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Wednesday, June 14, 2000
A Death's Tale Goes National
By Hart Seely

Lyman G. Ward's long night began with word that Madison County Sheriff's deputies were coming.
On July 31, 1990, in his school bus behind the Ward house, cousin Harold "Ike" Ward heard on a police scanner that officers were on their way with subpoenas for Lyman and Roscoe Ward. Authorities wanted them to appear before a grand jury that was investigating the death of their brother Bill.
Lyman Ward
Lyman Ward stands at the gate of the farm owned by the Ward brothers.
(Michelle Gabel)
Image copied from Syracuse Online
Delbert Ward ran to a neighbor's house and phoned Harry Thurston, their friend and protector. Thurston swallowed his heart pills and donned his nitroglycerine patch, then drove to the end of Johnson Road. He found 67-year-old Lyman in a full anxiety attack.

"Lyman was down by the pole in the front yard. He had his coat on backwards, the back in the front, and he was trying to button it," Thurston recalled. "And Delbert, he was out of there. He was afraid Lyman was going to die, so he wouldn't even go near him. He was convinced he'd be charged with killing Lyman, too."

Lyman struggled to breathe. He'd been wheezing all day, getting worse. Now Roscoe, 70, had retreated to the house and Ike to his bus. But 59-year-old Delbert carried on in high-pitched hysteria, shouting that Lyman was going to die and police would arrest him again.

None of the brothers seemed to understand what was happening. Eight weeks earlier, their otherwise quiet lives had exploded. Bill had died and Delbert had been charged with smothering him in the bed they shared since childhood. Now they only knew a subpoena had been delivered, and it must be something bad.

Thurston called private investigator Joseph A. Spadafore, who'd signed on to work for Delbert's defense. About an hour later, Spadafore and his associate, Carlene McGowan, arrived at the farm from Syracuse.

En route, Spadafore phoned his brother-in-law, Dr. Lawrence Semel, to describe Lyman's symptoms. The doctor offered basic advice: Get this guy to an emergency room. He would phone ahead to alert Community Memorial Hospital in Hamilton that a special patient was on his way.

But how? All his life, the reclusive Lyman hid from strangers, and Thurston feared the flashing lights of an ambulance and unfamiliar medics might push him over the edge. They'd have to get him there themselves.

They coaxed Lyman to the couch, where he bounced off the cushions from shaking. One person pinched his nose, while another placed two tranquilizers onto his tongue and a third washed it down with water.

They helped him into Spadafore's Nissan Maxima, then sped to the emergency room.

The next morning, doctors said Lyman was never near death. His heart remained strong but during the anxiety attack, blood vessels in his lungs constricted and he could barely breathe. They gave Lyman a bronchial inhaler and a prescription for tranquilizers. If it happened again, he must take the pills and calm down. It should pass.

Spadafore tried to get doctors to sign a statement that Lyman should not testify. The defense team tried and failed to get his testimony taken on videotape, out at the farm.

They worried about what would happen when Lyman went to court. Because that day, he would not just be facing a few strangers; the world would be watching.

"When they started taking pictures in Munnsville, you couldn't even get in the diner. I saw it and just thought, no way. I stayed away." - Harry Thurston

In late 1990, Delbert Ward's story went national.

The syndicated TV magazine "A Current Affair" heralded Munnsville as "the little town that roared," and the Ward brothers as "a modern day Cain and Abel ... lovable eccentrics ... 19th century people living in the 20th century."

Madison County District Attorney Donald Cerio Jr. was getting calls from across the country. If they weren't scolding him for prosecuting Delbert, they were warning him about a no-win situation.

"One seasoned prosecutor called, and I'll never forget what he
said," Cerio says. "He said, 'I don't envy you.' "

To media requests, he recited the mantra recited by all modern prosecutors: I don't want to try this case in public.

Actually, it didn't matter. The public seemed to have already reached a verdict: Delbert would never kill his brother. And even if he did, it wasn't really murder. It was something altogether different.

Suddenly, Delbert was everywhere. TV news reports showed him square-dancing at a fund-raiser. Local radio played "The Ballad of Delbert Ward."

In January 1991, CBS News anchor Connie Chung's gilded entourage pulled into town. Though she joked that the Ward story needed not television but "smell-o-vision," Chung made no secret of her affection for the boys. They called her "old Connie," and she loved it.

Around Stockbridge, Cerio saw himself cast in the role of Grinch. He was the "big city D.A." - Oneida being the big city - trying to squash the little town that roared.

Meanwhile, money streamed in for Delbert's defense.

Envelopes came addressed to "Munnsville, Near Utica" or "Ward Brothers, Dairy Farmers" or just "The Sugar Shack, Millsville." They came signed and unsigned, holding substantial checks or, in one case, just a dollar bill.

They came from a Carpenters Local Union in Peekskill and from renowned poet Hayden Carruth, who also lives near Munnsville. Comedienne Roseanne Barr sent an autographed copy of her book. One contribution, written in Chinese, arrived from Fort Worth, Texas. A woman knitted a quilt. A $5 check came with a request not to be cashed until the third of the following month, when the donor's Social Security arrived.

So many contributions came - about $12,500 in all - that defense fund administrator Charles Young needed a form letter response.

"People like you have restored our faith in mankind by helping a stranger in his time of need," he wrote.

The story had captivated the media. All it needed was a happy ending. 

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