news then traveled like wildfire through the town, said Joyce Holland, Vaivada's former neighbor, who penned My, My, Myra, published in 2003.

             According to the book, Vaivada was well-known in town, a social climber, a woman too flashy for a small town.

             ''Myra used to party in a rented limousine so she could drink and drive around and pick up both men and women and act like she was wealthy -- that was very important to her,'' Holland said.

DOWNWARD TURN

             Vaivada's life unraveled in the early 1990s. Her marriage with Robert Vaivada was on the rocks. He was found shot to death in his bed on Aug. 30, 1993. Neighbors heard Myra Vaivada's screams as she allegedly discovered her dead husband, 44. At first, police pondered a burglary gone wrong, or even suicide.

             But detectives found evidence that implicated Vaivada: gunpowder residue on her hand. She was arrested just before Christmas Day 1993.

             It took police three months to charge her and a jury 26 hours to convict her following a two-week trial.

             Prosecutors sought the death penalty. But at her sentencing, her attorney told jurors her crime paled in comparison to the murder allegations at the time against O.J. Simpson.

             It worked. She got life. Vaivada steadfastly denied she killed her husband. With a life sentence, Vaivada would have had to serve a minimum of 25 years. She would have been eligible for parole in 2020.

             Sister-in-law Jeannie Vaivada said her husband -- who was Robert's twin brother -- was relieved that Myra Vaivada will never walk free.

             ''He was worried she would get out early and move back to town,'' said Jeannie Vaivada, who went to high school with Myra. ``He didn't know how he would handle it.

             ''Myra was a walk on the wild side,'' she added. ``She had a lot of issues.''                 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 2004 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.miami.com

 

 

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