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Before Frankford woman's death, neighbors reported neglect

The neighbors on Haworth Street had suspected for months that something was wrong. They almost never saw Prane Paciunas, the elderly woman who lived in the immaculate house on the corner, and when they did manage to speak with her, she didn't seem herself.

Jean Dombrowski, charged with murder.
Jean Dombrowski, charged with murder.Read more

The neighbors on Haworth Street had suspected for months that something was wrong.

They almost never saw Prane Paciunas, the elderly woman who lived in the immaculate house on the corner, and when they did manage to speak with her, she didn't seem herself.

She'd lost weight. Her pantry was bare.

And her live-in caretaker, Jean Dombrowski, had stopped letting people inside, neighbors say.

Between February and November of this year, Paciunas' neighbors and fellow parishioners say, they tried to seek help for her - notifying the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging and, in one case, the police.

Last month, a court-appointed guardian found Paciunas clinging to life on a bed covered in trash bags in her house, which by then was nearly uninhabitable.

She was filthy, emaciated, suffering from maggot-infected bedsores so deep that they exposed her bones.

She died in a hospital eight days later. Prosecutors called it one of the worst cases of elder abuse they had ever seen.

The PCA investigates every report of abuse or neglect it receives, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

But because privacy laws forbid the PCA from disclosing information about its clients, exactly what kind of contact the agency had with Paciunas in the year before her death is unclear.

What is clear, according to police reports, is that after the agency received an anonymous tip, a judge appointed a PCA contractor as Paciunas' guardian early last month.

And when the guardian arrived at her house to check on her a day after being appointed, Dombrowski refused to let him in until police showed up, according to the report. That's when Paciunas - so ill that one person at the scene described her as looking "like a mummy" - was rushed to the hospital.

Dombrowski was charged with assault and, later, murder. She is being held without bail.

Neighbors say that the situation at Paciunas' house had seemed to deteriorate about a year and a half ago.

Paciunas, 89, was one of the last fixtures of a tight-knit Lithuanian community on Haworth Street.

Her husband was long dead. She'd never had any children. She was devoted to her parish, St. George, where she helped sew altar linens.

About eight years ago, she hurt a leg and wasn't able to drive to church or the grocery store anymore.

She turned to the neighborhood for help.

Dombrowski, 48, who lived down the street, stepped in. Over the next six years, she would go from running occasional errands for the elderly woman to living in her house and serving as her power of attorney.

And at first, neighbors said, nothing seemed amiss. But last year, they said, Dombrowski apparently began renting out rooms in Paciunas' house.

In February, neighbor Marlene Brubaker sent an e-mail to her state representative, who notified PCA about the renters. They were throwing out Paciunas' belongings, she said, as if she were already gone.

A PCA representative wrote back that the matter had been forwarded to its Protective Services unit "with urgency."

When Msgr. Joseph Anderlonis of St. George visited her in the spring, he said, Paciunas seemed thin and unkempt.

He asked her in Lithuanian if she was being taken care of, he said. Paciunas assured him she was. Dombrowski, hovering in the back room, said "very loudly" that everything was fine, the monsignor said.

"I think [Paciunas] was afraid. She had nowhere else to go and she didn't know anywhere else," he said.

Mike Zerumskas, another neighbor, said he called the PCA in April after visiting Paciunas with a gift of Easter babka and finding her pantry bare. She told him, he said, that Dombrowski was no longer giving her her heart medication.

Eucharistic ministers from St. George also tried to visit Paciunas, but Dombrowski stopped letting them inside - once physically blocking the door, said parishioner Stephany Gutauskas.

On Nov. 2, Gutauskas said, she went to the 15th District police station. She asked officers to visit Paciunas' house to "see if she is alive or dead." She was told to call 911 instead, she said.

Police Lt. John Stanford said the department is investigating what happened at the district.

"Any time anybody goes to a police district and they're requesting any type of service, service should be rendered there," he said. "If someone needs to be disciplined, then that will take place. If there's a training issue, then that will be addressed."

On Nov. 6, a judge assigned Paciunas a guardian and ordered that she be seen "immediately," according to a police report, because "no one has seen her for an extended period of time."

PCA spokeswoman Linda Riley said the agency does not, as a policy, disclose the results of their investigations to anyone - even those who made the report.

"We work on determining what has happened to the individual, and we offer that person a plan if, in fact, there is a problem that's found," Riley said. "But, at the same time, that person has the right to refuse the plan. . . . Legally we cannot impose our will, or the neighbor's will, or anyone else's, unless they've been adjudicated by the courts to be completely incompetent."

Dombrowski is awaiting a Dec. 17 court date.

Meanwhile, the neighbors on Haworth Street are still grappling with what happened in the house on the corner.

"Answers will come," neighbor Carmen McCarthy said, "when Jeannie goes to trial and 90 percent of the neighborhood shows up to speak on [Paciunas'] behalf."