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Friday, April 20 News

Cop reports show alcohol, care issues in home where fire killed mother, daughter

Police were called three times in the past six months to the Crane Street home where a fire early Monday claimed the lives of a mother and her disabled teenage daughter.

Reports of the incidents describe squalid conditions at the house and say Maureen Gerrity, the mother, told officers she "drinks all the time." Fairfield police on Friday said they had contacted more than a half dozen local and state agencies about the daughter's situation.

Gerrity and her 19-year-old severely disabled daughter, Katherine O'Neill, perished from smoke inhalation caused by the intense fire. They were rescued from a second-floor bedroom within minutes of firefighters' arrival but later died at Bridgeport Hospital.

The fire was ruled "accidental" by Fire Marshal William Kessler, but the source of ignition could not be determined because much of the evidence was destroyed in the inferno.

Police on one visit to the two-story house found the kitchen littered with garbage and food, and soiled diapers and dirty clothes were strewn about the house, according to reports.

State agencies were notified after each police visit to the home, according to documents provided to the Fairfield Citizen, and the daughter's living conditions and care was the subject of a Probate Court hearing in January.

Some of the public records were provided to the Citizen by Paul O'Neill, Gerrity's former husband and the father of Katherine O'Neill. He now lives in Hinckley, Ohio, and Weston, Mass.

"I believe the social services system in your state is terribly wrong," an emotional O'Neill said Friday. "It's a Darwinian system which has failed my daughter Katie and my ex-wife."

O'Neill said he pleaded with Probate Judge Daniel Caruso to find custodial care in the area for Katie so she could continue to be cared for in the community where she grew up and attended special education programs. Caruso "said he had no place to put Katie," O'Neill said.

Caruso on Friday said he could not comment.

Police Capt. Josh Zabin on Friday said his department had been in contact with numerous local, regional and state agencies about the daughter's circumstances. They included the Fairfield Probate Court and her court-appointed guardian, town social services and health officials, the state Department of Social Services and state Department of Protection and Advocacy, plus mental-health services in Bridgeport.

Police Chief Gary MacNamara said the tragedy deeply affected members of the department, particularly officers who had been to the home on earlier calls. "There is a sense of deep sadness within the department because of all the contact we had and all the services we tried to engage for the mother and daughter," he said.

O'Neill said he tried to convince his ex-wife to let Katie come live with him and his current wife at their Ohio home, but she would not agree. He said he could not care for his daughter alone because he has disabilities of his own -- the result of a 1982 car accident in which he was hit by a drunk driver.

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"I'm not able to be the sole caregiver," O'Neill said. "I need help myself."

Gerrity's funeral was Friday in Fairfield, while services for Katie, a senior at Fairfield Warde High School, were planned Saturday in Massachusetts.

Police reports paint a picture of a mother who was possibly overwhelmed by the demanding, constant care for her daughter, who had Angelman Syndrome, a condition that left her severely developmentally delayed and non-verbal.

O'Neill said he was not informed of the police visits to the home until after the start of the new year.

"Prior to that, I had no idea the police reports existed," O'Neill said. "Nobody contacted me. It's as if my parenthood didn't count."

In a call to police last Dec. 16, Gerrity asked officers to come to her home about 9 p.m. and, according to the report, said they "better bring weapons," though she couldn't tell dispatchers what the problem was.

When officers arrived, Gerrity told them she had seen two "bikers" standing in her bedroom door and they threatened her. She "stated she thought she may have seen the males on motorcycles outside her residence and that they had followed her home from a bar in Bridgeport she said she had gone to with her cousin."

She was unable to provide officers with any information about her cousin, or what bar she was at, according to the report, and there was "little to no edible food in the kitchen and the house was unkept with dirty diapers everywhere." Police said they found "multiple mattresses" in the basement and dirty clothes strewn throughout the house.

Gerrity told police she received "some assistance" with her daughter, but she was the teen's sole caregiver. She gave police a business card for Kyle Sampson, an investigator with the state's Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.

Gerrity's cousin, Jack Conrad of Stamford, was called by police to stay with Gerrity, and he told officers that while Gerrity did drink on a regular basis, he did not believe she had a drinking problem, according to a report.

Police made a referral to the state Department of Children and Families and left a message for Sampson the next day. Police were told by another investigator, Dan Ellis, that they could not find any file on the family and he would investigate further to see if any assistance could be provided.

In another incident last Sept. 14, a neighbor called police after hearing a verbal argument at the Crane Street address. Officers got no answer after knocking at the front entrance but found the rear door unlocked. "Once inside the house the conditions were deplorable," the report states. "There was feces and urine in the toilet, garbage and food all over the kitchen floors, cabinets and counters."

The officers found Gerrity and Katie asleep in a second-floor bedroom.

"Gerrity admitted that she has been drinking and that she drinks all the time," the report states. She was not incapacitated, and she told police she kept the bedroom door locked so that Katie could not get to the staircase. The incident was reported to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Fairfield Social Services.

O'Neill said he didn't notice any problems with conditions at he home on his recent visits. "On Saturday and Sunday, when I visited with Katie, Maureen seemed like her normal self," he said of his final visit, which ended hours before the fatal fire. They made plans for O'Neill to visit his daughter again on April 4. "It seemed fine," he added.

Most recently, O'Neill himself called police on Jan. 30, asking them to check on his daughter. He said had just gotten off the phone with his ex-wife and she appeared to be intoxicated.

Officers were dispatched to investigate, and their report indicates it took Gerrity several minutes to come to the door; her eyes were bloodshot and speech was slurred. Police said they could smell alcohol. Walking into the home's living room, police said, Gerrity staggered and caught herself on Katie's wheelchair. She told police she had three glasses of wine and she had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, "but it is going to take time."

Gerrity "also stated that her daughter Katie O'Neill is her life and she is doing her best to care for her," the officers' report indicates. The report also stated that Katie's diaper was full of feces. Police once again called Conrad to come stay at the house, and also referred the case again to the state Department of Mental Health. They also told Paul O'Neill to contact the Probate Court about the incidents.

O'Neill said he was told by the Probate Court to stop coming to the court, and to hire a lawyer.

Gerrity's sister, Catherine Robertson, declined Friday to comment, and attempts to reach Conrad were not successful.

The state Department of Children and Families and the state Department of Mental Health did not return calls Friday for comment.