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Caregiver held for trial in elderly woman's death

Jean Dombrowski faces murder charges in the November death of Prane Paciunas, 89.

Jean Dombrowski
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A POLICE OFFICER testified yesterday that when he checked on an elderly woman in an East Frankford home in November, he thought she was dead.

Officer Mike Laverghetta said that when he went into the home on Haworth Street near Worth about 11 a.m. Nov. 7, he saw Prane Paciunas, 89, lying on a mattress on the living-room floor.

Paciunas had a large comforter pulled up to her neck and bugs all around her, the officer said at a preliminary hearing for Jean Dombrowski, 48, who was Paciunas' caregiver and who had power of attorney over her affairs.

The house's condition was "deplorable, at best," the cop said. There were holes in the walls, feces everywhere and drug paraphernalia scattered throughout. The refrigerator had a smell from food that long since had gone bad, he said.

Paciunas was taken to Aria Health's Frankford hospital and was pronounced dead Nov. 15.

One of Dombrowski's daughters, Sara Hadlock, 18, testified that her mother started taking care of Paciunas around 2008 when Paciunas - who lived about a block away - developed gangrene in her leg. At the time, her mother would go to Paciunas' house, the daughter said.

Then, about a year ago, when Paciunas needed 24/7 supervision, Paciunas began to live with them at their house on Worth Street, the daughter said.

Sometime last summer, Hadlock said, all three women moved into Paciunas' home on Haworth Street.

Asked by Assistant District Attorney Bridget Kirn if Paciunas was fed there, Hadlock said, "No." She said the house had no food. She got food from a neighbor, and "sometimes I would give it to" Paciunas, Hadlock said.

Paciunas "was groaning a lot, in a lot of pain," in the house, Hadlock said, but Dombrowski did not take Paciunas to a doctor.

Hadlock said she never saw Paciunas being bathed, and the toilet in the house "didn't work, and people were still using it."

Another "girl" lived in the house, as well as "a couple of men, depending on what time it was," Hadlock said under questioning by one of Dombrowski's public defenders, Fred Goodman. Hadlock said she moved out of the house around September.

Her mother, Hadlock said, was "rarely in the house."

Hadlock agreed with Goodman that her mom started to take drugs after she began a relationship with a boyfriend who took drugs. The daughter also agreed that her mom's life went downhill after the boyfriend was shot, and that she then didn't take great care of Paciunas.

Albert Chu, a city assistant medical examiner, said Paciunas died of an infection that got into her bloodstream.

The largest of many sores on her body, just above her buttocks, was as wide as an adult's hand and "went down to the bone," he said.

Paciunas was malnourished and dehydrated and had cardiovascular disease, Chu said.

Goodman argued that Dombrowski should not be held for trial on first-degree murder. There was "no motive to kill," he said.

But Kirn told the judge: "A starvation-dehydration death is first-degree murder."

Municipal Judge David Shuter held Dombrowski for trial on all charges, including murder generally, which includes first-degree murder. He said of Paciunas' slow death: "It's worse than if [Dombrowski] stuck a gun to her head."