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Monday, June 12, 2000

Brother's Death Becomes Murder

By Hart Seely

On the morning of June 6, 1990, Adelbert D. Ward scurried down Johnson Road to say something was wrong.

At the home of his close friend, Kenny Elmer, Delbert said his older brother, Bill, wasn't moving.

Elmer, then age 71, drove the half-mile to the Wards and found William J. Ward flat on a mattress, his half-open eyes staring into empty space. Elmer raised an arm and let it fall. He felt the forehead - cool. Bill's not going to wake up, Elmer announced.

The death plucked Roscoe, Lyman and Delbert Ward from their obscure lives in the hills of Madison County. The New York State Police claimed a mercy killing - that Bill was suffocated by Delbert, the brother with whom he shared a bed. Family and friends said such a deed was impossible.

"Hell, if he'd have tried, Bill would've throwed him through the side of the house," said Harry Thurston, 74, the Wards' lifelong friend and neighbor. "I knew Delbert's temperament. He never got mad. He wouldn't argue with nobody."

The death stunned the grizzled, backwoods family known around Munnsville as "the Ward boys." Delbert refused even to set foot in the house, a phobia that indirectly triggered his own death in 1998. Bill's room was locked, never to be opened.

Yet a few days earlier, Bill had predicted just such an event.

Sick and suffering from what he believed was cancer, Bill told his brothers he had a dream that he would die, and one of them would take the blame.

On Bill's last day, he and Delbert planted beans. On his last night, he cooked a rare clam dinner, watched TV and discussed with Delbert the next day's work.

Then, as they'd always done, he lay beside his younger brother and went to sleep.

By sunrise, Bill was dead.

Bill Ward's death brought a swarm of strangers to the family farm, located on a dead-end gravel road near Munnsville. A rescue team removed the body. A deputy coroner surveyed the site. It was merely the unattended death of a 65-year-old man.

Around 8:25 a.m., about three hours after the call to authorities, Delbert signed a brief statement about finding the body: "All that I can say is that William has been complaining about headaches and stomach problems the last couple of months, but he did not go to the doctors."

By midday, the investigation changed. The medical examiner noticed small purplish-red spots on Bill's face, a scattering of burst blood vessels, called petechiae, that can accompany suffocation.

Troopers came and told Delbert, Lyman, Roscoe and Harold "Ike" Ward - a cousin who lives behind the house in a school bus - to come to the station headquarters in Oneida. So laden with cow manure were the Wards' clothes that troopers asked them to change before entering the patrol cars. The Wards complied. Their new clothes made little difference.

The day turned into a long, fateful night. The Ward boys chew tobacco relentlessly and speak in a mumble that's hard for outsiders to understand. They answer open-ended questions with "yuep" or "nope." They get flustered, particularly Lyman, who was always shy to the point of cringing in the presence of strangers.

That night, somewhere in the meeting of the minds, the troopers sensed a homicide.

To clarify matters, they summoned state police Investigator Eugene Rifenburg, a Munnsville area resident who'd grown up on his own family farm near the Wards. They told him they were investigating a homicide. Rifenburg, wearing street clothes from a narcotics detail, met with Roscoe.

"I said, 'Do you know what's going on?' " Rifenburg recalled telling Roscoe. "He said, 'Yup, Mr. Gene. Bill's dead, and I didn't kill him.' "

Rifenburg said he told investigators whatever Roscoe said was true. So he moved on to Delbert, who was in a different room.

"I just told him, 'Delbert, we've got a problem here. ... Bill's dead, and they're telling me he didn't die of natural causes,' " Rifenburg said. Minutes later, he said, Delbert confessed to killing his brother. The session with Delbert lasted 15 minutes.

To this day, Rifenburg tells the story without emotion: "I said, 'What did you do after he was dead?' He said - and this was the clincher for me - he said, 'I went back to sleep. I didn't have to get up until 4:30.' I looked at (state police Investigator Robert) Killough and said, 'You don't need me any further.' "

Killough typed up a four-page confession that outlined Bill's death. Three-quarters of the way into the document, Killough got to the point:

Q: After Bill went to sleep, what did you decide to do?

A: I decided to put my hand over his mouth. I reached around behind him with my right hand and put it over his mouth. He struggled for a little bit, but then stopped. I wanted to make sure that Bill wasn't suffering anymore - that he was dead.

Q: How long was your hand over his mouth?

A: About five minutes.

Q: Did you talk about this with Lyman?

A: Yes. We talked about two days ago about the pain Bill was in.

That night, in a different room, Lyman Ward signed a statement that seemed to corroborate Delbert's confession.

"I told him (Delbert), you better not. ... You'd get into trouble."

News of Delbert's confession reached troopers watching the Ward residence, as Onondaga County Medical Examiner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk surveyed the site. The red spots on Bill Ward's face had bothered Germaniuk, but not enough to view the death as anything but natural causes. The confession tipped his balance of judgment. The new cause of death: asphyxia.

"The way the officers testified is exactly the way it happened," said Madison County District Attorney Donald Cerio Jr., who granted a rare interview about the case. "There was no high pressure, no coercion. No threats or force."

Cerio said that because investigators recognized Delbert's learning disability, they sought a neutral third party - a John Q. Public type - to read the confession back to him.

"We were ready to get somebody from McDonald's to come over, but it was late at night and they were closed. We were just going to go over and grab someone who was totally uninvolved with law enforcement."

But they didn't. Nor did they tape record or videotape the session. And when the friends of Delbert Ward read his alleged confession, they said it didn't sound at all like his words.

Nor did Delbert agree with it. In fact, he swore that the troopers acted out the scene and kept asking, "Is this how you did it?" In his confusion, they put words in his mouth, he said.

Thurston, to this day, disputes Rifenburg's account with one basic premise: Delbert could never have simply gone to sleep for a few hours beside Bill's dead body. He was not made that way. For the rest of his life, Delbert never returned to that bed.

Nor could Thurston believe what he heard - and didn't hear - from Lyman later that night.

Seated that night at Thurston's kitchen table, the trembling 67-year-old brother spilled four cups of coffee. He talked about the police station. He talked about the investigators. He talked about the questions. He talked about everything.

But Lyman never mentioned signing any statement. And Thurston is certain why: Lyman didn't even know he gave one.

The day after state police charged Delbert Ward with murder, Stockbridge Town Supervisor Charles E. Young's phone rang repeatedly. One call came from his former grocery clerk, Emilie Stilwell. She said something had to be done for Delbert.

She'd known the Ward boys for years and saw them as "eccentric, but very caring." They had no money and dressed like hobos, but they treated folks with respect. Besides, Delbert was no killer. In fact, if there was one thing you knew about Delbert, it was that he loved his brother.

Young agreed. He suggested they pass petitions to ask Cerio for a second opinion. The autopsy must be wrong, Young said.

Soon, the Delbert Ward petitions were flying across Munnsville. Within days, they held 854 signatures, about twice the village's population. A line making the rounds went this way: "They may be the Ward Boys but they're our Ward Boys."

Meanwhile, among police agencies, the Wards had become "The Smothers Brothers."

The small town rallying behind the accused murderer confounded Cerio. Eight months earlier, he'd won the district attorney's office by just 600 votes, a rare Democrat to win in the Republican stronghold. Now he was hearing from folks ready to petition for a recall.

But as Cerio talked with Delbert's supporters, he came to believe that few really knew the family. Most had never visited the Wards' home. They knew the boys from grade school or passing them on the street.

Young called a few times. Delbert's confession doesn't mean a thing, he told Cerio.

"I said, 'Give me a half-hour, and I could get Delbert to confess to busting up the sidewalks in front of my house,' " Young recalled. "And the thing is, I didn't even have sidewalks in front of my house."

Battle lines were forming.

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